Expert Answers

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

The appearance of the dead king in full armor certainly seems to foreshadow some disruption in the court of Denmark. Why would the king's ghost need to return at all if there were not some wrong done him during his life, and why would he come dressed for war if...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

he only had some insignificant thing left undone or unsaid? The presence of his ghost, and also the armor he wears, seems to signify some menacing thing, a terrible sin or some coming doom.

In addition, Marcellus's famous line, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," furthers this idea and adds to the foreshadowing (1.4.100). He says this when he and Horatio take Hamlet to see the ghost of the dead king, Hamlet's father, and this line, combined with Hamlet's earlier assertion—that Denmark is now an "unweeded garden / That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely"—seems especially foreboding (1.2.139–141).

This motif of rot or decay runs throughout the text, and this reference even seems to allude to the Garden of Eden, the home of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible. After they disobey God, they lose their innocence and are kicked out of the garden forever. Hamlet seems to think of Denmark as a place where innocence has been lost and where God's law has been broken as a result of his mother's hasty remarriage to her brother-in-law, his uncle. Adam and Eve remain barred from Paradise forever, and so this forebodes an unpleasant future for Denmark.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are some examples of the use of allusions in William Shakespeare's Hamlet?

In Hamlet as in so many of his other works, William Shakespeare uses allusions enrich and complicate the meaning of the play.  Three examples of such allusions are the following:

  • In the first speech of Act 3, scene 2, Hamlet, when discussing bad actors and overblown acting, says,

I would have such a fellow whipp'd for o'erdoing 
Termagant. (3.2.10-11)

Philip Edwards’ Cambridge edition of Hamlet notes that “Termagant” may refer to an imaginary god venerated by Muslims, but Edwards reports no record of such a figure appearing in any known English play before Shakespeare. He does refer to a usage by John Bale, in 1550, referring to “termagants in a play,” but Edwards notes that this usage may simply refer to violent persons, as that word is used in Shakespeare’s own 1 Henry IV (5.4.114). Finally, Edwards reports that “Termagant” is used as another name for Jove or Zeus in a 1598 poem by John Marston.

  • Immediately after uttering the words quoted above, Hamlet remarks (again about bad acting), “It out-herods Herod” (3.2.11).

Here the allusion is much easier to understand. In medieval religious plays, Herod was often presented as an insane, violent, and highly emotional character; he was depicted as a histrionic mad-man. Actors who played Herod apparently enjoyed going “over-the-top” in their performances. Hamlet prefers a subtler approach to acting.

  • Later, speaking to Ophelia, Hamlet uses the phrase “For O, for O, the hobby-horse is forgot!” (3.2.119-20). According to the notes in Edwards’ Cambridge edition, this phrase was a common one during the Elizabethan period. Apparently the phrase alludes to the hobbyhorses that often appeared in country festivals but which had been suppressed thanks to pressure from Puritans. They objected to the sexual connotations of hobbyhorses in such contexts. Edwards notes that hobbyhorses almost always had sexual connotations and that they were also known to come back to life when such revival was least expected – much like Hamlet’s father.
Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Which allusions and references to other literary works are used in Shakespeare's Hamlet?

A good place to start looking for allusions is in Hamlet's soliloquies.  Since Hamlet is characterized as a scholarly young man, his language reflects his education. In his first soliloquy, for instance, in Act 1, Hamlet refers to his deceased father as "Hyperion"--an allusion to the Greek sun god.  He compares Gertrude to Niobe, a mother from another Greek myth.  At the end of Act 3, Hamlet refers to Nero, the cruel Roman tyrant who killed his own mother:  

Let not ever

The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom.

In this case Hamlet is reminding himself not to hurt his mother, not to be like Nero who murdered his.

We can also find allusions in Hamlet's dialogue with other characters.  In Act 2, he demonstrates his knowledge of Roman mythology by asking the Player to recite lines from the Aeneid.  Major players in the Trojan war are mentioned: Hecuba, Pyrrhus, and Priam. When talking with Polonius, Hamlet mentions Jephthah, an allusion to a story in the Old Testament, in which a father sacrifices his daughter for a military victory.  

Ophelia also uses allusions. In Act 4, Ophelia's mad songs and phrases are derived from well known English folk songs.  

These are just a few to get you started.  An interesting analysis of these allusions might involve looking at what is revealed about the characters through the allusions they use--Hamlet's references to history, literary works, and the bible, or Ophelia's references to folk songs and tales, for instance. 

Last Updated on