What do you like about the ISE? What could we do better? Please tell us in this 10-minute survey!

Start Survey

Internet Shakespeare Editions

About this text

  • Title: Myths and Allusions in Hamlet
  • Author: David Bevington
  • General textual editors: James D. Mardock, Eric Rasmussen
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best
  • Associate coordinating editor: Janelle Jenstad
  • Markup editors: Michael Best, Janelle Jenstad
  • Research assistant: Jasmeen Boparai
  • ISBN: 978-1-55058-434-9

    Copyright David Bevington. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: David Bevington
    Not Peer Reviewed

    Myths and Allusions in Hamlet

    Ancient Greek and Roman history and mythology


    See Pyrrhus.

    Aeneas's tale to Dido

    Hamlet's recital of a speech to the Players, which is then continued by the First Player, is a blank-verse tragic composition written by Shakespeare as a partial redaction of Virgil's Aeneid, a Latin epic poem written ca. 29-19 BCE.

    Designed to grace the Roman literary world in the era of Caesar Augustus, to whom Virgil dedicated the poem, the Aeneid clearly took as its model Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Virgil tells what purports to be a continuation of Homer's account of the Trojan War, with the Greeks having gained access to Troy by the ruse of the Trojan horse, their sacking of that city, and Aeneas's escape from the ruins with his father Anchises, his wife Creusa, and his son Ascanius. It then continues with Aeneas's journey to Queen Dido's Carthage (where he related to her the story of Troy's fall), and then Italy, where eventually Aeneas's triumph over the Latins enabled him to found the city of Rome. English historians regarded this foundational myth as the back-story of their own civilization, since, according to a medieval continuation of that myth, Aeneas's great-grandson Brut or Brutus made an epic journey similar to his great-grandfather's that resulted in the founding of Troynovant (New Troy), or London.

    The passage beginning at 2.2 (TLN 1489-1490), as recited by Hamlet and the First Player, retells the Virgilian story of the sack of Troy, focusing on Pyrrhus's savage slaughter of the old and unarmed Priam (King of Troy) and then the grieving of Queen Hecuba. Pyrrhus, also known as Neoptolemus, was the son of the heroic Greek warrior Achilles, usually regarded as the central figure of Homer's Iliad. The slaughter of Priam was the price that the furious Pyrrhus demanded as vengeance for the death of his own father.

    Homer does not portray the death of Achilles, but other sources report that he was killed near the end of the Trojan War by Paris, a son of Priam and husband of Helen. Paris managed to shoot Achilles with an arrow in his heel, the one vulnerable spot on his body since (according to the first-century Roman historian Statius in his Achilleid) Achilles's mother, Thetis, had endeavored to bestow immortality on her son by dipping him as an infant into the river Styx. In doing so, she left vulnerable that one part of the body by which she was holding her son, the heel (hence, "Achilles's heel or tendon").

    Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe wrote Dido Queen of Carthage, ca. 1585, which is a dramatization of the love affair of Aeneas and Dido, and his reluctant decision to leave in obedience to the gods, who have decreed that he is to found Rome.

    See Virgil, Aeneid.

    Links: TLN 1489-1490.


    See Revenge and Seneca.


    Emperor Alexander III (Alexander the Great), 356-323 BCE, was famed for his conquest of the known world all the way east to India.

    When Hamlet playfully imagines, in conversing with Horatio, that the dust of Alexander's corpse might be made into the loam used to stop a bung-hole in a beer-barrel, he is calling upon a commonplace view of Alexander's worldly achievement as ultimately mocked by his death and burial (5.1, TLN 3391-3400).

    Image: The Alexander mosaic, which shows him on his horse, Buchephalus, during battle.

    Links: TLN 3391-3400.


    See Pyrrhus.


    The god of the sun, medicine, music, archery, and prophecy, known to the Romans as Phoebus Apollo.

    His "cart" or chariot is emblematic of the sun as a heavenly body going around the earth daily and thus, at 3.2 (TLN 2024), a way of marking the passage of a year.

    Image: Statue of Apollo Belvedere, ca. 120-140 CE.

    Links: TLN 2024.

    Brutus, Lucius Junius

    The founder of the Roman Republic. His name, "Brutus," was synonymous with "stupid." According to legend, he feigned madness in order to evade the plotting of his enemies, the Tarquins, whom he eventually overthrew.

    Polonius and Hamlet exchange words about the assassination of Julius Caesar by Lucius Junius Brutus's descendant, Marcus Brutus, at 3.2 (TLN 1953-1960).

    See Julius Caesar, and Henry V, 2.4, where the Constable of France compares King Henry's "vanities forespent" to "the outside of the Roman Brutus, / Covering discretion with a coat of folly" (TLN 925-927).

    Image: John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth, and Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., in Shakespeare's Julius Caesarin 1864.

    Links: TLN 1953-1960.

    Brutus, Marcus Junius

    This patrician descendant of the Lucius Junius Brutus who founded the Roman Republic was a leader of the Republican cause and was one of the conspirators who assassinated Julius Caesar in 44 BCE.

    Polonius and Hamlet refer to the assassination at 3.2 (TLN 1953-1960), in the action leading up to the performance of "The Murder of Gonzago" before the King, Queen, and Court.

    Image: A sculpted head by Massimo, at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, National Museum, Rome.

    Links: TLN 1953-1960.

