Significant Allusions

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Last Updated on July 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788

Allusions to Ancient Greece and Rome: The English Renaissance brought about a resurgent interest in classical antiquity, including Greco-Roman mythology and history. Shakespeare uses allusions to both historical and mythological figures in order to develop the play’s themes and characters. Notable mythological allusions in Hamlet include the following: 

  • In act 2, scene 2, Hamlet asks the players to recite a scene about Pyrrhus, Priam, and Hecuba. In Greek mythology, Pyrrhus, also known as Neoptolemus, is the son of Achilles, the legendary Greek warrior. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, Pyrrhus brutally slaughters the defenseless Priam, King of Troy, along with most of Priam’s children. Hecuba, Priam’s wife, is left to grieve, wailing and tearing her hair out. This allusion can be interpreted in a variety of ways. By one reading, Pyrrhus represents Claudius, since both of them are bloodthirsty murderers who kill a defenseless king. By another reading, Pyrrhus represents Hamlet himself, as Hamlet intends to murder Claudius in retribution and coat himself in blood. Hecuba’s inconsolable grief is most likely a contrast for Gertrude’s hasty remarriage, as Hamlet feels she did not sufficiently grieve her husband’s death. 
  • Hamlet alludes to Hercules while describing himself in act 1, scene 2, saying that he is as different from Hercules as Claudius is from King Hamlet. This allusion offers insight into Hamlet’s view of himself and foreshadows his eventual descent into corruption. Hamlet does not view himself as a mighty hero like Hercules. Through this allusion, Hamlet incidentally aligns himself with Claudius, whom he portrays as similarly inferior. Just as Hamlet cannot live up to Hercules, Claudius is a lustful, drunken “satyr” in comparison to the almost godly King Hamlet. 
  • Hamlet alludes to Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar in act 5, scene 1, as he ponders Yorick’s skull and the nature of death. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were both revered as strong and capable leaders, unmatched in military prowess. This allusion serves as a reminder to both Hamlet and readers that great men die just the same as anyone else, returning to “dust” and paving the way for new generations. 

Biblical Allusions: Hamlet contains several major biblical allusions, adding depth to the religious conflict that the characters face and more firmly situating the story in a religious context. 

  • After King Hamlet’s death, Claudius spreads the rumor that the deceased king was stung by a poisonous serpent. This is an allusion to the biblical story of the Fall of Man from the book of Genesis, wherein Adam and Eve were tempted by a serpent into eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, plunging mankind into sin and mortality. By comparing Claudius to a “serpent,” King Hamlet aligns Claudius with corruption and evil. 
  • After watching Hamlet’s play, The Mousetrap, Claudius attempts to pray for forgiveness in act 3, scene 3. While doing so, he refers to the “primal eldest curse,” an allusion to the biblical story of Cain and Abel. According to the book of Genesis, Cain and Abel are the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain, the firstborn, kills his brother, Abel, after God prefers Abel’s sacrifice over his, thereby committing the first murder. Cain then attempts to lie to God about the murder, and God curses him to a life of wandering. Much like Cain, Claudius murders his brother out of jealousy and then lies about it to the people of Denmark, bringing Cain’s “primal eldest curse” upon himself. 
  • In act 2, scene 2, Hamlet refers to Polonius as “Jephthah,” alluding to a story from Judges 11. Jephthah, a military leader, makes a rash vow...

(This entire section contains 788 words.)

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  • that if he can gain victory over the Ammonites, he will sacrifice whoever first greets him after he returns home.Jephthah’s only daughter is the first to greet him. She agrees to help uphold her father’s vow but asks for a two-month reprieve so that she may lament that she will die a virgin. This allusion illuminates Ophelia’s character as much as it does Polonius’s. It provides insight into Ophelia’s virtue and obedience and Polonius’s willingness to sacrifice his daughter for his own gains, as seen when he uses her to spy on Hamlet. 
  • In act 5, scene 2, Hamlet brushes aside Horatio’s warnings about the duel, instead choosing to “defy augury.” In doing so, Hamlet alludes to Matthew 10 by positing that there is “providence in the fall of a sparrow.” In Matthew 10, Jesus tells his apostles that no sparrow falls to the ground without God’s willing it. This allusion establishes Hamlet’s acceptance of his fate and foreshadows his own “fall,” adding a layer of divine intent to the tragic ending of the play. 

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