William Shakespeare

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Hamlet: Metaphors 3 key examples

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Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor can be stated explicitly, as... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other... read full definition
Explanation and Analysis—Unweeded Garden:

Near the beginning of the play, however, Hamlet gives the audience insight into his perspective through figurative language. In Hamlet's first soliloquy (which is in Act 1, Scene 2), he uses an illuminating metaphor, saying: "’Tis an unweeded garden / That gros to seed. Things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely." In this dejected monologue, Hamlet reflects on the events that have recently taken hold of Elsinore. He speaks metaphorically about an "unweeded garden" to illustrate the type of misdeeds that he perceives in those around him.

Like a garden that has grown unruly and is covered in weeds, the order of his world has been overtaken and invaded, especially by his uncle. In this way, Hamlet’s pessimism frames the beginning of the play, indicating that his life has been shadowed by the violent murder of his father. Hamlet’s garden metaphor thus invites the audience to ponder the idea that the task of weeding is seemingly up to him.

Hamlet speaks a great deal more than anyone else in the play, and his descriptions of his surroundings are often the audience’s clearest entry point to the plot and setting. The way that Hamlet uses figurative language is therefore an important aspect of the audience’s understanding of how the play unfolds. The way Hamlet uses language varies widely throughout, especially as he begins to feign madness and becomes more frustrated and destructive.

Act 1, Scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—The Serpent Bite:

In Act 1, Scene 5, after isolating Hamlet from the others on the battlements, the ghost reveals the true cause of his death. This is a very significant moment in the play because it sets Hamlet on the course of revenge, which is ultimately his downfall. However, the ghost discloses his information without explicitly mentioning Claudius by name or indicating the exact nature of the crime. Instead, he uses a metaphor to reveal his killer’s identity and give Hamlet the context for the deed. He says: 

The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.

In this section of the ghost’s speech, he calls Claudius a serpent. He uses the image of a serpent stinging him to convey the darkness of the act committed. The metaphor functions on a double level. For one, it references the sinister nature of the serpent and therefore characterizes Claudius as a villainous character. However, the use of the word serpent may also be a biblical allusion. The ghost may use the image of a serpent to reference the snake from the Garden of Eden, one of the original sources of sin and evil. This comparison makes sense because the lie spread about the former king’s death is that he was bitten by a serpent while napping in the orchard. Therefore, his use of a metaphorical serpent is also a reference to the lie that Hamlet—and the entire nation of Denmark—have been fed by his uncle. The ghost’s serpentine brother, who is actually responsible for his death, has done him a double misdeed. Both the murder and the cover up are therefore included in his characterization of his brother through metaphor. 

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Act 3, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Undiscovered Country:

In Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, which takes place in Act 3, Scene 1, he reflects on the relationship between living and dying. Hamlet expresses his base level of exhaustion and lists his perceptions of the world: how difficult and unjust it is, how his frustration with its corruption and brutality lessens his desire to continue. It is one of many instances where Hamlet talks about death in a way that is framed by both his desire and his fear. In this soliloquy, he uses a metaphor for death that helps him reckon with his situation. He says: 

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns.

In this section of his thinking, Hamlet characterizes death as an "undiscovered country," thereby getting at the heart of his dilemma. He is weary of living, and believes in something better than what he sees around him, but he has no point of reference for what is on the other side of death. What frightens him about dying is the mystery of it. Because Hamlet spends so much of the play on the verge of action, paralyzed by his inability to decide what action to take, moments like this soliloquy are important. They help the audience understand why Hamlet is struggling to move forward with confidence. Hamlet’s characterization of the undiscovered country of death is therefore an example of the tension between his desire to act and his fear of encountering unknown repercussions.

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