Hamlet Literary Devices

Accent (Definition) – An added syllable created to a line, usually with an accent mark over an ‘ed
Accent (Example & Purpose) – Do not forever with thy vail’ed lids 1.2.72- Adding the accent mark creates a line of iambic pentameter. Gertrude is chastising Hamlet about continuing to be sad about his father’s death. Since her line is in this controlled verse, one could speculate that she is not emotionally affected; she was either not involved with her husband’s death, or she is just that shallow.
Antithesis (Definition) – The opposition of words or phrases, to heighten meaning and indicate important words and concepts
Antithesis (Example & Purpose) -Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts fromhell,Be thy intents wicked or charitable 1.4.44-47- Antitheses indicate important meanings and concepts. A ghost is visiting Hamlet to tell him of his father’s murder and Hamlet is questioning whether it is truly his father or if it is an evil spirit. This raises one of the biggest questions in the play, for this ghost’s testimony leads Hamlet to feign insanity and kill several people.
Blank Verse (Definition) – The verse that most of Shakespeare is written in; the meter that is the closest meter to the rhythm of natural English speech- Unrhymed iambic pentameter lines
Blank Verse (Example & Purpose) – Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death 1.2.1- Blank verse is the closest meter to the rhythm of natural speech. Claudius is giving a speech to court after the death of his brother. This natural speaking pattern could indicate either a fake composition due to his position or lack of emotion since he may have been the one to murder the old king.
Broken Line (Definition) – A line with fewer than expected syllables, affecting the rhythm of the passage- Not the same as a short line- Implies great stress
Broken Line (Example & Purpose) – Be thou assured, if words be made of breathAnd breath of life, I have no life to breatheWhat thou hast said to me 3.4.219-221- A broken line implies great stress. Gertrude is alone with Hamlet after he kills Polonius and talks to a ghost that she does not see. He now tries to get Gertrude to confess her sins and not lie with Claudius anymore. The queen, either guilty or still afraid of Hamlet, shows great stress in her response.
Caesura (Definition) – A break or sense pause in the middle of a line of poetry, often at the end of the sense meaning of an enjambed line- Allows words preceding it to “sink in,” places focus on the word or phrase following it, slow the language down, allowing the listener to digest the words
Caesura (Example & Purpose) – It was a brute part of him to kill so capital acalf there. — Be the players ready? 3.2.111-112- A caesura allows the preceding words to “sink in.” Hamlet is conversing with Polonius and Polonius, in an effort to establish intellectual credibility, says that he once played the role of Julius Caesar and that Brutus killed him. Hamlet insults Polonius with a pun, pausing so that the insult may be realized, and turns his attention to the players.
Elision (Definition) – A contraction of two words or syllables into one syllable: o’er: over, ne’er: never, ’twill: it will
Elision (Example & Purpose) – And, like the kind life-rend’ring pelican 4.5.188- An elision contracts two syllables, allowing the speaker to maintain speech in iambic pentameter. Laertes is saying that he will avenge his father’s death, and keeping the extra syllable in “rendering” would result in a feminine ending. Since this is not a statement of uncertainty, it is important that the line remains in iambic pentameter.
Enjambed Line (Definition) – The sense of a line carries over to the next line- There should be only a slight pause after the last word in the line is emphasized
Enjambed Line (Example & Purpose) – And sure I am two men there is not livingTo whom he more adheres. If it will please youTo show us so much gentry and goodwillAs to expend your time with us awhileFor the supply and profit of our hope 2.2.20-24- Enjambment allows the speaker to speak in iambic pentameter while continuing the thought between lines without a natural pause. The queen is addressing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a neutral tone, as maintained by the meter. Her request spans several unbroken lines to complement and extend great gratitude to the two men if they agree to help.
End-Stopped Line (Definition) – A line in which both the metric and grammatical endings occur at the end of the line- Usually has a period or semicolon- There should be a full pause and possibly a breath
End-Stopped Line (Example & Purpose) – Why, look you there, look how it steals away!My father, in his habit as he lived! 3.4.154-155- Hamlet is acknowledging the ghost’s exit in the scene with his mother. By ending each exclamation in the natural meter of speech, Hamlet implies that the ghost’s nature is like the nature of his late father. This comes as no surprise to him as he believed prior that the spirit was indeed that of Old Hamlet.
