Know your Shakespeare, and you’ll get most of the allusions found in great literature. Shakespeare’s plays are full of allusions from the Bible and the Greeks and Romans. Allusions from Shakespeare are also frequently found in literature. Compare someone to Iago, and you’ve likened them to the quintessential treacherous villain found in Othello. Describe two lovers as a Romeo and Juliet, and you’ve told people they are “star-crossed lovers” whose love is doomed.
An allusion is a literary device that refers to something that the reader already knows. It allows the author to use that knowledge to add greater meaning to what he is saying without going into long explanations. If you know that Mars is the Roman god of war, you’ll infuse the statement, “John strode into the room like Mars at the start of battle,” with greater meaning than the words imply. John didn’t stride into the room with his head covered in fear (as some might face battle) but as the warrior god himself would with strength, confidence, and a bearing that lets you know he’s a dangerous man, someone to be feared and maybe a bit belligerent.
The notes that accompany most copies of Shakespeare’s plays include definitions of difficult words, historical notes, and explanations of the allusions found in the text. Shakespeare provides a wealth of examples of how to use allusions to make your reader carry part of the burden of establishing the nature of your characters and describing the situations they find themselves in. The following list of excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays will get you started learning about allusions, but you’ll also want to remember to look for them any time you read Shakespeare. The list includes allusions that are easy to discern, but you’ll want to look for the more subtle references to scripture in the themes and thoughts presented in the plays. You may also want to read D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths or Mythology in the ‘ology Series. If you’d like to pursue your study of allusions, Green-Eyed Monsters and Good Samaritans covers 175 common allusions from the Bible, mythology, Shakespeare’s writings, and other sources.
Here feel we but the penalty of Adam,
The seasons' difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 1
Refers to the consequences of the original sin of Adam.
Biblical Reference: Roman 5: 12-14
Erroneous vassal! the great King of kings
Hath in the tables of his law commanded
That thou shalt do no murder: and wilt thou, then,
Spurn at his edict and fulfil a man's?
Take heed; for he holds vengeance in his hands,
To hurl upon their heads that break his law.
Richard III, Act 1, Scene 4
Refers to the judgment throne of Jesus, the King of Kings, and to the sixth command prohibiting murder.
Biblical Reference: Revelation 19:11-16, Exodus 20:2–17
O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murder.
Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 3
Refers to the slaying of Abel by Cain, his brother.
Biblical Reference: Genesis 4:10-11
O thou side-piercing sight!
King Lear, Act 4, Scene 6
Refers to the spear that pierced the side of Christ at Calvary.
Biblical Reference: John 19:34
Greek and Roman Mythology Allusions
Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See, what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion's curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal,
To give the world assurance of a man:
This was your husband. Look you now, what follows:
Here is your husband; like a mildew'd ear,
Blasting his wholesome brother.
Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4
Comparing Hamlet’s father to his uncle, both whom his mother has married. Hamlet’s father is presented as the best characteristics of the gods. He has Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove, an eye like Mars, and a station like Mercury. Hyperion was one of the Titans. Jove was the king of gods. Mars was the god of war. Mercury is the messenger of the gods. Hamlet’s uncle, who murdered Hamlet’s father, is the opposite, a mildew’d ear.
Will your grace command me any service to the
world's end? I will go on the slightest errand now
to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on;
I will fetch you a tooth-picker now from the
furthest inch of Asia, bring you the length of
Prester John's foot, fetch you a hair off the great
Cham's beard, do you any embassage to the Pigmies,
rather than hold three words' conference with this
harpy. You have no employment for me?
Much Ado About Nothing, Act 2, Scene 1
The Harpies in mythology were winged bird women who tormented people, most often snatching away food from the hungry. “Their first landing was at the island of the Harpies. These were disgusting birds with the heads of maidens, with long claws and faces pale with hunger. They were sent by the gods to torment a certain Phineus, whom Jupiter had deprived of his sight, in punishment of his cruelty; and whenever a meal was placed before him the Harpies darted down from the air and carried it off. ” from Age of Fable: Vols. I & II: Stories of Gods and Heroes, Chapter 31 by Thomas Bullfinch.
The obvious point is that Benedict would rather travel to Asia to get a toothpick, find Prestor John and measure his foot (a legendary ruler of a Christian nation somewhere in the Orient), fetch a hair from the beard of the Mongolian Khan, or become your ambassador to the Pygmies than speak three words with Beatrice.
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment.
Henry V, Act 1, Prologue
The Muses in Greek mythology were goddesses that inspired the arts and creativity. Here the chorus calls for a Muse of fire, which is not your typical muse. It gives a sense of destruction not creation. Then they imagine Henry V walking on the stage they’ve set like Mars the god of war with dogs leashed at his heels of famine, sword, and fire waiting crouched to wreck havoc. These combined allusions set the stage for a play filled with war.
If I live to be as old as Sibylla, I will die as
chaste as Diana, unless I be obtained by the manner
of my father's will.
A Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 2
The Cumaean Sibyl of Roman myth lived a thousand years. Diana was the Roman goddess of the hunt and of chastity. Portia is saying in this quotation that even if she lives a thousand years, she’ll be chaste until she marries the man her father prefers. In this case, the man who solves the riddle her father has posed for those seeking her hand.