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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420

The literary definition of foreshadowing is a moment in a story that hints to the reader about a notable event later in the tale, usually a tragic moment. While the reader is given a hint of what is to come, the characters are generally kept in the dark. 

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A common literary device, foreshadowing hints at what will come later in the story and is often used to create suspense. It is achieved through the author’s use of clues and/or subtle suggestions, sometimes a quote with which a character accidentally predicts their demise, sometimes the appearance of an object that will play a part in an unforeseen tragedy, or even a word of warning directly from the narrator to the reader. Foreshadowing is usually quite subtle and is often only fully noticed or understood after a second reading of the work. Please keep in mind foreshadowing occurs when there has been a significant interval of time between the clue and the event that it foreshadows.

Correct example:

“I fear too early, for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night’s revels, and expire the term
Of a despisèd life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But he that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail. On, lusty gentlemen.” (Act I, Scene IV)

In this excerpt from Romeo and Juliet, Romeo’s feelings of trepidation quite clearly foreshadow his eventual demise.

Incorrect examples:

“Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.”

Though the prologue of Romeo and Juliet may, at first glance, appear to foreshadow the ending of the play, it is not technically foreshadowing. By definition, foreshadowing should be a hint or clue, rather than an explicit statement of what will come to pass

Mercutio: “O calm dishonourable, vile submission!
Alla stoccata carries it away. (draws his sword)
Tybalt, you ratcatcher, will you walk?"

It would not be correct to say that these lines foreshadow the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio. There is not enough of an interval between Mercutio’s challenge and the fight scene that occurs a few lines later for this to be a solid example of foreshadowing.


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