    Caesar, Julius Gaius

    The assassination of Julius Gaius Caesar on 15 March 44 BCE is the subject of Shakespeare's 1599 Julius Caesar. Horatio cites this famous episode in the first scene of Hamlet as an instance in which ominous prognostications preceded and foretold disaster (1.1, TLN 124.7).

    Later, when Polonius describes how he acted the part of Julius Caesar once in a play "i'th' university" and was accounted "a good actor" in the part, having been killed by Brutus "i'th' Capitol," Hamlet replies with a biting wit that "It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there" (3.2, TLN 1953-1960). Here, the word "brute" plays on "brutus," Latin for "stupid," referring to a legendary story in the life of Lucius Junius Brutus, great ancestor of the assassin of Caesar. This earlier Brutus assumed a guise of madness in order to mislead his enemies, the Tarquins, whose tyrannies he overthrew in establishing the Roman Republic.

    Links: TLN 124.7; TLN 1953-1960.


    See Damon and Pythias.


    When Claudius, in conversation with Laertes, undertakes to praise the horsemanship of a Frenchman named Lamord, he describes how the rider "brought his horse / As had been incorpsed and demi-natured / With the brave beast" (4.7, TLN 3083-3085). The image Claudius has in mind is that of the centaur, a fabled creature shaped with the legs and body of a horse, and a man's body in place of the horse's head and neck.

    The centaurs dwelt near Mount Pelion (see 5.1, TLN 3447).

    Image: Heracles and the Centaur Eurytion, Athenian black-figure amphora, ca. 6th century BCE, J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu CA. Or, centauromachy, tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 480 BCE. There are others.

    Links: TLN 3083-3085; TLN 3447.


    See Damon and Pythias.


    These giants, supposedly the sons of Coelus (or Uranus, the most ancient of the gods) and his own mother Terra (Earth), had only one eye positioned in the midst of the forehead; hence, the name Cyclopes, literally "round eyed."

    Hesiod said they were three in number; other accounts speak of more of them, governed by Polyphemus as their king in Sicily. This location places them near Mount Etna; hence, the tradition that they were workers in the smithy of Vulcan. In Hamlet, at 3.2, Hamlet speaks of faulty "imaginations" of evil things as "foul as Vulcan's stithy" (TLN 1934-1935).

    The account of the fall of Troy in 2.2 compares Pyrrhus's vengeful rage to the remorseless blows with which "the Cyclops'[s] hammers fall / On Mars his armor forged for proof eterne" (2.2, TLN 1529-1530). This reference shows no awareness of the well-known story in Book 9 of Homer's Odyssey about Odysseus's encounter with the man-eating Cyclops named Polyphemus, and Odysseus's narrow escape by means of his wit.

    Links: TLN 1529-1530; TLN 1934-1935.

    Damon and Pythias

    Hamlet evidently quotes, at 3.2, TLN 2153, some unknown ballad about the fabled friendship of Damon and Pythias.

    When Damon, condemned to death by the tyrant Dionysius, obtained leave to settle his affairs before dying, his friend Pythias took his place as surety for Damon's return. Damon returned barely in time, inspiring Dionysius to spare them both in recognition of their noble fidelity to each other.

    Sources for this often-told tale include Aristoxenus (fl. 335 BCE), Cicero (De Officiis, 3.45), Diodorus Siculus (10.4), Valerius Maximus (first century CE), and Castiglione (The Courtier, translated into English by Sir Thomas Hoby, 1561).

    Hamlet's point here is elliptical, but does at least implicitly acknowledge his deep friendship with Horatio as like that of Damon and Pythias.

    Links: TLN 2153.

    Diana and the moon

    The moon is associated with Diana, the Roman goddess, who is related to the Greek moon-goddess Artemis, a virgin huntress of wildlife, and goddess of childbirth and chaste affections. Artemis is sometimes conflated with Phoebe, a Titan associated with the moon and with Phoebus Apollo. Elizabethans associated these goddesses with their Queen Elizabeth, who readily adopted the myth.

    The Moon is called "the moist star" at 1.1 because of its association with the ocean tides in "Neptune's empire" or, the sea (TLN 124.11-124.12). A lunar eclipse is here seen as a harbinger of ominous events, such as the assassination of Julius Caesar.

    Laertes warns his sister at 1.3 that "The chariest maid is prodigal enough / If she unmask her beauty to the moon" (TLN 499-500).

    On the moon as a monthly measure of time, see 3.2 and the note on "Neptune" (TLN 2025).

    "Under the moon" at 4.7 expresses the idea of all that is sublunary, or beneath the moon; hence, all living things on Earth (TLN 3136).

    Possible image: the Diana of Versailles, a second-century statue of Diana with a quiver of arrows and an antlered deer.

    Links: TLN 124.11-124.12; TLN 499-500; TLN 2025; TLN 3136.


    One of the Giants who rebelled against the Olympian gods and was imprisoned under Mount Etna in Sicily.

    See Giants.

    Links: TLN 2866.


    Greek Stoic philosopher, 55-136 CE.

    See Stoicism.

    Etna, Mount

    A volcanic mountain in Sicily, where Enceladus, one of the Giants, was imprisoned.

    See Giants.

    Links: TLN 2866.


    See Seneca.


    The classical goddess Fortuna or Fortune, goddess of destiny, is one of the most ancient of deities, able in her fickleness to give wealth or poverty, pleasure or misfortune, success or failure.

