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Free «Classical Allusions in Shakespeare» Essay Sample

Outline

Shakespeare’s plays reflect a huge variety of types, cultures, epochs, nationalities, social environments. Sources of Shakespeare’s plays are diverse. Influences of previous authors are very noticeable. Numerous allusions can be found in all Shakespeare’s works.  The paper pays attention to two types of allusions: the biblical ones and allusions to plays of Ancient Greek authors.

  1. Allusion is understood as a stylistic device, containing explicit or clear reference to a literary, historical, mythological, or political fact existing in a text or culture.
  2.  In Shakespeare’s works the borrowed elements were originally reproduced.
    1. A lot of sources were taken from antiquity.
    2. The biblical sayings, lexical forms, allusions and names are common in his plays.
  3.  In Shakespeare’s trilogy the character of King Henry VI to a large extent determines the cause of general distress in the country.
    1. Henry is the only character in Shakespeare’s chronicles, who always refers to the Bible.
    2. Shakespeare widely used biblical allusions to underline the character of King Henry VI
  4. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” is one of the most obvious examples, which illustrate Shakespeare’s usage of allusions.
    1. Coincidences in the works of Aeschylus and Shakespeare
    2. Hamlet’s monologue

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In this paper allusion is understood as a stylistic device, containing explicit or clear reference to a literary, historical, mythological, or political fact existing in a text or culture. Historical and literary allusions inform the reader of content and intellectual information. The most expressive and emotional allusions are the biblical and mythological ones. For example, authors can use biblical allusions to emphasize positive characteristics of the protagonist, and mythological allusions to deliver bright, sensational information. It also concerns allusions from other texts.

Allusions. Shakespeare’s plays reflect a huge variety of types, cultures, epochs, nationalities, social environments. This wealth of imagination, as well as swift action, strong images, power of passion and tension of characters are typical of Shakespeare. Sources of Shakespeare’s plays are diverse. However, the borrowed elements were originally reproduced. A lot of sources were taken from antiquity. For example, his early play “The Comedy of Errors” is an imitation of “The Menaechmi” by Plautus. In “Titus Andronicus” and “Richard III” Seneca’s influence is very noticeable. The “Roman” Shakespeare’s tragedies go back to Plutarch not only thematically, but partly also ideologically, since during the Renaissance Plutarch was a teacher of freedom and civic sense.

It is recognized that Shakespeare was familiar with the works of the ancient Romans, such as Seneca’s tragedies and comedies of Plautus and Terence (Showerman 2004). Actually, in “Hamlet” while describing the plays Shakespeare says—by Polonius’ words—“Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light” (Hamlet II 2). Commentators also note the numerous references to characters, names and stories of ancient mythology. “Hamlet” contains Niobe, the Nemean lion, the Cyclops hammers, Jupiter in the guise of satire, chariot of Phoebus, the triple curse of Hecate, the mountains of Ossa and Pelion, etc. The works of Shakespeare contain sensually upbeat and expressive images from classical mythology and biblical allusions. Since it is impossible to describe all allusions in Shakespeare’s plays, this paper pays attention to two types of allusions: the biblical ones and allusions to plays of Ancient Greek authors.  

According to Beatrice Groves (2007), in Shakespeare’s chronicles the biblical sayings, lexical forms, allusions and names are more common than in his works of other genres. They are particularly frequent in the early chronicles. This is primarily due to the impact of sources and the types of characters. The analysis of the author’s intentions and characters that appeal to the Bible helps to understand the role of biblical allusions in Shakespeare’s drama. For example, in the trilogy about the reign of Henry VI Shakespeare created a picture of internal diseases of the state, including the struggle for power, the War of the Roses, the uprising led by Jack Cade, the death of Humphrey of Gloucester, the only honest ruler, protector of a young king, and eventually the defeat of England in the war with France. To describe a complete picture of disasters and in order to be especially convincing Shakespeare showed the role of King Henry VI and indirectly the role of religion in public life.

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In Shakespeare’s trilogy the character of King Henry VI to a large extent determines the cause of general distress in the country. Henry is the only character in Shakespeare’s chronicles, who always refers to the Bible. He is a deeply religious man, sincerely preaching the biblical commandments. Even the most ordinary events and feelings are described by him with use of biblical phrases and sayings. For example, the king appeals to the warring English lords with exhortations, hoping that prayers will unite their hearts in love. He pronounces the warning, taken from the Bible: “Civil dissention is a viperous worm / That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth” (Henry VI, III 1). Several books of the Bible describe the feuds of the tribes, and Matthew Chapter 10 is devoted to description of internal strife, namely the speech of Christ, addressed to the apostles.

