Figurative Language in Hamlet

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  • 0:05 Figurative Language
  • 1:00 Puns in 'Hamlet'
  • 2:56 Metaphor in 'Hamlet'
  • 4:40 Allusion in 'Hamlet'
  • 6:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Wendy Ramos

Wendy teaches high school English and has a master's degree in English.

'Hamlet' by William Shakespeare is one of the most notable works of English literature. In this lesson, study how Shakespeare uses figurative language to enhance the poetic qualities and emotional situations in the play.

Figurative Language

There are times in life that call for clear, unambiguous statements, such as job interviews and mortgage applications. There are other times, however, when we lean toward the exaggerated and poetic side of life, times when we thirst for drama and artistic expression, like marriage proposals and the contemplation of the meaning of life. The works of William Shakespeare dwell mainly in the world of the latter, high drama and amplified emotions, so figurative language is used very frequently.

The term figurative language is a general one referring to the use of various descriptive techniques used by authors to create dramatic, poetic, or descriptive effects. Figurative language is the opposite of literal language. Some types of figurative language include metaphor, simile, allusion, imagery, and puns.

Puns in Hamlet

A pun is the use of wordplay where words that sound alike are exchanged, usually for a poignant or humorous effect. For example, when we first meet Hamlet in Act I, scene 2, Claudius has asked him, 'How is it that the clouds still hang on you?' He means to ask Hamlet why is he still depressed. Hamlet's response to this, 'Not so, my lord, I am too much i' the sun,' is a pun on the word 'son.' Hamlet uses this pun to express his dissatisfaction of being a 'son' to too many people; his dead father, his mother Gertrude, and now his uncle/stepfather, Claudius.

In fact, Hamlet is full of puns in this scene and they reveal his depression and disapproval of the new marriage between Claudius and Gertrude. When Gertrude tries to speak to Hamlet about over-mourning his father, she tells him, 'Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity' and Hamlet responds, 'Ay, madam, it is common.' Gertrude uses the word 'common' to mean 'often,' but Hamlet uses the word to mean 'vulgar.' The effect is snarky as Hamlet is using this opportunity to subtly criticize his mother's eagerness to marry Claudius.

Another pun we find in the play occurs in Hamlet's first soliloquy (Act I, scene 2). This soliloquy begins with Hamlet's expression of his extreme sadness, 'O, that this too too solid flesh would melt / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!' Hamlet's suicidal thoughts are first expressed here, as the reader realizes that he does not just want to be dead, but that he wishes he could fade into nothing ('melt,' 'thaw,' 'dew'). The wordplay, however, is subtle and touching. Shakespeare's use of 'a dew' can be seen as a substitution for the French word, 'adieu,' meaning 'goodbye.' With this solemn pun, Hamlet's suicidal wish is made more poignant for the audience.

Metaphor in Hamlet

Metaphor is a device used for literary comparison. A metaphor directly compares two unlike things in order to bring the qualities of one into focus. For example, in Act I, scene 1, Horatio notices that the sun is coming up and says, 'But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, / Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill.' This uses a form of metaphor called personification in which an object is compared to a person. In this case, Horatio is calling on the poetic similarity of the dawning sun to a person wrapped in rust-colored garments walking over the distant horizon. The result is a more vivid description of the morning sky.

Another type of metaphor we see in the play is direct metaphor. A direct metaphor names both items in the comparison. In Hamlet's soliloquy at the end of Act II, just after he has addressed the actors who have come to perform, he calls himself 'a rogue and peasant slave.' In reality he is neither for he is a prince, but in the metaphor we realize the internal emotion that he feels is that of an unworthy, insignificant person of low status because of his inability to make decisions about his promised revenge. Because Hamlet straightforwardly compares himself to a rogue and a slave, this is a direct metaphor.

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