William Shakespeare

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Hamlet: Personification 3 key examples

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Definition of Personification
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down on the wedding guests, indifferent... read full definition
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down... read full definition
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the... read full definition
Act 1, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis:

In Act 1, Scene 1, the men assembled on the battlements are frightened by the apparition of a ghost. Their fear is tempered, however, by a desire to understand why the ghost has appeared. They believe, and rightfully so, that the ghost is a harbinger of ominous news. Horatio is the first to question the ghost directly, swearing that he will get it to communicate with them. He chases after it, calling: 

O, speak! Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life
Extorted treasure in the womb of earth,
For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death.  

In this section, Horatio suggests that the ghost may have returned to collect some buried treasure. His use of the phrase "womb of earth" is especially significant because it not only hints at the idea of burial but also personifies the earth itself. The earth is like a woman, he implies, and those things buried under her surface might then be born. The use of this image is meaningful for several reasons. Firstly, Horatio’s speculation introduces the idea that anything buried will eventually be born back into the world. This has been made evident by the ghost’s appearance, as Hamlet's father was buried and has now returned. Secondly, the idea that the ghost has returned to claim some treasure that will soon emerge is exacerbated by characterizing the earth as a woman whose contents will invariably spill out. All of these images lie latent in Horatio’s personification of the earth. His use of the word womb invokes the ghost’s movement from the earth without addressing it directly.

Act 1, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis:

In Act 1, Scene 2, the audience is introduced to Claudius and Gertrude, who are celebrating their recent marriage. The tension between Hamlet and his uncle/stepfather is palpable throughout the scene, and when the assembled characters finally leave Hamlet alone onstage, he begins to rant about the injustice of their hasty marriage. His rage is directed at his mother, whose decision to marry so soon after her husband’s death has struck Hamlet as immoral and spineless. He struggles to make sense of her actions and recounts the relationship she had with his father before saying: 

And yet, within a month
(Let me not think on ’t; frailty, thy name is woman!)
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body,
[…] married with my uncle.

In his speech, Hamlet personifies his mother’s frailty, cursing her weakness and attributing it to her womanhood. It is not enough to call his mother a frail person, instead he laments that frailty itself is a woman and is therefore the incarnation of womanhood. Hamlet’s perception of womanhood is deeply informed by his mother’s actions, and this is a clear early example of his conflation of weakness and femininity. Giving frailty a name makes it seem as though she is an actor as much as his mother. Hamlet sees frailty as a power that has dictated the actions of his mother, making her a stranger to him. He cannot understand why she has acted this way, so he attributes it to her lack of power.

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Act 2, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Murder's Tongue:

Act 2, Scene 2 ends in a soliloquy from Hamlet in which he vows to use the players to find out whether his uncle is guilty. He berates himself for his previous inactivity and feels a sense of guilt, as though he has been a bad son for feeling unable to kill or confront his uncle. He runs over the plan in his mind and convinces himself that it will give him the opportunity to ascertain whether his uncle committed the deed he has been accused of. Using the players is the best way to do this, Hamlet says: "For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak / With most miraculous organ."

In this speech, Hamlet personifies murder by describing it as tongueless. Even though murder doesn’t have a tongue, Hamlet is convinced that murder will speak. He is convinced that if he puts on the play, he will give murder itself the agency to act through the players. If the players reenact the murderous act, Hamlet believes that murder will speak its truth and reveal the king’s misdeeds. Personifying murder this way helps communicate Hamlet’s obsession with the violence that predates the play’s plot. Through his speech, Hamlet is making murder out to be a character with agency and affect. His personification of murder gives it more power and lets it loom large in the audience’s imagination. It also makes it clear that Hamlet feels powerless against the larger forces at work, that he sees murder as a power separate from his uncle as an individual actor. His attitude and fearfulness are informed by this belief.

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