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Allusion in Hamlet

Allusion is an indirect reference to another person, place, thing, or idea. Shakespeare alludes to various myths, dramas, and other works of art and literature for his plays. Hamlet is filled with these allusions, specifically to Greek mythology and the Bible, in order to tie in motifs of love, deceit, betrayal, and death.

Allusion Examples in Hamlet:

Act I - Scene I

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"Neptune's empire..."   (Act I - Scene I)

Neptune was the Roman god of the seas who controlled the waters in and around the Roman Empire. Bernardo suggests that while Neptune was certainly very powerful, his empire was still beholden to the moon, "the moist star," who held sway over the tides.

"the mightiest Julius..."   (Act I - Scene I)

Julius Caesar was a famed Roman Emperor and the subject of Shakespeare's tragedy of the same name. Caesar was killed on March 15th, 44 BCE, when the Senate, unhappy with his bid for power, orchestrated an assassination with the help of his friend and protégé, Brutus. This line refers to what happened after Julius Caesar was killed, as the Roman Empire descended into turmoil and civil war.

"Than I to Hercules..."   (Act I - Scene II)

Hercules, also known as Heracles, was the son of the Greek god Zeus and the mortal Alcmene. He was endowed with enormous strength and is now famous for his Twelve Labors, which included slaying an invulnerable lion and defeating a nine-headed hydra. Hamlet states that Claudius, despite being King Hamlet's brother, is "no more like" Hamlet's father than Hamlet himself is like Hercules. Hamlet idolized his father and uses this comparison to imply that Claudius is not a good person. He also offers some insight into his perception of himself by comparing himself to Hercules as a way of emphasizing the difference in character between Claudius and King Hamlet. He does not perceive himself as heroic and strong, as Hercules was. Instead, he is as unlike the legendary hero as Claudius is unlike his father, foreshadowing Hamlet's struggles later in the play.

"Hyperion to a satyr..."   (Act I - Scene II)

In Greek mythology, Hyperion was considered the "High One," Lord of the Light and the Titan of the East, one of the twelve titans that ruled the earth before Zeus and the Olympians fought them for control. Hamlet draws parallels between Hyperion and a satyr (a lustful, drunken god) and between King Hamlet and Claudius, forming an analogy that makes his father look like a saint and Claudius a depraved drunkard.

"Like Niobe, all tears..."   (Act I - Scene II)

In Greek mythology, Niobe was a Queen of Thebes. She is said to have boasted about having fourteen children to the goddess Leto, who had only two, the twins Apollo and Artemis. In response, Apollo and Artemis killed all of Niobe's children, later turning her to stone on Mount Sipylus, where she continued to weep even in her petrified state. Niobe became the prototype for all grieving mothers in Greek tragedies and is here likened to Gertrude to emphasize the other's apparent lack of grief.

"steep and thorny way to heaven..."   (Act I - Scene III)

Shakespeare makes an oblique Biblical reference to Matthew 7: 13-14: "Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way..." Shakespeare alters the description somewhat to make the path to heaven look more dangerous than it does in the Bible while maintaining the essence of the danger implied by the subsequent line: "broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction."

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