Shakespeare's Allusions: Betrayal, Power, and Mortality in Hamlet

Categories: Hamlet

Act I, III, V: Julius Caesar/the death of Caesar: Julius Caesar was murdered in his own court, a sanctuary, by his senators or those who were supposedly his friends and on his advisory council. They murdered him because they believed he was too obsessed with his own importance. In Hamlet, as Caesar dies, he says to his confidant Brutus, who was involved in his murder, "Et tu, Brute?" Caesar's death, though debatably deserved, is a symbol of betrayal. It was a murder from the person one would least expect it.

The murderer is decreed as selfish, greedy and jealous who cares more about raising self-status than the wellbeing of the population.

Shakespeare uses the allusion to emphasize betrayal and death. Julius Caesar died at the hands of those he trusted most and similarly, King Hamlet died because of his trustee, his own blood, his brother, Claudius, which shows how betrayal is a prominent theme in the book.

By characterizing the murderers of Julius as greedy and selfish, Shakespeare highlights those characteristics in Claudius.

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He conveys who Claudius really is and exposes his true personality.

Julius Caesar also was potent, more so than a mortal, and his death reduced him to dust, just like what happens to every average mortal. Although he lived like a God, he ended up as nothing. Hamlet uses this to show how even a man so powerful could be reduced to nothing but dust. This enhances his existentialist point of view.

Hyperion: Hyperion is the Titan, God of light, father of Selene, the moon and Helios, the Sun.

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The definition of his name is "he who goes above". He along with his three brothers held down his father, Ouranos, as Kronos castrated him, and then he ruled over the East. He and his brothers, Coeus, Crius, and Iapetus, also serve as the Pillars that hold Heaven and Earth apart.

Hamlet shows how benevolent a person King Hamlet was. Although he is biased because he is his father's son, Hamlet conspicuously and openly sees his father with utmost respect. Because Hyperion is the God of light, Hamlet thinks that when his father was the King, he was a worthy leader and could have guided the people of Denmark much better.

Moreover, the meaning of Hyperion, which is "he who goes above" reflects how King Hamlet dies and watches Hamlet and everything unfoiling after his death from "above." Also, a point worthy of mention is that at this time, Hamlet has not met his father. This could foreshadow their future meeting when King Hamlet returns as a ghost.Shakespeare also uses Hyperion (King Hamlet) as a foil to Satyr (Claudius)

Satyr: The child of a nymph and goat, a satyr is a half man, half goat creature that is mostly known for playing pipes. It has the head and body of a human and the legs and tail of a goat. Satyrs have negligible significance in plots of major stories and appear in a few minor stories. They are dangerous, but tend to be cowardly. They desire sexual pleasure, women and wine. They followed the wine God, Dionysus, and could be rude and explicit, especially when partying. They chased after nymphs, which reveals their sexual desires.

Hamlet mentions satyrs in his first soliloquy, as he compares it to a Hyperion. In the metaphor, Hamlet is compared his uncle to a beast, indicating that he sees his uncle as a greedy man who just wants sexual pleasure. Hamlet also hints that Claudius has participated in adultery with Gertrude, possibly before King Hamlet had even died, which shows the mischievous and evil side of him. As satyrs are cowardly, by alluding to it, Hamlet thinks so low of Claudius because he killed his dad in his sleep to assume control of the throne and Denmark. Also, the body of the satyr is as such: the top is human, and the bottom is goat. The goat (beast) half is much easier to hide and the nymph (human) side is always visible; this is an analogy that shows how the evil side of Claudius is hidden while the kind side is what everyone sees of him.

Niobe: Niobe had fourteen children, seven sons and seven daughters (together they were all called the niobids). At Leto's ceremony, Niobe made an offensive comment on the subject of how Leto had only two children compared to her fourteen. Angered, Leto ordered her children to kill Niobe's children. Apollo used his arrows to kill the seven sons, while Artemis used her arrows to kill the seven daughters. Niobe was shocked and fell into sadness. She cried the river Achelous, and settled into stone. Even to this day, it is said that her silhouette will still cry when the rain falls.

