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What is the definition of anachronism?

The definition of anachronism is a concept or term that is incongruous with its chronological or historical place within a text.


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Last Updated May 26, 2023.

An anachronism is something that appears outside its correct chronological or historical place. Anachronism in literature is often accidental, resulting from an author’s mistake. However, it can also be intentional: included to produce a comedic effect, to create an interesting juxtaposition that captures the reader’s attention, or to avoid overwhelming the reader with historical details that distract from the plot.


Anachronism derives from the Greek words ana, meaning “up, back, against,” and chronos, meaning “time.” 


An example of anachronism can be found in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Claudius is speaking:

For your intent

In going back to school in Wittenberg,

It is most retrograde to our desire;

And we beseech you, bend you to remain

Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye,

Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.

(Act 1, Scene 2, lines 116-121)


In the play, Hamlet is a former student of the University of Wittenberg in Denmark., However, the university was not established until 1502, nearly a century after the play was set. It is still being determined whether Shakespeare was unaware of this fact or deliberately disregarded it to make Hamlet more relatable to his Elizabethan audiences, who would be familiar with the university.

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