In the second part King Henry VI tries—by means of the biblical teachings—to help reconcile supporters of the ruling dynasty of Lancaster and supporters of the Duke of York, who intended to take away Henry’s crown. A naive Henry hopes to harmonize the parties: “For blessed are the peacemakers on earth”. The cardinal ironically answers: “Let me be blessed for the peace I make / Against this proud protector with my sword” (Henry VI, II 1). In this case, Henry quotes the words of Christ from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matth. 5:9). The cardinal paraphrases another saying of Christ: “Think not that I am come to send peace into the earth: I came not to send peace but the sword” (Matth. 10:34).

An interesting example of biblical associations can be found in King Henry’s monologue, soon after he was freed from the Tower by Warwick and raised to the throne again. These reflections are inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, as it is stated in the Gospel of Matthew. From this text of the Gospel Shakespeare borrows many of the allusions. Henry builds his monologue in accordance with the text of the Gospel, omitting the opening words “Blessed are ...”: My pity has been balm to heal their wounds / My mildness hath allayed their swelling griefs / My mercy dried their water-flowing tears / I have not been desirous of their wealth / Nor much oppressed them with great subsidies / Nor forward of revenge though they much err’d. Then why should they love Edward more than me? (Henry VI, IV 8).

 
 
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The above mentioned examples show that Shakespeare widely used biblical allusions to underline the character of King Henry VI, as well as the situation in England in general. Though Shakespeare can’t be characterized as a religious personality, he often made use of such huge layer of classical culture as Christianity. Another important type of allusions in Shakespeare’s works is the allusions to Greek authors. The Greek drama made a great influence on Shakespeare, and usage of Greek texts can be found in nearly all Shakespeare’s plays. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” is one of the most obvious examples, which illustrate Shakespeare’s usage of allusions. 

Speaking of coincidences in the works of Aeschylus and Shakespeare, Terence Spencer and Anne Barton (1980) noted the similarity of the beginning of “Agamemnon” and the beginning of “Hamlet,” stating that the action in both cases opens with the words of the sentry introducing the state of affairs to the audience. At the same time, a direct match with the “Hamlet” is contained in Sophocles’ tragedy “Electra”. Actually, the whole conflict in the beginning of “Hamlet” is present in the monologue of Electra, the daughter of assassinated king Agamemnon: “The mother’s face who bare me has become / Most hostile; next, I must be companied / In my own home with my sire’s murderers, / By them be ruled, take at their hands, or else” (Sophocles, Electra). This coincidence of can hardly be accidental. The coincidence of the motives and details of these two texts can be seen in the rest of these plays.

Researchers state the conceptual differences between “Hamlet” and “Electra” in the fact that Hamlet hesitates in the implementation of revenge, and Electra follows her goal without hesitation. However, the motif of indecision and delay of action in “Electra” is also present: Chrysothemis dissuades Electra from killing Aegisthus. Also, at the end of the play Electra is waiting for Orestes before punishing Aegisthus. Thus, the tragedy of Sophocles “Electra” is undoubtedly one of the sources used by Shakespeare in writing “Hamlet.”

One of the important motives of “Hamlet” is the theme of madness. Moreover, this motif is twofold. On the one hand, this madness of Hamlet is feigned. On the other hand, Hamlet is afraid of this madness. One of the central places of “Hamlet” is the monologue preceding the appearance of the ghost, and his conversation with Hamlet. Madness is the main content of the tragedy of Euripides “Heracles”: Hera, hating the hero from his childhood, makes him temporarily mad, and the hero kills his children. The sense of the line from Euripides’ “Bacchae”: “in the madness… a huge prophetic power is unleashed” (Bacchae, 295) can be seen Polonius’ words in regard of “mad” Hamlet: “Though this be madness, there is method in it” (Hamlet, II 2).

There are allusions in Hamlet’s famous monologue “To be or not to be”, namely, Hamlet’s dilemma: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them” (Hamlet, III, 1). In “Hercules”: “What right have I to live? What profit can I have in the possession of a useless, impious life?” He continues: “whoever does not withstand disasters will never be able to withstand even a man’s weapon” (Hercules, 1348-1350).

Also, in “Hamlet” and “Hippolytus” a maleficent love is one of the main motives: the marriage of Claudius to the widow of his murdered brother and the passion of Phaedra towards her own stepson. A certain parallelism can be seen in the couples of Claudius/Hamlet and Phaedra/Hippolytus, including text matches. These examples suggest that the tragedies of Euripides, “Hercules” and “Hippolytus” in the first place, can be attributed to the primary literature sources of “Hamlet.”

Conclusion

Numerous Shakespeare’s allusions to biblical and classical texts have been always noted by the researchers. In fact, their presence is one of the proofs of Shakespeare’s erudition, which plays an important part in the argument about the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.

   

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