Niobe's extreme sorrow and grief is contrasting to how Hamlet wishes his mother had reacting. Niobe's children's death is analogous to the queen, Gertrude's grief for the king. Niobe's grief is strong and it is eternal, as even today her "silhouette will still cry." When the Queen becomes a widow, she grieves, although her grief is short-lasted. She falls in love with Claudius so quickly that Hamlet says she moved on with "with such dexterity" (1.2.156). He chides her for moving on so fast and tells her that she should be feeling like Niobe because even "a beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer" (1.2.150-151). He means that even an animal, out of respect, would have mourned longer for its made and is absolutely distressed by the lack of emotion that Gertrude is showing.

Hercules: Hercules is the strongest man, and the last mortal son of Zeus. He was strong, brutal and deeply emotional. His wild emotions got him into some tough situations. Overall, his sense of justice was almost unmatchable and he would even inflict punishment on himself if he felt he deserved it. His fortitude, mental strength, perseverance through arduous situations is what makes many consider him the greatest hero.

Hamlet declares himself to be the opposite of Hercules. He compares himself when he states, "My father's brother, but no more like my father than I to Hercules" (1.2.152-153). Hercules is more a man of action, while Hamlet is one of words. Hercules is impulsive and quick to act with his fists because of his emotional extremes. On the contrary, Hamlet does not immediately act to avenge his father, but takes his time to think of his actions and their implications. Hamlet, while not a coward, is definitely not as brave or strong as Hercules. Throughout the play it is obvious that Hamlet sees his father as a moral, strong king and his uncle as a weak, lowly man who is simply taking advantage of the situation as he tricks, deceives and seduces. The comparison to Hercules makes the contrast more obvious.

Act II: Hecuba: Hecuba had 50 children for her husband. When she was pregnant, in trance in a dream, a seer had determined that her child would ultimately be the reason for the downfall of Troy. The boy, Paris, was born and abandoned on a hill by the royal shepherd Agelaus. When Agelaus returned later, he found the boy alive and took him in, raising him as his own son. When Paris seeks out Helen, who is hiding within Troy, the city starts burning down. Hecuba watches her sons die and her husband is killed in front of her. When the war ends, she is given to Odysseus and turns into a dog when she tries to escape.

By alluding to Hecuba, Shakespeare emphasizes how emotional the play that the actors put on was. Hamlet specifically requests the actors to put on a play because it is parallel to his current predicament. Hamlet exclaims, "For Hecuba! What is Hecuba to him and he to Hecuba" (2.2.517-518). Hamlet is shocked that an actor can bring so much emotion to his character. Hecuba spirals out emotionally because she loses her husband, crying out in sorrow and grief. Her situation is similar to that of Gertrude. Hamlet believes that his mother should be reacting the same way because up until this point, she has moved on quickly and gotten herself into an incestuous marriage. This is the first part of Hamlet's revenge scheme forming, as well, as he's starting to realize how he's going to prove Claudius' guilt. The allusion shows a contrast between how Hamlet thinks Gertrude should have reacted and how she did react.

Trojan Horse: The Greeks pretended to desert the war when there was a Greek siege on Troy. They abandoned what they had and left only a huge, hollow wooden horse. In the horse, there were a select few soldiers, presumably the best. Troy took it into its walls under the word of Sinon, who claimed that it was an offering to Athena that would strengthen Troy, making it impregnable. When Troy least expected it, at night, the soldiers broke out of the horse, opened the doors of Troy for the Greek army, and giving the Greeks the upper hand. This made the siege on Troy successful, although it did unfairly take advantage of Troy's willingness to accept a peace offering.

By alluding to the Trojan Horse, Shakespeare again emphasizes the theme of betrayal. He alludes to it when the players/actors are reenacting the murder of Priam by Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus wants to avenge his father's death, so he "lay crouched in th' ominous horse" (2.2.415). This is similar to Hamlet's situation and may foreshadow the actions Hamlet will take. Following Priam's death is a story that reveals insight into Hamlet.

Also, at first, people (the Greeks) see the Trojan Horse as a gift or a blessing, but later realize that it is a curse, as the horse is how the soldiers uninvitedly enter Trojan and attack the city from the inside. This is a similarity to Claudius, as he is first looked at positively as a family member, but soon becomes a curse because he murders Hamlet's father. Hamlet's uncle is also first a positive symbol because he is part of their family, but he is later seen as a curse because he murders the father.

