As is true for every Shakespearean play, ‘The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ is rife with brilliant use of figurative language. This Penlighten post presents a compilation of figurative language examples in Hamlet.
What does figurative language entail?
Figures of speech are used to describe mundane concepts in a not-so-literal sense, with a view to beautify the language. Frequently used examples include similes, metaphors, personification, allusion, hyperbole, irony, and metonymy.
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is considered by many to be the Bard’s most accomplished tragedy. It has consistently ranked among the most popular plays with the highest number of performances ever since the times of Shakespeare.
It is believed to have been written by the Bard sometime between 1599 and 1602. Furthermore, three different versions of the play are extant, with each version including lines and scenes missing from the others.
The most remarkable feature of Shakespeare’s writing is that as grandiose and eloquent as it is, it remains considerably complex with its profusion of figurative elements. Despite its complexity, however, audiences over the past five centuries have always lapped up the brilliant puns and metaphors sprinkled liberally throughout Hamlet, which only added to its appeal.
Examples of Figurative Language in Hamlet
“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
One of the most oft-quoted line from the play comes in the advice given by Polonius to his son, Laertes. He urges his son to be true to himself, and follow this maxim just like the night follows the day.
“When sorrows come,
they come not single spies.
But in battalions!”
Here, the non-human entity, ‘sorrow’ has been personified as troops. It suggests that no misery is minor, it always ends up overwhelming the person.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?”
The ‘state of being’ in this instance is an allusion for life and death. This speech by Prince Hamlet sees him contemplate suicide following the untimely death of his father. In this dialog, he admits that the unfairness of life has pushed him to the brim, but he remains aware of the ghastly consequences of committing suicide as well.
“‘Tis given out that, sleeping in mine orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Metonymy involves the use of a word or a phrase to represent a thing, an entity, or a group of people. In this instance, the whole ear of Denmark refers to the entire population of Denmark.
“I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. So again good night.
I must be cruel only to be kind.
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.”
Paradox indicates contradiction, evident in this line said by Hamlet to his mother, Gertrude. He puts the message across that he needs to kill his uncle, Claudius―his mother’s new husband―to avenge his father’s murder, and this way, bring eventual peace to Gertrude.
Claudius: But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son-
Hamlet: A little more than kin, and less than kind.
Claudius: How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Hamlet: Not so, my lord; I am too much i’ the sun.
Puns are based on intelligent word play; either the word or its pronunciation has two or more distinct meanings. The kin and kind pun is Hamlet’s way of showing disapproval of his (kin) uncle, the murderer of his father, a less than kind act. Next, when asked by Claudius about his melancholy state (clouds still hang on you), Hamlet responds with another classic pun, calling himself the ‘sun/son’.
“I have heard,
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day.”
A metaphor is a direct comparison between two unlikely objects or concepts. In this example, we see how the rooster is called a trumpet, indicating the rooster’s cry which signals the beginning of the day.