Hamlet

by

William Shakespeare

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Hamlet: Motifs 1 key example

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Definition of Motif
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the central themes of a book... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of... read full definition
Act 1, Scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—Ears:

The motif of ears occurs multiple times throughout Hamlet. The use of the symbol is so ingrained in the plot’s unfolding that it involves events that transpire before the play’s beginning. When Claudius pours poison into the old king’s ear to murder him, for instance, he brings violence to the foreground of the play. He also introduces the ear as a point of weakness as well as a means for listening and understanding. The symbol of the ear takes on this new association, and throughout the rest of the play, when ears are mentioned, they carry that extra weight. The ghost addresses this when he says: 

A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forgèd process of my death
Rankly abused.

By talking about the "ear of Denmark," the old king references his death by poison and seems to imply that the entire country has been poisoned by lies. Like the poison, lies have poured into the ears of the nation and have taken over. Hamlet makes a reference to this image later in the play in a letter to Horatio. Without explaining all that has transpired since his departure—in this case, the betrayal of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—Hamlet says: "I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb; yet are they much too light for the bore of the matter." In this letter, Hamlet tries to communicate to Horatio the power of the knowledge he holds. He invokes the poisoning of his father and uses the image of an ear to imply that if he told Horatio, his friend would be speechless and unable to respond. By tapping into the play's ear-related motif, then, Hamlet is able to communicate the gravity of his situation without stating it outright.