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. and 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 literary 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 that I see increasing in current writing is the superficial use of allusions. Characters are compared to others based on appearance rather than action. I suppose this occurs because authors are alluding to what appears on the screen rather than in books. However, if allusions are going to help your reader connect to the character, they should deal with actions and motives.
Shakespeare was a master of using allusions as short-cuts in developing characters and conflicts. For example, in Hamlet, Shakespeare makes allusions to Greek mythology, Roman literature and the Bible. Hamlet, a prince of Denmark, despises his uncle who his mother married within a month of the death of his father, the former king. Hamlet decides to keep mum and not to tell everyone that he suspects his uncle was complicit in the death of his father. But the prince has a hard time not letting his feelings leak out. Rather than a direct verbal attack, Hamlet compares his father to his uncle 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 of myth.
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 in Metamorphoses Ovid. According to ancient literature Hecuba was the Trojan queen who grieved eloquently at the death of her husband and son. But 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 and Able, from Genesis in the Bible in reference to his uncle and his own deceased father. This is an obvious allusion to fratricide, so that the less learned among Shakespeare’s audience would realize that Hamlet was practically stating that his father’s murderer was none other than his own brother. The majority of modern readers would catch that 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.