Hyperbole in Hamlet

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

This lesson will define and discuss hyperbole and how it is used by Hamlet in William Shakespeare's ''Hamlet'' to express his anger, sorrow, and love of his dead loved ones.

Hyperbole and Hamlet

What better way is there to express yourself when you are upset or passionate about something than exaggerating? Hamlet, the titular character of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, frequently exaggerates to make a point about his anger with King Claudius. This lesson covers Hamlet's sorrow at his situation and the death of his father, and his musings on suicide in his famous soliloquy in Act 3 Scene 1.

Hamlet does not hesitate to express his frustration and anger with Claudius, his uncle and the new king of Denmark. Claudius took over the throne after, as Hamlet finds out later, he killed the former king, Claudius' brother and Hamlet's father. The action of the play revolves around Hamlet seeking to avenge his father's murder, so it is natural that Hamlet uses hyperbole to talk about Claudius.

Hyperbole in Anger

In Act 1 Scene 2 of Hamlet, we first meet the royal court and learn of Hamlet's disgust with his uncle--both for taking over the kingship and marrying his mother less than two months after his father's death. After everyone else leaves the stage, Hamlet speaks his first soliloquy, or a solo speech made to let the audience know what a character is thinking. Hamlet compares his father to Claudius, saying, ''So excellent a king; that was to this, / Hyperion to a satyr.'' He uses hyperbole here to compare his father to Hyperion, a Greek god who was the father of Helios the sun god. Hamlet compares his uncle to a satyr, a woodland creature with horse-like characteristics who engaged in revelry and debauchery.

In Act 3 Scene 4, when talking to Gertrude, his mother, Hamlet calls Claudius, ''A murderer and a villain, / A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe / Of your precedent lord.'' This language is hyperbolic because Hamlet exaggerates how terrible he thinks his uncle is. To Hamlet, Claudius is not even a ''twentieth part the tithe'' that his father was. A tithe, according to the Church, is ten percent of one's annual earnings. Hamlet calls his uncle not even twenty percent of ten percent of how great the previous king had been. Hamlet also exaggerates by calling Claudius a ''slave.'' He uses this language to again imply that Claudius is on a completely different level--that of a slave of no importance--than his kingly father.

Greek depiction of a satryr, a human with horse-like characteristics
Greek depiction of a satryr

Hyperbole in Sorrow

Hamlet uses hyperbole to express his sorrow over his father's death and mother's remarriage to his uncle. In Act 3 Scene 4, Hamlet recalls how great his father was as he talks to Gertrude. Showing Gertrude a picture of his father, he says, ''See, what a grace was seated on this brow? / Hyperion's curls; the front of Jove himself, / An eye like Mars, to threaten and command.'' He uses hyperbole compare his father to Greek gods like Hyperion, Jove, and Mars. Hamlet uses language to remember his father as a perfect man while still grieving his mother's remarriage.

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