    In medieval iconography she is often represented as blindfolded, with a horn of plenty in her hands and a wheel whose turning represents the vicissitudes of fortune in all its inconsistency.

    At 1.4, Hamlet contrasts "Nature's livery" and "Fortune's star," reflecting a familiar Renaissance debate as to the comparative importance in human life of that which is inborn and that which depends on fate or necessity (TLN 621.16).

    At 2.2, Hamlet, Guildenstern, and Rosencrantz engage in a playful debate about where a person can hope to rank in Fortune's favor, whether that is on her cap at the very top or at the bottom with the soles of her shoes, or "about her waist, or in the middle of her favors," with sexual suggestion of being among her "privates" (TLN 1274-1284) or sexual parts. As Hamlet wryly observes, "she is a strumpet" (TLN 1280).

    At 2.2, the First Player, in his recital of the saga of the fall of Troy, cries out against "strumpet Fortune" beseeching the Olympian gods in "general synod" to take away her dreadful power by breaking the "spokes and fellies" of her wheel and sending the "round nave" of it "As low as to the fiends" (TLN 1533-1537). The First Player similarly exclaims against "Fortune's state" at 2.2 for the goddess's fatal role in the killing of King Priam and the deep misery that Hecuba suffered in the death of her husband (TLN 1552).

    At 3.1, Hamlet, in the play's famous soliloquy about "To be, or not to be," wonders whether it is nobler in the mind "to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," or to end such suffering by choosing "To die, to sleep" (TLN 1710-1714).

    At 3.2, Hamlet warmly praises Horatio for his stoical resolve: he is "A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards / Hast ta'en with equal thanks"; Horatio is not "a pipe for Fortune's finger / To sound what stop she please" (TLN 1918-1922).

    Also in 3.2, the Player King addresses his Queen with a series of platitudes about love and fortune—another favorite Renaissance debating topic—as to "Whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love" (TLN 2069-2081). His point being that when a great man is favored with good fortune he is idolized by those seeking favor with him, whereas when he falls from good fortune he is sure to be deserted by his one-time followers and flatterers.

    At 4.4, Hamlet meditates wryly in soliloquy on the spectacle of a worldly prince like Fortinbras risking his life and the lives of his solders "To all that fortune, death, and danger dare, / Even for an eggshell" (TLN 2743.46-2743.47).

    In all these instances, stoical resolve is seen as philosophy's best way of resisting the temptations offered by the false goddess Fortune.

    See Stoicism.

    Links: TLN 621.16; TLN 1274-1284; TLN 1533-1537; TLN 1552; TLN 1710-1714; TLN 1918-1922; TLN 2069-2081; TLN 2743.46-2743.47.


    When Claudius speaks of Laertes's threatened rebellion as "giant-like," he may be referring to the unsuccessful rebellion of the Giants, sons of Ge or Earth, against Zeus and the Olympian gods (4.5, TLN 2866). When the Giants were overthrown, Encedalus, one of their number, was buried under Mount Etna in Sicily. This rebellion is sometimes confused or conflated with that of the Titans against Uranus or Coelus; possibly Shakespeare has both in mind here. The Titans were also gigantic, and were the offspring of Uranus, and Ge, mother of the Giants, so that both the Giants and the Titans were imagined to have sprung from the earth (Ge).

    The wars of both the Giants and the Titans against the gods are often referred in Greek mythology, and are sometimes conflated. When Laertes hyperbolically begs that the dust of Ophelia's grave be heaped upon him "Till of this flat a mountain you have made / T'o'ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head / Of blue Olympus," he evidently has in mind the attempts of the Giants to scale Mount Olympus by piling still another mountain, Ossa, on top of Mount Pelion (5.1, TLN 3446-3448). Hamlet matches Laertes allusion for allusion when he vaunts, "And if thou prate of mountains, let them throw / Millions of acres on us, till our ground, / Singeing his pate against the burning zone, / Make Ossa like a wart" (5.1, TLN 3477-3480).

    See also 2.2, TLN 1529.

    Links: TLN 1529; TLN 2866; TLN 3446-3448; TLN 3477-3480.


    Hecate, who is the goddess of witchcraft and is associated with Diana and the moon, presided over magic and enchantments.

    Lucianus, the murderer in "The Murder of Gonzago," invokes her baleful curse, "thrice blasted, thrice infected" in the poisonous concoction he pours into the sleeping ears of his royal victim (3.2, TLN 2128).

    Image: triple Hecate, statue, or the statue of the goddess in the Musei Vatacani, Vatican City.

    Links: TLN 2128.


    See Pyrrhus.


    The queen and then the grieving widow of King Priam of Troy.

    The recitation about the fall of Troy in 2.2 is based on the Aeneid. It focuses at 3.2 on the pitiable spectacle of the inconsolate Hecuba, running up and down as Troy burns, bereft of crown and regal attire (TLN 1541 ff.). Perhaps we are to understand that Hamlet has chosen this passage as an object lesson for Queen Gertrude (even though she is not present on stage), whose mourning for her dead husband has been, in Hamlet's view, deplorably brief.

    See Virgil, Aeneid, and Aeneas's tale to Dido.

    See also Revenge.

    Links: TLN 1541 ff..


    Hercules is the Latin form of the Greek Heracles.

