Imagine you are discussing a current government situation with a friend. You mention an insight you learned about behind-the-scenes working of government while in our capitol. Perhaps you briefly mention that when George Bush explained this the first time, you didn’t quite catch it, but now you understand.
You’ve implied that you talked personally with the former president. However, you could have simply heard his explanation while sitting in a hotel room in Washington D.C. listening to the evening news. What you are doing is leaving a hint about a famous person that you hope will be understood in a manner to make you seem more important—name dropping.
Allusions are also a type of name dropping. They make your writing—the setting, the situation, and the characters—seem more important because of their relation to famous ones. However, a weakness in current writing exists because the allusions often refer to a person (real or fictional) of temporary fame, a person who will be forgotten next year. Because of the visual nature of the internet fictional characters are compared to others based on appearance. However, if allusions are going to help your reader connect to the character, they should have staying power and reveal motives.
Shakespeare was a master of using allusions as short-cuts in developing characters. For example, in Hamlet, Shakespeare makes allusions to Greek mythology, Roman literature and the Bible. Hamlet despises his uncle who has stolen the throne by marrying his mother within a month of his father’s suspicious death. (The whole plot to Lion King is a retelling of this play, without the tragic ending.)
Hamlet decides to keep mum and not to tell everyone that he suspects his uncle was involved in his father’s death. But the prince has a hard time not letting his feelings leak out. Rather than a direct verbal attack, Hamlet compares his father and his uncle using the phrase as “Hyperion to a satyr.” Hyperion was the Greek sun god, a fairly noble one; the satyr (more familiar to modern audiences) was a lecherous, half man-half goat creature.
During the play the Prince Hamlet requests itinerant actors perform a play at his palace for the “entertainment” of his mother, among others. For this play within a play Shakespeare uses Hecuba’s stirring funeral speech as written by the Roman poet Ovid. According to the ancient legends, Hecuba was the Trojan queen who grieved eloquently at the death of her husband and son. The purpose of this illusion was not just to throw around Shakespeare’s knowledge of classical literature. It was to portray a parallel situation so the audience could see how Hamlet was trying to embarrass his own mother because of her hasty marriage to a questionable man.
Hamlet also refers to Cain murdering Abel, from Genesis in the Bible so almost everyone in his audience could get this allusion. The less learned people in Shakespeare’s audience would realize that Hamlet was stating that his father’s murderer was none other than his own brother. The majority of modern readers would catch this last reference even if they missed the other two.
In Shakespeare’s day, literary allusions were flung left and right during a play. The Baird didn’t underestimate the intelligence of his audience and they appreciated that. If you were watching a play and caught the meaning of an allusion, you thought of yourself as a learned person. For those that didn’t, well, there was plenty of lowbrow humor and sexual innuendo to keep them entertained.