Feminine Ending (Definition) – A weak extra syllable (11th) added to an iambic pentameter line- Denotes uncertainty
Feminine Ending (Example & Purpose) – This is too heavy. Let me see another 5.2.283- A feminine ending denotes uncertainty. Laertes is about to duel Hamlet and attempt to kill him with a poisoned tip. He is, however, uncertain either in his actions or in the chance of his success.
Inverted Sentences (Definition) – Reversal of the normal subject, verb, object construction- May be verb, subject, object or even object, subject, verb.
Inverted Sentences (Example & Purpose) – But answer made it not… 1.2.227- Inverting the sentence allows the speech to maintain iambic pentameter through the placement of the stressed/unstressed syllables. Horatio is telling Hamlet that he tried to talk to the ghost, but it wouldn’t answer. Horatio is able to keep an informational tone in iambic pentameter with a natural rhythm of speaking that could imply truth.
Prose (Definition) – Often used for letters and proclamations, low status characters, an expression of madness, or comedy- Shakespeare prose was very lyrical and rhythmic, using imagery, repetition, antithesis and parallelism. Used prose when the action does not merit poetry
Prose (Example & Purpose) – Slanders, sir; for the satirical rogue says herethat old men have gray beards, that their faces arewrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and[…]you could go backward 2.2.214-222- Prose can be used as an expression of madness. Hamlet is feigning madness as part of his plan to confirm the murder of his father by Claudius and enact revenge. He breaks the pattern of iambic pentameter, creating a more unnatural pattern of speech, indicative of madness.
Puns (Definition) – A play on words wherein a word is used to convey two meanings at the same time
Puns (Example & Purpose) – By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me! 1.4.95- Puns are play-on words where the word is used to convey two meanings at once. Hamlet is saying that he’ll “make a ghost” of anyone who prevents him from seeing the ghost that visited Horatio, Barnardo, and Marcellus. While making a reference to the literal ghost, Hamlet implies that he would kill anyone who keeps him from seeing the ghost, making that person a “ghost” as well.
Rhyming Couplets / Heroic Couplets (Definition) – Used to indicate the end of scenes or to mark a passage as distinctive from the rest of the verse that surrounded it
Rhyming Couplets / Heroic Couplets (Example & Purpose) – Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife,If, once a widow, ever I be wife 3.2.245-246- Heroic couplets mark a passage as distinctive from the rest of the verse that surrounds it. Hamlet is looking to see if the Queen and King react to his play, so here we have a play within a play. This heroic couplet marks the transition between the performance and Hamlet’s interjection.
Short Line (Definition) – An iambic line that has fewer than five metric feet- The actor must “fill” missing feet in the line with an action or a reaction, possibly a dramatic pause
Short Line (Example & Purpose) – A villain kills my father, and for that,I, his sole son, do this same villain sendTo heaven 3.3.81-83- A short line allows for a pause in speech to highlight action or thought. Hamlet is ready to kill Claudius, but finds him praying and decides to catch him at a later time to ensure he does not go to heaven. Hamlet fills this pause with silent contemplation.
Alexandrine – A long line (iambic hexameter) with a caesura in the middle, creating a balanced effect
Anachronism – Something or someone that is not in its correct historical or chronological time
Aside – A short comment or speech that a character delivers directly to the audience or to himself, while other actors on the stage cannot listen
Iambic Foot – One unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Dah-DUM
Interrupted Construction – Separating subjects and verbs with long delaying and expanding interruptions
Long Line – A line of iambic hexameter- Shows lack of control
Meter – The rhythmic pattern produced when words are arranged so that their stressed and unstressed syllables fall into a more or less regular sequence, resulting in repeated patterns of accent
Rhyme – Shakespeare used more rhyme in his earlier plays than latter ones (Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet)- Rhyme can sometimes be used for comic effect or to create a light-hearted or teasing tone- It can also be used to show a bantering or challenging tone- Regardless of the purpose, the actor must emphasize it
Repetition – Used for emphasis
Shared Line – A regular metric line that is shared by two or possibly three actors- These shared lines create a rhythm which may show tension in the scene
Soliloquy – Expresses a character’s thoughts about a certain character or past, present or upcoming event while talking to himself without acknowledging the presence of any other person- The actor is alone on the stage