    He is the most famous hero of Greek mythology, noted especially for his fulfillment of the twelve "labors" imposed on him by Eurystheus, King of Argos and Mycenae and grandson of Pelops. Eurystheus was jealous of Hercules because Zeus had decreed that one of them would be subservient to the other. The first of Hercules's labors was the slaying of the Nemean lion, an otherwise invulnerable monster; Hamlet alludes to this when he cries out to the soldiers who are attempting to restrain him from following his father's Ghost on the battlements: "My fate cries out / And makes each petty artery in this body / As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve" (1.4, TLN 668-670). Earlier, Hamlet speaks of his hated uncle Claudius as "no more like my father / Than I to Hercules" (1.2, TLN 336-337).

    In his conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about the rivalry between the adult actors and the boy actors that is implicitly about London theater around the time that Hamlet was written (a Folio-only passage, omitted in Q2), Hamlet asks, "Do the boys carry it away?" to which Rosencrantz replies, "Ay, that they do, my lord, Hercules and his load too" (2.2, TLN 1407-1408). The reference is seemingly to Hercules's bearing the world on his shoulders; a veritable "Herculean" labor even though it is not one of the twelve famous labors imposed on him by Eurystheus. According to one legend, it was Atlas who bore the world on his shoulders as a punishment meted out by Zeus. When Hercules sought Atlas's help to fetch the apples of the Hesperides, Atlas agreed on the condition that Hercules take his place as upholder of the world, but Hercules then tricked Atlas into taking on the load briefly while Hercules found a pad for his shoulders, whereupon Hercules left Atlas with his burden. The familiar image of Hercules holding up the world may have been used as the sign of the Globe Theater; however, the evidence for this rests chiefly on this passage from Hamlet.

    Hamlet invokes the name of Hercules at Ophelia's gravesite when he and Laertes have quarreled violently. Hamlet asks Laertes, "What is the reason that you use me thus? / I loved you ever. But it is no matter. / Let Hercules himself do what he may, / The cat will mew, and dog will have his day" (5.1, TLN 3488-3491).

    Images: Hercules slaying the Nemean lion. Detail of a Roman mosaic from Spain.

    Links: TLN 336-337; TLN 668-670; TLN 1407-1408; TLN 3488-3491


    Hymen or Hymenaeus, is the Greek god of marriage.

    He is personified at 3.2 by the Player King as the god presiding over the Player King's marriage to his Queen (TLN 2028).

    Links: TLN 2028.


    In Greek, Hyperion means "the high one." Hyperion was one of the twelve Titans, offspring of Gaia or Ge (Earth) and Uranus (the sky, the heavens). In partnership with his sister, the Titaness Theia, Hyperion fathered Helios (the sun), Selene (the moon), and Eos (the dawn).

    The sun-god Hyperion is often invoked by poets as an embodiment of the sun itself, as in Shakespeare's Henry V, 4.1, when King Henry, on the night before the Battle of Agincourt, reflects on the lot of the happy peasant who sleeps peacefully after his day's labor and then, at dawn the next day, "Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse" (TLN 2125).

    Led by Cronus, the Titans overthrew Uranus and ruled during the mythological Golden Age until they were in turn displaced by Zeus and the Olympian gods. Hesiod's Theogony depicts Cronus, the youngest of the Titans, as envious of Uranus's power as ruler of the universe.

    John Keats wrote two versions of a fragment of a poem on Hyperion, in which this last of the Titans is dethroned by Apollo.

    To Hamlet at 1.2, Hyperion is, like Hamlet's own dead father, a type of regal splendor and gracious majesty to be contrasted with the satyr-like Claudius (TLN 324).

    Similarly, when Hamlet confronts his mother with two contrasting images, one of the dead King Hamlet and the other of Claudius, he imagines his father's graceful brow to be adorned with "Hyperion's curls" and "the front of Jove himself" (3.4, TLN 2440).

    Links: TLN 324; TLN 2440.

    Hyrcanian beast

    I.e., the tiger.

    Hyrcania was a satrapy bordering on the southern and southeastern shore of Caspian Sea, in modern-day Iran and Turkmenistan.

    The name Hyrcania suggests "wolf land." The entire region, although fertile and beautiful, was fabled to be inhabited by wild and dangerous beasts.

    In 2.2, Hamlet begins his Virgilian recital of the fall of Troy by comparing "The rugged Pyrrhus" to "th'Hyrcanian beast," only to pause and start again with a different image (2.2, TLN 1493).

    Links: TLN 1493.


    Jove is another name for Jupiter (Roman) or Zeus (Greek), the most powerful of the Olympian gods. He overthrew his father Saturn for conspiring against him.

    Hamlet compares his own father to Jove, Hyperion, Mars, and Mercury in stark contrast to Claudius, who is "like a mildewed ear" and a "moor" (3.4, TLN 2440-2451). Earlier, at 3.2, Hamlet alludes to the realm of "Jove himself" as dismantled by "A very, very pajock" (TLN 2154-2156).

    Links: TLN 2154-2156; TLN 2440-2451.


    The river of forgetfulness and oblivion in Hades—one of five such rivers. The others are Acheron, the river of pain; Styx, the river of hatred (2.2, TLN 1492); Phlegethon, the river of fire; and Cocytus, the river of wailing.

    Links: TLN 720.

    Marcus Aurelius

    Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, 121-180 CE.

    See Revenge and Stoicism.


