Shakespeare used vivid language to describe exactly what he wanted or needed his audience to know. In order to study his writings, a knowledge of basic terms for literary devices is necessary. Here are a few standard terms and explanations, taken primarily from Rex Gibson’s book Teaching Shakespeare.
Imagery – the use of emotionally charged words and phrases which conjure up vivid mental pictures in the imagination.
King Lear expresses his suffering in powerful imagery upon waking from his madness:
“You do me wrong to take me out o’th’ grave.
Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound/ Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.”
Clusters of repeated images in each play build up a sense of the themes of the play. All of Shakespeare’s imagery uses metaphor or simile, both of which are comparisons. A simile compares one thing to another using ‘like’ or ‘as.’ A metaphor is a comparison which suggests that two dissimilar things are actually the same. Metaphors are often stronger than similes. For example, it is much better in the line from Macbeth, “There’s daggers in men’s smiles,'” than the simile “men’s smiles are like daggers.”
Personification – a special type of imagery that gives non-human objects or things human feeelings and attributes.
In Twelfth Night, Viola uses personification:
“She never told her love,
But let concealment like a worm i’th’bud
Feed on her damask cheeck. She pined in thought,
And sat like Patience on a monument
Smiling at grief.”
Antithesis – the opposition of words or phrases against each other. “To be or not to be…”
Alliteration – the repetition of consonants, usually at the beginning of words.
“More matter for a May morning!”
Assonance – the repetition of vowel sounds. The repeated vowel sounds may be placed consistently at the beginning or ending of words in a sequence, or they may simply be sounds repeated anywhere throughout the passage or sentence.
“The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king!” This uses the hard “c” sound at the beginning of words.
“Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,/ And thrice again, to make up nine.” This uses several different vowel sounds, all in various places. The “th” or “t” sound is used in the beginnings of words, the “ne” and “ce” sound is used at the endings of words.
Onomatopoeia – the use of words whose sound mimic what they describe.
In King Lear, Edgar conjures up the sounds of the sea-shore:
“The murmuring surge,
That on th’unnumbered idle pebble chafes.” Murmuring is a word that sounds like what it means.
There is also Rhyme and Prose, both of which are already familiar to most.
Shakespeare also uses lists of words arranged in ways to augment their meaning or dramatic effect.
The best known example of this is found in Macbeth where the witches are listing the ingredients used in making their stew.
“…Fillet of a fenny snake,
in the cauldron boil and bake:
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth, boil and bubble.”