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Table of Contents
Introduction Allusions Explained Direct References Explained Examples of Allusions and Direct References
Mythological Allusions and References in Shakespeare Biblical Allusions and References in Shakespeare
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2012, 2018
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.
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;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:
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)
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.