In this lesson, students will examine how allusions create deep, abstract meaning from simple references. The lesson will focus on Hamlet’s allusion to Jephthah in Act 2, scene 2, of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Students will first read the act and scene and then go back and consider the meaning of the reference. Following this, students will read the story of Jephthah from the Bible and answer questions about how reading and understanding the story give meaning to the scene in the play.
Students then will be given other instances of allusions and asked to find the source and answer questions about one other allusion from the list provided.
1. Students will identify and understand the source of the allusion to Jephthah in Act 2, scene 2, of Hamlet and demonstrate an understanding of how an allusion adds depth to the text.
2. Students will analyze the purpose and function of allusions.
Ask volunteers to define allusion and have them write their definitions in their notebooks. Read aloud the definition of allusion presented here. Ask volunteers to share their definitions, and then discuss the differences between students’ definitions and this one.
An allusion is a figure of speech in which a reference is made to a person, place, idea, historical moment, literary work, or element of culture or politics in order to create a connection between the reference and the idea or moment with which it is being correlated in the text. An allusion is used to add depth and meaning to a moment in a work of literature.
Have the class generate some examples of allusions and/or provide some examples from earlier scenes in the play, such as in the following soliloquy by Hamlet from Act 1, scene 2. Note: The allusion appears in bold.
Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on ’t, ah fie! ’Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this.
But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr. So loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly.—Heaven and earth,
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on, and yet, within a month—
Let me not think on ’t. Frailty, thy name is woman!—
(No Fear: 1.2.129–146)
Explain to students that one of the easiest ways for them to identify allusions is to look for unfamiliar names and nouns used to create some type of comparison. In this example, Hamlet compares his father (King Hamlet) to Hyperion and King Claudius to a satyr. Hyperion is a Titan and god of the sun, light, and the heavens. By comparing his father to Hyperion, Hamlet imparts the qualities associated with the Titan upon his father, associating him with light (enlightenment/ wisdom) and heavenly rule.
The satyr is a half-goat, half-man creature known for its impulsive nature. Thus, likening Claudius to this creature imparts the same qualities on him. These comparisons demonstrate Hamlet’s love for his father and disgust with Claudius, a man who he believes pales in comparison to his mother’s former husband.
Read Act 2, scene 2, with the class, making sure to point out Hamlet’s reference to Jephthah. Ask students if they are familiar with Jephthah and this biblical reference. If any student has a familiarity with the story, ask him or her to share the specific details with the class.
Pass out the Hamlet’s Allusion to Jephthah Worksheet and read the story.
Have students complete the worksheet.
After the worksheet is completed, have students work in groups of three or four to review their answers. Then assign one question to each group and have each present their response to the class. Have the listening students provide feedback and additional details for each group’s response.
Have students work in pairs or in groups of three to complete the worksheet. Review students’ answers as a class after they respond to each question. This breaks up the work and helps to make sure students are on the right track before moving on.
Ask students to write a paragraph explaining how the allusion is used to enhance meaning and create subtext. Ask students to complete this activity for more than one of the listed allusions.