Metaphors in “Hamlet”

Arts and Literature

William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” is a masterpiece of English literature, known for its complex characters, intricate plot, and profound themes. One of the significant literary devices used in this play is metaphor. Metaphors in “Hamlet” serve to enhance the understanding of the characters, their emotions, and the overall themes of the play. In this article, we will explore the various metaphors employed in “Hamlet” and their significance.

1. Metaphors in Hamlet’s Soliloquies

Hamlet’s soliloquies are renowned for their introspective nature and thought-provoking language. Throughout these monologues, Shakespeare utilizes metaphors to convey Hamlet’s inner turmoil and his contemplation of life, death, and revenge.

1.1 “To be or not to be”

In one of the most famous soliloquies in literature, Hamlet contemplates suicide and the meaning of existence. The metaphorical language used in this soliloquy evokes powerful imagery and deepens the audience’s understanding of Hamlet’s mental state.

Example: “To be, or not to be: that is the question” – Here, the metaphor of “to be” represents the act of living, while “not to be” signifies death. Hamlet is pondering whether life is worth the struggles and hardships it brings.

1.2 “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”

In this soliloquy, Hamlet reflects on his lack of action and his inability to avenge his father’s murder. The metaphors used in this passage highlight Hamlet’s self-criticism and his belief that he is unworthy of fulfilling his duty.

Example: “What a rogue and peasant slave am I!” – Here, Hamlet compares himself to a lowly, deceitful commoner. The metaphor emphasizes his self-perceived weakness and inability to act.

2. Metaphors in Hamlet’s Relationships

Shakespeare also employs metaphors to depict the complex relationships between characters in “Hamlet.” These metaphors reveal the dynamics of love, betrayal, and manipulation within the play.

2.1 “Frailty, thy name is woman!”

In Hamlet’s conversation with his mother, Queen Gertrude, he expresses his resentment towards women and accuses them of being weak and unfaithful. This metaphorical statement reflects Hamlet’s disillusionment with love and his perception of his mother’s actions.

Example: “Frailty, thy name is woman!” – Here, Hamlet compares the inherent weakness and fickleness of women to their very essence. The metaphor suggests that women are inherently unreliable and easily swayed.

2.2 “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life”

Hamlet uses this metaphor when confronting his mother about her hasty marriage to his uncle, Claudius, following his father’s death. The metaphor symbolizes Claudius as a treacherous serpent who caused harm to Hamlet’s father.

Example: “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life” – Here, Claudius is metaphorically represented as a venomous snake, highlighting his deceitful nature and the harm he brought to Hamlet’s family.

3. Metaphors in the Ghost’s Speech

The appearance of the Ghost in “Hamlet” sets the stage for the tragic events that unfold. The Ghost’s speech contains metaphors that contribute to the atmosphere of mystery and foreshadowing.

3.1 “Murder most foul”

The Ghost describes his own death as a “murder most foul” when recounting the events leading to his demise. This metaphor emphasizes the heinous nature of his murder and the desire for revenge.

Example: “Murder most foul” – This metaphor intensifies the gravity of the Ghost’s death, suggesting that it was a particularly vile and unjust act.

3.2 “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”

The Ghost implores Hamlet to seek revenge for his murder, describing it as “foul and most unnatural.” This metaphor underscores the moral and spiritual implications of the crime committed against the Ghost.

Example: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” – The metaphor portrays the murder as both morally corrupt and against the natural order of things, further justifying the Ghost’s call for vengeance.

4. Metaphors in Ophelia’s Madness

Ophelia’s descent into madness is a tragic element of “Hamlet.” Through her songs and ramblings, Ophelia employs metaphors that reflect her shattered state of mind.

4.1 “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance”

Ophelia utters this metaphorical phrase while distributing herbs and flowers, symbolizing her grief and remembrance of her father’s death. The metaphorical use of rosemary represents memory and mourning.

Example: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance” – Here, Ophelia metaphorically connects the herb rosemary with the act of remembering, alluding to the memories of her deceased father.

4.2 “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died”

Through this metaphor, Ophelia implies that her happiness and innocence have faded away with her father’s death. The withered violets symbolize her lost purity and joy.

