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Shakespeare is well known for the extensive use of literary devices like allusion and dramatic irony to influence the emotions of his audiences, and Hamlet is no exception.  One of the most interesting examples of both of these devices can be found in the speech he gives relaying his decision to use a play staged by the Players to “catch the conscience of the King” (II, ii, 1680). .  [“Write my essay for me?” Get help here.]

Hamlet chooses the play about Pyrrhus and Priam for its strong resemblance to his father’s situation.  He plots to himself, “I’ll have these Players / Play something like the murther of my father / Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks / I’ll tent him to the quick” (II, ii, 1669-1672).    The effectiveness of this allusion in the context of the play relies on contemporary audiences’ familiarity with this and other commonly performed tragedies.  In Elizabethan times, everyone from peasants to royalty frequented the theatre as a form of entertainment.  Modern audiences may be less familiar with Grecian tragedies, but thanks to Shakespeare’s use of Hamlet’s soliloquy to clarify plot and character development they are let in on the game nonetheless. [Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]

Several times over the course of the scene, Hamlet draws attention to the character of Hecuba, Priam’s wife.  This is almost certainly meant to evoke his own mother’s lack of compassion at his father’s death, encouraging the audience to question her role in the murder itself.  Hamlet asks himself, “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba / That he should weep for her” (II, ii, 1631-1632)?  By comparing it the performance of the Player, who is able to “drown the stage with tears” (II, ii, 1635) in evincing the tragedy of this fictional character, the audience’s attention is drawn to Gertrude’s extremely short period of mourning before marrying Claudius.  Although later in the play the Ghost insists that Gertrude was not responsible for his death, that Hamlet would  question or even assume that this is the case speaks volumes as to how he views his mother’s role in the treachery he is in the process of uncovering.

That the audience is in on Hamlet’s plot and has a basic understanding of the allusions he is making is essential to the effectiveness of its dramatic irony.  Hamlet understands the connection, as do the audience members, but he intends to catch Claudius unawares.  He points out that other guilty parties have “by the very cunning of the scene / Been struck so to the soul that presently / They have proclaim’d their malefactions” (II, ii, 1665-1668), and hopes that Claudius might do the same. < Click Essay Writer to order your essay >

This dramatic irony creates a shared experience between Hamlet as a character and Shakespeare’s audience, lending them further sympathy for an already quite tragic figure.  It has them, like Hamlet himself, watching Claudius for the quality of his responses and directly involves them in on the plot to catch him out.  Although this effect would have been stronger in Elizabethan audiences who had a preexisting knowledge of Hamlet’s chosen play as well as the conventions of long standing traditions like revenge plays, modern audiences are still able to understand and appreciate Hamlet’s tactic.

What Hamlet does not realize when staging the play for his uncle is that its plot foreshadows his own death.  Like Pyrrhus’ own son, Hamlet also meets a tragic fate by the end of the play.  It is interesting that the play Hamlet intentionally chooses for its similarity to his family’s situation also contains further allusion to his own tragic situation.

People often speak of the timelessness of Shakespeare’s work.  Part of the reason that this is the case lies in the fact that his masterful use of literary devices such as carefully orchestrated soliloquies, allusions that are both accessible to his contemporary audiences and clarified via this technique for audiences to come, and dramatic irony that brings those watching or reading the play in on the action directly.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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