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Shakespeare's Allusions and Direct References
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Rhetorical Devices Present Concrete Images
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2012

Shakespeare skillfully used concrete language to enliven his writing. Concrete language presents a picture to the mind. Abstract language, on the other hand, does not. An example of an abstract word is strength; an example of a concrete word is Hercules. One cannot picture strength, but one can picture someone or something that has strength. Allusions and direct references both enable audiences and readers to picture what Shakespeare is talking about.


An allusion is an indirect reference to a person, a place, a thing, or an idea in mythology, literature, history, or everyday life. For example, if the leader of a country faced a difficult decision that would affect the lives of millions, he might say, “I carry the weight of the world on my shoulders.” His statement would be an indirect reference, or allusion, to the task of the Greek god Atlas, who bore the sky on his shoulders. (Sculptors and painters often depict Atlas as bearing the world.) Here is another example.
Suppose an army general told a subordinate, “Your plan has about as much chance of succeeding as attacking Russia in the winter.” His statement would be an allusion to two of military history's most famous failures: Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 and Hitler's invasion in 1941 of the same country (then known as the Soviet Union). Both campaigns ended in disaster for the invaders because neither Napoleon's French armies nor Hitler's German armies could cope with the brutal Russian winter. Both allusions enable audiences and readers to "see" what Shakespeare is referring to: (1) carrying the weight of the world on the shoulders, and (2) a winter landscape.

Direct References

A direct reference, on the other hand, is a specific mention of a person, a place, a thing, or an idea in mythology, literature, history, or everyday life. For example, a television baseball announcer might say, “This batter has the potential to become another Babe Ruth.” Ruth (1895-1948) was the greatest hitter in baseball when he played for the New York Yankees in the 1920s and 1930s. In another example, an art critic might write, “This painter's bold innovations remind me of the ones Dalí made.” Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was famous for his striking surrealist paintings.

Shakespeare frequently used allusions and direct references. This practice enabled him to enrich his dialogue and descriptions with concrete images that helped audiences to understand his meaning. A lengthy explanation became unnecessary. Consider this passage: "In breaking [oaths] he is stronger than Hercules" (All's Well That Ends Well, 4.3.109). Here, the speaker is telling a soldier that a certain captain is such a notorious liar that he is stronger in breaking a promise than Hercules is in performing a feat of strength.

At times, an allusion or direct reference may be obscure. In such a case, the modern reader must use a dictionary, an encyclopedia, or an annotated copy of the play or poem to gain a full understanding of a passage. But, in doing so, the reader develops a deeper appreciation of Shakespeare's verbal skill and the beauty of his language.

In the following passage from Henry VI Part III, Gloucester uses both allusions and direct references to boast about the evil schemes he will execute in order to gain the crown.

I'll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I'll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down. (3.2.190-199)

Mermaid is an allusion to the sirens in Homer's Odyssey. These mythological sea nymphs sat on the shore of an island and sang a song so alluring that passing seafarers would veer from their course to hear it. But it was a deadly song, for the ships would run into rocks near the island. The resulting wreck would kill all the crewmen. Direct references in this passage are as follows:

basilisk: Imaginary animal with a rooster's head and a snake's tail that could kill observers with its gaze.
Nestor: In Homer's Iliad, an elderly Greek who, with his sons, participated in the Trojan War. He was famous for his oratorical skills.
Ulysses: Roman name for the Greek warrior Odysseus, a hero of the Trojan War, as recounted in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. He was known for his expertise in concocting deceptive schemes that benefited him and/or his compatriots. He was the designer of the Trojan horse.
Troy: City in present-day Turkey that opposed attacking Greeks in ancient times.
Sinon: Greek warrior who persuaded the Trojans to accept the Trojan horse and move it into their city, Troy.
Proteus: In Greek mythology, a minor sea god who could change his shape at will.
Machiavel: Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), an Italian philosopher, writer, and political scientist who wrote a book (The Prince) that advised rulers and would-be rulers how to manipulate people and events—sometimes unscrupulously—to achieve or maintain power.

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Following are additional examples of allusions and direct references in Shakespeare's works.

Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition:
By that sin fell the angels; how can man then,
The image of his Maker, hope to win by’t? (Henry VIII, 3.2.519-521)
Direct reference to Thomas Cromwell (1485?-1540): Under Henry VIII, a secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, lord chancellor of England, and later an advisor to the king.

Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back,
When gold and silver becks me to come on. (King John, 3.3.14-15)
Allusion to a rite once used by the Roman Catholic Church to excommunicate a person who committed a grave offense. During the rite, a bell was rung. Then a book was closed and candles were extinguished to symbolize the end of the person's spiritual life in the church.

A thousand hearts are great within my bosom:
Advance our standards! set upon our foes!
Our ancient word of courage, fair Saint George,
Inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons! (Richard III, 5.3.377-380)
Direct reference to Saint George, patron saint of England. George was martyred in AD 303. He was the subject of a legend in which he slew a dragon and saved a princess.

The eastern gate, all fiery-red,
Opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams,
Turns into yellow gold his salt green streams. (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 3.2.413-415)
Eastern Gate: Allusion to the sun.
Neptune: Direct reference to Neptune,the Roman name for the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, in ancient mythology.

I have seen a medicine
That’s able to breathe life into a stone,
Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary
With spritely fire and motion; whose simple touch,
Is powerful to araise King Pepin, nay,
To give great Charlemain a pen in his hand,
And write to her a love-line. (All's Well That Ends Well, 2.1.67-73)
Canary: Allusion to an improvised dance.
Pepin: Direct reference to the king of the Franks from 752 to 768. He is sometimes referred to as Pepin the Short or Pepin the Younger.
Charlemain: Direct reference to Charlemagne, son of Pepin. Charlemagne became king of the Franks in 768 and, after conquering various European territories, became the emperor of his lands when the pope crowned him in 800.

Is thine own heart to thine own face affected?
Can thy right hand seize love upon thy left?
Then woo thyself, be of thyself rejected,
Steal thine own freedom, and complain on theft. 160
Narcissus so himself himself forsook
And died to kiss his shadow in the brook. (Venus and Adonis, lines 157-162)
Direct reference to Narcissus:
In classical mythology, a handsome young man who fell in love with his own image reflected from spring water. He pined away and was changed into a flower.

He pours it out, Plutus, the god of gold,
Is but his steward: no meed but he repays
Sevenfold above itself. (Timon of Athens, 1.1.301-303)
Direct reference to Plutus, the god of gold in mythology.

That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once. How the knave jowls it to the ground,as if 'twere Cain's jawbone, that did the first murder! (Hamlet, 5.1.34)
Cain's . . . murder: Allusion and direct reference to Cain's murder of Abel, his brother, in the Old Testament's Book of Genesis

The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham's bosom. (Richard III, 4.3.45)
Direct reference and allusion to the Jewish patriarch Abraham and to the gospel of Luke, which refers to
"Abraham's bosom" as the resting place of the righteous after death

Richard . . .robb’d the lion of his heart           
And fought the holy wars in Palestine (King John, 2.1.5-6)
Allusion to the great English warrior Richard the Lion-Hearted (King Richard I, 1157-1199)

Click here to see a discussion and list of allusions and references to Greek and Roman mythology in Shakespeare's works.