Example: “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died” – The metaphor signifies the loss of innocence and happiness experienced by Ophelia after her father’s demise.

5. Metaphors in Claudius’ Deception

Claudius, the antagonist of “Hamlet,” relies on deception and manipulation to maintain power. The metaphors he employs serve to mask his true intentions and manipulate those around him.

5.1 “That we would do, we should do when we would”

Claudius uses this metaphor when discussing his marriage to Gertrude and his desire to maintain a facade of happiness and unity. The metaphor suggests that actions should be timed strategically to achieve desired outcomes.

Example: “That we would do, we should do when we would” – The metaphor implies that Claudius and Gertrude should only engage in actions that serve their interests at a suitable time, concealing their true intentions.

5.2 “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below”

In this metaphor, Claudius confesses his guilt for murdering King Hamlet while praying. The metaphor implies that his words of repentance lack sincerity, as his true thoughts and intentions are hidden.

Example: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below” – The metaphor illustrates the deceptive nature of Claudius’ prayers, as his true motives and thoughts are concealed beneath his feigned remorse.


  1. What is a metaphor?

    A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two unrelated things to create a vivid image or convey a deeper meaning.

  2. Why did Shakespeare use metaphors in “Hamlet”?

    Shakespeare used metaphors in “Hamlet” to enhance the audience’s understanding of the characters, their emotions, and the overall themes of the play. Metaphors add depth and complexity to the language, allowing for a richer interpretation of the text.

  3. How do metaphors contribute to the characterization of Hamlet?

    The metaphors used in Hamlet’s soliloquies reflect his internal struggles, his contemplation of life and death, and his perception of his own actions. They provide insight into his complex character and his state of mind.

  4. What do the metaphors in Ophelia’s madness symbolize?

    The metaphors used by Ophelia during her descent into madness symbolize her grief, loss, and shattered state of mind. They serve as a reflection of her emotional turmoil and the tragic consequences of the events surrounding her.

  5. How do metaphors contribute to the atmosphere of “Hamlet”?

    The metaphors employed in “Hamlet” contribute to the atmosphere by creating vivid imagery, emphasizing the play’s themes, and adding complexity to the characters’ emotions. They enhance the overall dramatic effect and engage the audience on multiple levels.

  6. What is the significance of the metaphors in Claudius’ deception?

    The metaphors used by Claudius serve to mask his true intentions, manipulate those around him, and maintain his position of power. They highlight his deceptive nature and contribute to the play’s themes of corruption and betrayal.

  7. How do metaphors enhance the audience’s understanding of the play’s themes?

    Metaphors in “Hamlet” help convey the complex themes of life, death, revenge, and the human condition. They provide deeper insights into the characters’ emotions and motivations, allowing the audience to explore these universal themes on a personal level.

  8. What other literary devices are used in “Hamlet”?

    Aside from metaphors, “Hamlet” employs other literary devices such as soliloquies, irony, symbolism, foreshadowing, and wordplay. These devices contribute to the play’s depth and make it a rich source for literary analysis.

  9. How did metaphors contribute to the overall success of “Hamlet” as a play?

    The use of metaphors in “Hamlet” adds layers of meaning and complexity to the text, making it a compelling and enduring piece of literature. They enhance the audience’s emotional connection with the characters, deepen the exploration of themes, and contribute to the play’s universal appeal.

  10. What can readers learn from the metaphors in “Hamlet”?

    The metaphors in “Hamlet” offer profound insights into human nature, the complexities of life and death, the consequences of inaction, and the destructive power of deception. They invite readers to reflect on the timeless themes and moral dilemmas presented in the play.

Conclusion: Metaphors play a significant role in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” enriching the text with vivid imagery, emotional depth, and thematic complexity. Through the metaphors used by characters such as Hamlet, Ophelia, and Claudius, the play delves into the human condition, exploring profound questions about life, death, love, and revenge. The skillful use of metaphors enhances the audience’s understanding of the characters’ inner struggles, relationships, and the overarching themes of the play, making “Hamlet” a timeless masterpiece in English literature.

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