Aeneas and Dido: Aeneas defended Troy against the greek and he was the founder of Rome. He had a lower position than his royal cousin Hector, and out of jealousy, he attempted to make Troy fall. He gave Greeks help and played a significant part in Troy's fall. Because he did have some power in Troy, many did not even consider the fact that Aeneas would betray them.

Dido, on the other hand, fell in love with Aeneas when he was in Carthage. The Gods had told Aeneas that his destiny was elsewhere and he could not stay in Carthage, and because of his moral compass, Aeneas obliged, leaving Dido behind. A heartbroken Dido throws herself onto a pyre when he leaves.

Aeneas' betrayal to Troy alludes to Claudius' betrayal against his brother. In a similar situation, the betrayals are both by family members and because of subordinancy. Both these situations have the least expected person commit a crime. In a similar situation, the betrayal comes from a person from whom one would least expect it. Shakespeare alludes to them when the players are acting out their scene, as Hamlet states, "'Twas Aeneas' tale to Dido" (2.2.419). In this scene, Hamlet is describing the scene he wants the actors to play. he wants them to play a scene similar to his plight, so he specifies that the scene was the one Aeneas' told Dido.

Act III: Nymph: Nymphs are minor female deities, ranking below Gods, who are associated with nature. They live in clouds, trees, meadows and beaches. They were responsible for the care of animals and plants. Most of them are daughters of Zeus. They are generally gentle and are known to be kind to humans. Nymphs are companions of God and they were allowed to attend meetings at the Olympian court.

By employing this allusion, Shakespeare shows how genuinely Hamlet sees Ophelia. Hamlet is thinking to himself (in the midst of his soliloquy) but then he notices Ophelia from her prayer book and says, "The fair Ophelia-- Nymph in thy orisons. Be all my sins remembered" (3. 1. 88-89). By comparing Ophelia to a nymph, a creature known for its beauty and kindness, Hamlet compliments her. He does not yet know that he is being watch nor does he realize that Ophelia has anything to do with Claudius' and Polonius' plan, so he is still unsuspecting and acts genuine with her and has no reason to pretend to be something else. It represents his true emotions and how he truly thinks of her as beautiful. Assuming his emotions in this scene are real, the readers are left to ponder whether Hamlet truly loved Ophelia.

Nero: Nero was a Roman emperor who was self-indulgent. His uncle was the emperor whose name, coincidentally, was also Claudius. His mother married Claudius and persuaded him to make Nero the heir to the throne. Thus, at age seventeen, he became king. He is rumored to have burned down the city of Rome in his selfish desire to build a palace. To quickly pin the blame on someone else and exonerate himself, Nero declares that the Christians started the fire and he unfairly persecutes them. He was too cruel and some would call him inhumane because he murdered his mother.

By employing this allusion, Shakespeare gives insight to Hamlet's mental state. Hamlet is equivocal in his decision to avenge his father: he knows he wants to, but he also does not want to be too cruel, like Nero. Hamlet, in his efforts to avenge his father, does not want to lose his humanity and be like Nero- he wants to keep his promise to the ghost and "leave [his mother] to Heaven" (1.5.86). He hopes that his soul is firm enough to not be taken over by the soul of Nero.

Act V: Alexander the Great: Alexander the Great was a powerful, revered man. He was the King of Macedonia. He is known for his conquests of the Persian empire and his heroic deeds to save Greece. He was a great military leader who did not suffer a single defeat. He even created an empire that stretched across three continents. Egyptians thought of him as a pharaoh. Dionysius even considered Alexander to be divine, or in other words, more than human, closer to being a God.

By employing this allusion, Shakespeare shows how even the most powerful and the best of people are reduced to nothing but dust. Hamlet states in the graveyard scene that the dust of the world conqueror, Alexander the Great, could be used to seal beer barrels which further emphasizes that even the mighty die and that death is so commonplace and ordinary. This is also a reference to Genesis, the book of origin: we all start out the same, grow to be of different values and end up as nothing but dust. This relates to the theme of death, mortality and existentialism. Hamlet faces more apathy towards death after his father died, and is more unemotional to death itself. This allusion portrays how Hamlet is questioning life and its meaning, what happens after life, what life is even worth, which are all existentialist questions.

Pelion and Mt. Olympus: Mt. Pelion was the home of the centaurs and was loved by many Gods. The region was known as the "healing mountain" because it had an abundance of healing and magical plants. Pelion had both a wild, untamed side and a civilized side. Mt. Olympus is the tallest of mountains where the Gods' and Goddesses' palaces are. Giants piled the mountains on top of each other to reach Heaven.