    A pen-and-ink sketch by the late seventeenth-century artist Raymond de la Fage shows "Venus watching Vulcan and Cyclops forge armor for Mars." In the sketch, Mars is accompanied by his workmen, the Cyclopes, as they hammer with a vengeful fury like that alluded to by the First Player in Hamlet when he exclaims, "And never did the Cyclops'[s] hammers fall / On Mars his armor forged for proof eterne / With less remorse than Pyrrhus'[s] bleeding sword" (2.2, TLN 1529-1531). This episode reflects Vulcan's (or Hephaestus's) well-earned reputation as armorer for the gods.

    It also brings to mind the amusing episode in Book 8 of Homer's Odyssey, relating how Vulcan, learning that his wife Venus was carrying on an affair with the god of war, forged some unbreakable chains that were at the same time so fine and subtle as to be undetectable. When Vulcan hung these chains from the ceiling and bedposts of his sleeping chamber, the love-blinded Mars was soon ensnared in the arms of the all-too-willing Venus. In answer to Vulcan's summons, all the blessed gods of Mount Olympus gathered around to roar with laughter at the unseemly spectacle of the cuckolded lame husband and his randy wife. After Vulcan had reluctantly released the amorous couple, Homer reports, Venus (Aphrodite) scampered off to Cyprus and her sacred grove of Paphos, where the Graces bathed her, anointed her with sacred oil, and clothed her in beautiful garments. Whether Shakespeare knew this episode is, however, uncertain.

    At 3.4, Hamlet compares his own father to Jove, Hyperion, Mars, and Mercury as contrasted with Claudius being "like a mildewed ear" and a "moor" (TLN 2439-2451).

    Links: TLN 1529-1531; TLN 2439-2451.


    The messenger of Jupiter on Mount Olympus, known as Hermes to the Greeks. He was often portrayed with winged heels, enabling him to move with extraordinary rapidity.

    At 3.4, Hamlet compares his own father to Jove, Hyperion, Mars, and Mercury as contrasted with Claudius (TLN 2439-2449). Hamlet's father is here endowed with a "station" or stance like that of "the herald Mercury / New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill" (TLN 2442-2443).

    Image: Hermes or Mercury, small statue, with caduceus and winged cap and heel. See "Albums on the Greek Mythology," Pantheon page on Facebook.

    Links: TLN 2442-2443; TLN 2439-2449.

    Nemean lion

    See Hercules, the first of whose twelve labors was to quell the Nemean lion.

    This monster, born of the hundred-headed Typhon, terrorized the inhabitants of Nemea, in Argolis in the Peloponnesus peninsula of Greece. Its chief town was Argos.

    According to one legend the lion was thought to be protected by a fur that was impervious to attack, but Hercules (Heracles) had the sagacity to use the beast's own claws to destroy the monster and then skin it, thereby fashioning for himself a cloak with extraordinary protective properties.

    In Hamlet, when Horatio and the guard attempt to prevent Hamlet from following his father's Ghost on the battlements, he throws off their restraint, exclaiming, "My fate cries out / And makes each petty artery in this body / As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve" (1.4, TLN 668-670).

    Image: Peter Paul Rubens, "Hercules's fight with the Nemean lion."

    Links: TLN 668-670.


    The Roman god of the sea, with attributes of the Greek god Poseidon.

    At 3.2, the Player King reckons the amount of time that he and his Queen have been happily married as "thirty dozen moons," during which span of time the sun, in "Phoebus'[s] cart," has gone around "Neptune's salt wash and Tellus'[s] orbèd ground," i.e., the earth, some thirty times, or thirty years (TLN 2024-2026). Twelve complete cycles of the moon are here seen as equivalent to a calendar year.

    Horatio refers to "Neptune's empire" at 1.1 (TLN 124.12).

    See Diana and the moon.

    Links: TLN 124.12; TLN 2024-2026.


    This Roman emperor from 54-68 CE was infamous for many things: for taking on female identity and marrying one of his eunuchs, for bringing about the deaths of Seneca, Lucan, Petronius, and his wife Octavia Poppaea, and much more. He caused Rome to be set on fire in various places, and sang of the destruction of Troy while the city burned. He built sumptuous palaces and indulged in every imaginable sort of debauchery. He was fascinated with theater, and was himself an actor.

    Most relevant to Hamlet's citing of him, at 3.2, is Nero having ordered the assassination of his own mother. As Hamlet goes to confront his mother with her guilty behavior, he vows to be cruel with her but not "unnatural;" he will not let "The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom." He will "speak daggers to her, but use none" (TLN TLN 2265-2267).

    Links: TLN 2265-2267.


    In Greek mythology, Niobe was the daughter of Tantalus, king of Sipylus in Lydia. Her mother was either Dione, or Eurythemista, or Euryanassa. Her brothers were Pelops and Broteas. This fateful lineage was to give rise to the house of Atreus, which was doomed by a curse over successive generations that resulted in the conflict of Atreus and his brother Thyestes, and in the tragic story of Agamemnon and his family, dramatized by Aeschylus in his Oresteia.

    Niobe became the wife and queen of King Amphion of Thebes. Hubris prompted her to boast that in her twelve or fourteen children (or twenty, in Hesiod's account) she was more fortunate than Leto (Latona in Roman myth), mother of Apollo and Artemis. In some mythological accounts, Apollo avenged this insult by causing her to lose all of her children; in some other accounts, Artemis joined in punishing Niobe.

