Discussion Topic

Examples of notable figures of speech and language use in Hamlet


Notable figures of speech in Hamlet include metaphors, similes, and personification. For example, Hamlet's famous soliloquy "To be, or not to be" employs metaphors to explore life and death. The play also uses irony, such as in Hamlet's interactions with Polonius, and allusions, like references to classical mythology and the Bible, to deepen its themes and characterizations.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are some examples of figures of speech used in Hamlet?

A figure of speech is the use of language in a non-literal way, and the most common figures of speech are similes and metaphors.  Also common are personification, metonymy, imagery, symbolism, and allusion.  There are many other figures, but these are some of the most widely recognizable ones.  Here are a few examples of figurative language found in the play, Hamlet.

Simile:  a stated comparison using like or as.

In his first soliloquy in Act 1, Hamlet expresses his dismay at how his mother could go from being married to man as great as King Hamlet to being married to man who is so much less than that.  He makes a rather complicated comparison to express the extreme difference between the two men.  He says, "My father's brother, but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules."  He is saying that Claudius is no more like King Hamlet than Hamlet is like Hercules.

Metaphor:  an implied comparison between unalike things.

When Hamlet is expressing his disgust with his mother's marriage to Claudius, he compares this corruption of the state of Denmark to a garden.  He says, "'Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely."

Personification:  assigning human qualities or abilities to a non-human thing.

Horatio describes the dawn with the words, "the morn, in russet mantle clad, / Walks o'er the dew of you high eastern hill."  Clearly, the rising sun and the morning cannot wear a coat or actually, walk -- but the line describes the color and the movement of the sun at early dawn.

Symbolism:  using a actual thing to represent an idea

In Ophelia's display of crazy behavior in Act 4 she hands out various flowers to Claudius, Gertrude and her brother.  In her speech to tells each receiver what each flower symbolizes.  For examples she gives Laertes pansies and says "that for thoughts."  Pansies were used a symbol of remembrance in the time of Shakespeare.  She hands Claudius the flower rue and tells him it is called "herb of grace o' Sundays."  Rue was a flower associated with repentance that could achieved through Grace with reconcillation.

Metonymy:  using something associated with the thing to represent the whole of the thing.

In Act 3, after the "get thee to a nunnery scene," Ophelia comments and Hamlet changed behavior and thinks he has truly lost his mind. She states "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown! / The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's eye, tongue, sword ... [is] quite down."  She names three aspects of Hamlet's character and then references three things associated with those descriptions -- Hamlet is a soldier (reference to the sword); Hamlet is a courtier (reference to the tongue); Hamlet is a scholar (reference to the eye).

Also -- all references to the throne are not referring the chair, but the King of Denmark who is associated with the throne.

Imagery:  language used to appeal to any of the senses

There are examples all throughout the text where Shakespeare uses descriptive language to clarify the scene.  One example is when Marcellus states that the arrival of the ghost suggests that something is "rotten in the state of Denmark."  This could be a image to draw on the sense of sight and smell. 

Allusion:  a reference to something historical or literary

In Act 1, Horatio is comparing the arrival of the ghost to some of the omens that occurred before the assassination of Julius Caesar "in the palmy state of Rome." 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Identify three examples of noteworthy language use in Hamlet.

Three especially noteworthy examples of William Shakespeare’s language use in Hamlet are metaphors, personification, and similes. Several of these occur in Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy and others in a conversation with his mother. A metaphor is a direct comparison of unlike things for effect. Personification is the attribution of human qualities to animals, inanimate objects, or ideas. A simile is a comparison of unlike things for effect using “like” or “as.”

While the entire soliloquy on mortality in act 3, scene 1 is very well-written, the use of metaphors stands out in several places. Shakespeare also combines metaphors with personification. One example occurs when Hamlet talks about bad luck. In the phrase “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” he personifies “fortune” and uses a related metaphor about the weapons that fortune uses. This phrase gives the impression that he, like other humans, is personally attacked by bad luck rather than making it seem an abstract concept.

While talking with his mother, Gertrude, in act 3, scene 4, Hamlet makes her look at pictures of the two kings. He uses several similes in the negative comparison he is making between his late father, King Hamlet, and his uncle, Claudius. Hamlet mentions distinct body parts to emphasize his father’s vast superiority to Claudius. These include the eye and the ear.

In describing his father’s keen eye, Hamlet also uses allusion to an ancient Roman god: “An eye like Mars, to threaten and command.”

In contrast, Hamlet suggests that Claudius is not just inferior but less than human, describing him as though afflicted by a fungus that attacks plants: “Here is your husband like a mildewed ear.”

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on