Shakespeare includes this allusion to emphasize the grief that Laertes felt after the death of his sister, Ophelia and his father, Polonius. Laertes tells the gravediggers to pile the dirt on top of him and Ophelia until the pile is as high as Pelion and Mt. Olympus, which indicates that Laertes is willing to rebel against the orthodox nature of how things work and bury Ophelia the Christian way, even though she committed a sin in killing herself. Laertes resembles the giants who piled Mt. Pelion over Olympus in their rebellion against God.

Acts I, III, V: Cain and Abel: Cain and Abel are the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain became a farmer and Abel became a shepherd and they both offered sacrifices to God, but God refused Cain's crops and accepted Abel's. Cain got jealous of Abel, so "while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him" (Genesis 4:9). He murdered Abel out of spite and became the first murderer. Abel became known as the "innocent victim" and Cain was known as the "evil murderer." God punished Cain by making him a wanderer on Earth.

This is a parallel to the murder of King Hamlet's; both Cain and Claudius murder their brothers out of jealousy. Cain was jealous that Abel was favored by God and Claudius was jealous that King Hamlet was in power of Denmark and had Gertrude as his wife. By adding this parallel, Shakespeare shows the similarities between Cain and Claudius. Cain's banishment from the presence of God enhances how distanced Claudius becomes from God by his exclusion from prayer. Shakespeare also shows how Claudius is the sole antagonist in the play.

Act I: The Serpent: In the Bible, the serpent is an evil-like creature that represents death as snakes can be poisonous and dangerous. A serpent can also be possessed by Satan or a devil. It appeared in Genesis 3:1 as the serpent that tempted Eve to disobey God in the Garden of Eden, a clear act of impurity and sin. In Act I, King Hamlet is said to have died by the bite of a poisonous serpent, when in reality, the "serpent" that killed him was his brother.

The serpent alludes to King Claudius because although he seems ordinary on the outside, he is venomous; his act of murder is similar to the venom of a snake. The snake's venom is like the poison Claudius used to murder his own brother. By calling Claudius a serpent, Shakespeare emphasizes his impurity and danger. Also, the orchard King Hamlet died in alludes to the Garden of Eden, where the sins occurred.

Act II: Jephthah: Jephthah was a ruthless man but a brave warrior. made a vow to God that if he returns victorious from battle, he will sacrifice the first thing he sees on his return. To his misfortune, the first thing he sees is his daughter. In Hamlet, Polonius realizes that Hamlet is "still harping on my daughter" without acknowledging that Hamlet is suggesting he is sacrificing his daughter for his own interests (2. 2. 77-78).

Shakespeare compares both Jephthah and Polonius. Polonius uses Ophelia more as a tool to gain power and favor from the King. Hamlet is essentially scolding him for treating her as he does and making her have children. This is especially obvious when Hamlet asks Ophelia to go to a nunnery, as to not have children, as they are full of sin. By employing this allusion early on in the play, Shakespeare hints the readers to Ophelia's fate. Jephthah's daughter was sacrificed and Shakespeare foreshadows that Ophelia will follow her path, thus insinuating her downfall or death. Ophelia also dies, although not explicitly stated, because of the neglect and demands from her father and his death.

Act III: Herod: Known as both Herod the Great and Herod I, Herod was claimed to be "a madman who killed his own family" by the New Testament. He even attempted to kill baby Jesus, although he failed . He ordered the murder of every boy under the age of three in Bethlehem. At the end, he assumed all the power and received the highest ranking title, basileus.

Shakespeare compares both Herod and Claudius using the allusion. Both these characters marry their brother's wives after their deaths. Also, Herod attempts to kill Jesus as he is the King of Jews like Claudius kills King Hamlet for being the King of Denmark. In Act III, Scene II, Hamlet requests that the actors in the play do not overreact Herod's part in the play because he does not want people to realize his revenge scheme.

Updated: Nov 20, 2023
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Shakespeare's Allusions: Betrayal, Power, and Mortality in Hamlet. (2017, Nov 23). Retrieved from

Shakespeare's Allusions: Betrayal, Power, and Mortality in Hamlet essay
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