    Shakespeare is likely to have encountered the story in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book 6, 145-310, where Niobe is turned into a marble slab atop Mt. Sipylus, incessantly dropping tears. Shakespeare's chief interest is the image of Niobe as "all tears" (1.2, TLN 333).

    In Homer's Iliad, Book 24, the children of Niobe are left lying in their own blood for nine days when Zeus turns into stone all the people of Thebes who attempt to bury them. The gods finally bury the children on the tenth day.

    The weeping rock on Mount Sipylus in Manisa, in western Turkey (not far from the Aegean) still flows today, having been associated since ancient times with the legend of Niobe. She also weeps in the stone statuary at the tomb of Harry Houdini in New York City.

    Links: TLN 333.


    A mountain in Macedonia and Thessaly, so high that it was thought to touch the very heavens and thus well suited for the court of Jupiter and the Olympian gods.

    Laertes speaks of "the skyish head / Of blue Olympus" (5.1, TLN 3447-3448).

    See Pelion and Ossa.

    Links: TLN 1536; TLN 2866; TLN 3447-3448; TLN 3478-3490.


    A mountain in Thessaly, at one point the residence of the Centaurs.

    The Giants, in their war against the gods, attempted to scale Mount Olympus by piling Ossa on top of Mount Pelion.

    Hamlet refers to this incident. When Laertes, having jumped into Ophelia's grave, begs that he be covered with dust until a mountain is formed that will overtop Pelion and Olympus (5.1 TLN 3445-3448), Hamlet replies in kind: "And if thou prate of mountains, let them throw / Millions of acres on us, till our ground, / Singeing his pate against the burning zone, / Make Ossa like a wart" (5.1, TLN 3477-80).

    Links: TLN 3445-3448; TLN 3477-3480.


    A wooded mountain near the coast of Thessaly.

    According to Greek mythology, some Giants, notably Otus and Ephialtes, attacked the gods by attempting to pile Ossa on Olympus and then Pelion on Ossa in order to climb to Olympus, but were destroyed by Zeus.

    Laertes seemingly refers to this rebellion of the Giants when he leaps into Ophelia's grave and exclaims, "Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead, / Till of this flat a mountain you have made / T'o'ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head / Of blue Olympus" (5.1, TLN 3445-3448.

    See also TLN 3477-3480).

    Links: TLN 3445-3448; TLN 3477-3480).


    Titus Maccus (or Maccius) Plautus, ca. 254-184 BCE, was widely regarded in the Renaissance as the supreme exemplar of Roman comedy. Along with the younger Terence, Plautus excelled as the Roman successor to Athenian comic writers, from the so-called Old Comedy of Aristophanes (late fifth century BCE) and Middle Comedy to the New Comedy of Menander (ca. 324-291 BCE).

    Renaissance England knew little about Aristophanes, but Latin drama was much more widely read and studied, and the comedies of Plautus, often expurgated, were well known and imitated.

    His focus on the lives of ordinary Romans typically featured charismatic young people outwitting their elders. Character types included gullible or libertine fathers, knavish servants who assisted their masters in their plotting, greedy parasite slaves and pimps, courtesans, braggart soldiers (Miles gloriosus), and the like.

    Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors is modeled on Plautus's Menaechmi or Twins, and Falstaff owes much to the tradition of the Miles Gloriosus. The love plot of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew is based on Ludivico Ariosto's I Suppositi (1509), which in turn belongs to the comic tradition of Plautus's Captivi and Terence's Eunuchus.

    In Hamlet, Polonius fatuously preens himself on his knowledge of ancient drama by opining that "Seneca cannot be too heavy nor Plautus too light" (2.2, TLN 1448-1449).

    See Seneca.

    Links: TLN 1448-1449.


    Claudius's worry that he has done "but greenly" to bury Polonius "In hugger-mugger" (4.5, TLN 2820-2821), i.e., in secret haste, may recall Thomas North's description, in his translation of Plutarch's Life of Julius Caesar, of the hasty burial "in hugger mugger" of Julius Caesar without ceremonial honors.

    Links: TLN 2820-2821.


    See Pyrrhus.


    Virgil's Aeneid tells of Priam's death in Book 2, lines 50-56 ff.

    The entire speech about the fall of Troy and the slaughter of Priam at 2.2 (TLN 1491 ff.) bears an interesting resemblance to Marlowe and Nashe's Dido Queen of Carthage, late 1580s, 2.1 (TLN 1489-1490), which in turn is derived from Virgil's Aeneid, Books 1, 2, and 4.

    See Virgil, Aeneid, and Aeneas's tale to Dido.

    See also Revenge.

    Links: TLN 1491 ff..


    Pyrrhus, meaning "yellow haired," is a familiar name for Neoptolemus. After the death of his father Achilles (at the hands of Paris, according to some post-Homeric accounts), Neoptolemus was summoned to Troy, since the seer Calchas had decreed that Troy could not be taken without the assistance of Achilles's son.

    Neoptolemus, meaning "new soldier," was given to him as a name because he had come so late to the field of battle.

    He was the first warrior to enter the wooden horse, and was infamous for his barbaric cruelty not only in the slaying of the old and defenseless Priam, but in other atrocities as well. He furiously sacrificed Astyanax, the son of Hector and Andromache, and Polyxena, the daughter of Priam and Hecuba. He was awarded Hector's widow Andromache as his prize among the captives.

