Allusions are the literary equivalent of name-dropping. Imagine you are discussing the current government shut-down with a friend. You mention a insight you learned about behind-the-scenes working of government in our capitol, and briefly mention that when George Bush explained this to you the first time, you didn’t quite catch it. You’ve implied that you talked personally with the former president, but have not conclusively stated this. It could have been that you heard the explanation in a public speech or even received instruction in government from some ordinary Joe who happened to be named George Bush. What you are doing is leaving a hint about a possible acquaintance that you hope will understood in a manner to make you seem more important – an air of pretentiousness.
Now, modern authors and screen writers often make allusions to Shakespeare’s plays. In the George Lucas’ film The Empire Strikes Back, the furry Wookiee, Chewbacca, holds the head of the dissembled robot C-3PO in the same way that Hamlet is usually shown holding Yorick’s skull, a certifiable allusion to the famed play. Of course, when you allude to a character in Shakespeare in your writing, everyone knows that you aren’t claiming personal friendship with the playwright. But they may assume that you know his works quite well, when in truth you may not have read any of them.
In Shakespeare’s day, literary allusions were flung left and right during a play. If you caught the meaning, you smugly thought of yourself as an erudite person. If you didn’t, well, there was plenty of lowbrow humor and sexual innuendo to keep the less educated classes entertained.
For example, in Hamlet, Shakespeare makes allusions to Greek mythology, Roman literature and the Bible. The prince of Denmark compares his recently deceased father to his uncle by describing his father “that was to this [uncle] Hyperion to a satyr.” Hyperion is the Greek sun god and far nobler than the mythical lecherous half man-half goat creature.
The prince also requests a play portraying Hecuba, the Trojan queen storied for her grief at the death of her husband and son (according to the Roman poet Ovid) so he can embarrass his own mother who marries within a few weeks of her husband’s questionable death. Hamlet also refers to Cain and Able (from Genesis in the Bible) to voice his suspicions that his father’s murderer was none other than his own brother.
However, what one fails to find in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are many allusions to people and events in Danish history and culture. Although the plot of the play was taken from the story of Amlet, found in an old Danish chronicle, the court in Shakespeare’s Hamlet was so much like an English one that you begin to wonder how much Shakespeare actually knew about Denmark.
Photo by Peter Church, CC BY SA