    In Hamlet, 2.2 (TLN 1492 ff.), the violence of his vengeful acts is there to be compared with the vengeful duties imposed on Laertes, Fortinbras, and Hamlet.

    See Virgil, Aeneid, and Aeneas's tale to Dido.

    Links: TLN 1492 ff..


    In Greek mythology, a satyr was a follower of Pan and Dionysus, gods respectively of shepherds and of wine and ritual frenzy. Satyrs were imagined to have a goat-like body, with goat tail, legs, phallus, hooves, horns, and ears, combined with a human torso, face, curly hair, and beard. Often they wore wreaths of vine or ivy leaves on their balding heads, and played on flutelike pipes. They were associated with fertility, sensual pleasure, wine, song, and the music of cymbals, castanets, and bagpipes. In the cult of Dionysus, the males were satyrs and the females were maenads or bacchants.

    Hamlet invokes them at 1.2 as resembling Claudius in their promiscuous lechery; hence, the very opposites of Hyperion and Hamlet's father (TLN 323-324).

    Links: TLN 323-324.


    Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (ca. 4 BCE–65 CE) was widely regarded in the Renaissance as the supreme writer of classical tragedy. (The works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, to which Seneca was indebted, were less well known.)

    This second son of rhetorician Seneca the Elder became a major Stoic philosopher who served as counselor for Emperor Nero, helping to keep the emperor under some control for a time but then withdrawing from court when Nero's conduct became unmanageable. Seneca was ultimately ordered by Nero to take his own life because of alleged participation in a conspiracy against the emperor. He died with notable calm in the stoic vein of Socrates.

    Although his nine tragedies were much emulated in the Renaissance as models of Aristotelean correctness of tragic form, they did not, on the whole, offer workable models for a public and popular dramatist like Shakespeare. Dealing with the tragic accounts of Agamemnon, Thyestes, Oedipus, Hercules, Phaedra, Medea, etc., that had fascinated Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in the great days of Athens's fifth century BCE, Seneca's tragedies feature long moral disquisitions in a declamatory style more suited to philosophical inquiry than to the give and take of dramatic action.

    They may not have been intended for live dramatic presentation on stage. Nonetheless, their influence, especially on classically correct tragedy in Italy, France, and England during the Renaissance, was considerable. Stock characters of Senecan drama, including the nurse, the ghost, and the remorseless villain, are an important part of theater's dramatic ancestry on the popular stage as well as in more rigorously classical plays like Ben Jonson's Sejanus (1603) and Catiline (1611). Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1582 or later) owed much to Senecan drama, and Shakespeare's Hamlet is fully aware of this theatrical ancestry.

    In Hamlet, Polonius fatuously preens himself on his knowledge of ancient drama by opining that "Seneca cannot be too heavy nor Plautus too light" (2.2, TLN 1448-1449).

    See Plautus.

    Links: TLN 1448-1449.


    See Seneca.


    See Seneca.


    Although Hamlet never mentions Stoicism by name, the ideas of that ancient philosophy strongly emerge Hamlet's admiring account of Horatio as one who, "in suff'ring all . . . suffers nothing"; he is a man "that Fortune's buffets and rewards / Hast ta'en with equal thanks." Hamlet enlarges this portrait to include all those "Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled / That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger / To sound what stop she please." Such a person "is not passion's slave" (3.2, TLN 1915-1928). Hamlet's warm praise aptly summarizes some of the tenets of Stoicism, originally a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno in the third century BCE and then practiced by such Roman philosophers as Seneca, Epictetus, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

    It taught wise persons how to avoid the destructive dangers of uncontrolled emotions and flawed judgment. To learn a true indifference to the blandishments of Fortune is to find the way to be immune to the vicissitudes of life. If one refuses to crave the rewards of Fortune, one cannot be hurt by misfortune.

    See Fortune.

    Links: TLN 1915-1928.


    The river of hatred, one of the five rivers of Hades.

    See Lethe.

    Links: TLN 1492.


    The Roman goddess of the earth, an ancient Titan, mother of Hyperion, Saturn, and Phoebe, among others. She was associated with agricultural growth and decay.

    She represents the earth itself when the Player King, in the performance of "The Murder of Gonzago," marks the passage of thirty years by the number of times that "Phoebus'[s] cart" has gone around "Neptune's salt wash and Tellus'[s] orbèd ground" (3.2, TLN 2024-2025).

    Links: TLN 2024-2025.


    A sea nymph—one of the fifty Nereids—who, as mother of Achilles, held him by the ankle as an infant into the River Styx.

    She is not mentioned directly in Hamlet, but is pertinent to the story of Achilles and his son Pyrrhus.

    See Aeneas's tale to Dido.

    Links: TLN 1492.


    The Titans were the gigantic primeval offspring of Coelus (or Uranus) and Coelus's mother Terra (or Ge), a marriage of Heaven and Earth. According to Hesiod their number included Oceanus, Hyperion, Cronus, Themis, Mnemosysne, Phoebe, and Tethys. Cronus, who corresponds with the Roman Saturn, led a rebellion against Uranus (who had confined his children to Tartarus) and castrated him. Cronus presided over the Golden Age. Warned in turn that one of his children would overthrow him, Cronus swallowed them as they were born, but Zeus, the youngest, was saved by the wiles of his mother, Rhea. Olympus formed itself into a home for the gods after the defeat of the Titans, when Cronus or Saturn was replaced on the throne by his son Jupiter or Zeus.

    Claudius, when he speaks of the incipient rebellion of Laertes as "so giant-like," may refer to the Titans or to the Giants, or both (4.5, TLN 2866).

    Hyperion, whom Hamlet compares to his own father, was one of the Titans (1.2, TLN 324).

    See Giants.

    See also Tellus.

    Image: Zeus defeating the Titans. A group from the altar-frieze at Pergamum.

    Links: TLN 324; TLN 2866.

    The Trojan horse

    The memorable episode about the Trojan horse and the fall of Troy is post-Homeric. It figures prominently in Virgil's Aeneid, to which the recitation in 2.2 of Hamlet about the fall of Troy is indebted.

    The First Player, in his recital, refers to Pyrrhus as lying "couchèd in the ominous horse" (2.2, TLN 1496), assuming that his hearers would be easily able understand what he refers to.

    See Virgil, Aeneid and Aeneas's tale to Dido.

    Links: TLN 1496.


    This ancient deity was overthrown by his son Cronus (Saturn) in the unsuccessful rebellion of the Giants that is sometimes conflated with that of the Titans against Uranus.

    See Giants.

    Links: TLN 2866.


    The wife of Vulcan. Not mentioned directly in Hamlet, but pertinent to the story of Mars and Vulcan at 3.2 (TLN 1935).

    See also 2.2 (TLN 1529-1530).

    Links: TLN 1529-1530; TLN 1935.

    Virgil, Aeneid

    Publius Vergilius Maro, known universally as Virgil (70-19 BCE), became the great poet of the early Roman Empire under Augustus.

    He completed his Ecloguesin 37 BCE and the Georgics in 30 BCE, whereupon he devoted the remaining eleven years of his life to the Aeneid. Consciously modeled on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, its purpose was to tell the story of the founding of Rome and to celebrate its religious heritage. The Aeneid was extraordinarily important to Renaissance England as a foundational epic that embraced the history of England as well as that of Rome. Aeneas's journeyings took him to the Carthage of Queen Dido, where he told her the story of the fall of Troy, and thence eventually to the founding of Rome.

    A subsequent legend, first told by the British historian Nennius in the ninth century and then by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae or History of the Kings of Britain (twelfth century), proposed that Aeneas's great-grandson (or grandson), Brut (or Brutus), responding to a divine vision of the land where he was destined to found a new nation, set sail across the Mediterranean and through the Straits of Gibraltar until he finally arrived at a place on the banks of what was to be known as the River Thames, where he founded Troia Nova, or New Troy. The name of this settlement was in time corrupted to Trinovantum, and eventually became known as London. Brut's three sons, Locrinus, Albanactus, and Kamber, divided the kingdom after Brut's death into the regions of England, Scotland, and Wales. In this way, Nennius and Geoffrey provided England with a dignified and glorious foundational ancestry based on the Aeneid, a work read and studied by virtually all those in England who acquired Latin during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

    Versions of the Brut story after Geoffrey of Monmouth included the Roman de Brut (ca. 1155), a verse chronicle in Anglo-Saxon by the Norman poet Wace, a subsequent chronicle in early Middle English by the English priest Layamon that is generally known as Layamon's Brut (c. 1190-1215), and at least two Welsh medieval chronicles.

    The Chronicles of England, printed in 1480 by William Caxton, was one of the earliest books in English to be produced by the new method of printing. An immensely popular work in its time, it comprehensively gave an account of supposed British history from Brut and Locrinus on downward through a succession of legendary rulers, including Mempricius, Bladud, Leir or Lear, Gorboduc and his sons Ferrex and Porrex, and many more, going on then to the recorded British history of the Norman conquest of 1066 and all that.

    This legendary account of British history remained part of the record throughout the sixteenth century. It was included in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, first printed in 1577. Shakespeare used this historical text extensively in its second edition of 1587.

    For Hamlet's particular indebtednesses to the Aeneid, see Aeneas's tale to Dido at 2.2 (TLN 1489 ff.), Priam at TLN 1491, Pyrrhus at TLN 1492, Trojan horse at TLN 1496, and Hecuba at TLN 1541.

    Links: TLN 1489 ff..


    Vulcan's stithy (characterized as "foul" at 3.2, TLN 1935) was the smithy or place of stiths (anvils), where Vulcan and his menials fashioned armor, weapons, and the like.

    Vulcan, the Roman counterpart of the Greek deity Hephaestos, was the god of fire and volcanoes, often portrayed as crippled and with a blacksmith's hammer in hand.

    The worship of Vulcan began very early in Roman history. As the husband of Aphrodite (Venus) in Greek legend, this god was sometimes portrayed as a cuckold betrayed by his voluptuous wife with Ares or Mars. The scene in Book 8 of Homer's Odyssey is highly satirical: the jealous husband fashions in his forge a net with which to entrap his wife and her lover in flagante delicto, and then hoists the two aloft for all the gods to laugh at.

    In Hamlet, 3.2, (TLN 1931-1935), Hamlet's dark brooding on Claudius's seduction of his dead brother's wife calls to mind Vulcan's plot to ensnare his wife and her lover.

    See Virgil, Aeneid, Aeneas's tale to Dido, and Cyclops.

    Links: 1931-1935.

    Zeno of Elea

    Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, 490-430 BCE.

    See Stoicism.