This page tries to give a convincing description of how Shaespeare's langguage works so powerfully upon us.

Shakespeare's imagery.  I

Shakespeare was a professional actor first and then wrote plays, so he was an expert about what works on the stage. If you compare his versions of the old stories that he used as source material for his plays, you think: "what a clever way of doing it - how much better this version is on a stage than the original would have been". That's why his plays are still performed all over the world, but the real marvel is the language. It touches with a magic wand the world into greater beauty, and human feelings into refinement.

            The following explanation will help to understand how important metaphor is in Shakespeare. If you have the possibilty of using video at your school, you will find that the  italian film "Il Postino" is a beautiful demonstration of the power of metaphor as the postman has the magic power of poetry revealed to him by Neruda. The film will give you ideas on how to do poetry making sessions in which the pupils can imitate Neruda ir the language tricks of theses passages of Shakespeare. Remember anyone sceptical that I have seen how appreciative are 14-16 year old Italians at the eloquence of Shakespeare.

The magic of metaphor.

            Shakespeare lived at a bridging time between the old superstitious world and the scientific age. His language is still full of the magic of belief that humans and animals and the inanimate world are joined by "a great chain of being" joining God and the angels to man and nature.

            To understand Shakespeare's language and the "funny ways of speaking" of his characters you have to notice how important metaphor is. It is metaphor that links all the created world together: nature and man are connected in a magic - religious way through Shakespeare's language. (You will notice this particularly in the Macbeth passage.). Here is a metaphor from 

Romeo and Juliet.

  Juliet   "This bud of love by summer's ripening breath    

                                             bocciolo, maturando, resprio

 may prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.   diventare

 Good night, good night. As sweet repose* and rest*  reposo -            Come to thy heart as that within my breast."             petto    

*Good example of Shakespeare's use of double register of English vocabulary (Germanic and Latin)

·      summer's ripening breath.(this muddles breath and breeze: summer doesn't have breathe it has breezes which move the buds, whereas it's a lover that  breathes. Fruit ripens literally, whereas here is implied the metaphor of love ripening. As a subliminal idea ripening suggests, without us maybe consciously noting it, just as maybe Juliet doesn't, the idea of ripe - reddening - blushing and the generative associations of fruitful autumn.

·      bud of love is a metaphor. It muddles together human love and a plant's bud

·      a beauteous flower: a flower comes after the bud. A beauteous flower is a quick way of saying something which would seem more pedestrian and more far fetched if it was said as a simile: (our love will soon be like a beautiful flower.) Because bud of love has already been said in passing as a quick metaphor, the phrase  beauteous flower when it comes borrows metaphoric density from the previous metaphor bud of love, and so  beauteous flower is felt by us only subliminally as Romeo and Juliet's flower of love.(which is what bud of love implies). The whole description is poetic and beautiful because the effect comes at us unexpectedly like the scent of flowers themselves might do.

     How beautiful we feel is Romeo and Juliet's love because here "summer's breath" breathes (with its breezes) a larger, lovelier significance over their love. How beautifully Juliet communicates her sincere undisguised feeling as she calls the love "a bud" that will grow to be a flower, and how magically this "summer", that can't really have a "breath", can through the magic of metaphor join together things which are separate. It can breathe summer's warmth over their love. Once again Juliet's expression has a sensual sub-text: it's not only summer that has a warm breath, but lovers too have real, unmetaphoric breath and it's not only trees that give fruit but Juliet may do soo.

language that suits the character

            Shakespeare's words are in themselves a beautiful expression, but they also aptly describe Juliet's feeling of "you are all the world to me" and Juliet seems in the very "confusion" of the language to marry herself to Romeo with innocent sincerity when she says:

      "As sweet repose and rest come to thy heart as that within my breast".

            The language is contracted: what she's saying in ordinary words is "I hope your heart/body will rest tonight just as I hope mine will" But she uses "heart" to stand for the body that rests and hearts are what all languages use in relation to love. In the beauty of the language of her goodnight, it seems that the contracted syntax has suggested that Romeo's heart is in her breast. She uses "heart" for Romeo and "breast" not heart for herself. And as we know that hearts are normally in breasts we follow Juliet's almost suggestion that Romeo's heart is in her breast - joined heart to heart (= married) . As sweet that rest which your heart would have, were it at rest within my breast. Juliet seems to jump ahead impatiently and contract the time itself with her contracted and abbreviated expression. There is a sort of implication of rest and repose together; already asleep together. This is another example of the bold delicacy of Juliet's sincerity!    "If you think I am too quickly won, I'll frown….." 

Shakespeare's imagery. II  

Here is a fine and playful metaphor from The Merry Wives of Windsor.   

"He speaks holiday. He smells April and May".

and here a series of them, as often happens in Shakespeare, from Romeo and Juliet

O, she doth teach the torches* to burn bright!       

      brande usate per l'illuminazione

It seems she hangs upon the face of night     e' appesa

Like a jewel on an Ethiop's ear.                       gioello

*torches are those bundles of oil soaked twigs for which on Renaissance buildings you see the large metal holders



Romeo and Juliet.  

What exactly is metaphor? It is best expressed as a collapsed or telescoped simile, in which we intuitively are aware of, as it were, the fossil of the initiating comparison/simile. This shadow simile is what allows us to navigate and comprehend the metaphoric version. However this collapsed, metaphoric simile can be confusing in its merged meanings , especially since in Shakespeare it passes from line to line in a sort of wild fire of mutually igniting metaphors. So burn bright of line 1, remains as a sort of after image in the mind so that Juliet, who "hangs upon the face of night" is suffused with this torch brightness which then reinforces the whiteness of the pearl earring on the ear of the black Ethiop.

Shakespeare's language is like a roller coaster (Montagne russe) Torch-hang. face. night. jewel. Ethiop's ear!  Exhausting movement.

Let's try and turn these 3 magical lines into something more pedestrian.

"Juliet is like a torch" (which is bright). But that would be a laughable simile, so it becomes "brightness". "Her bright/shining beauty (metaphor since humans can't be bright)  is like the light of a torch. But within this there is another metaphor, "teaches" (after all Juliet can't teach torches) which contains this thought: "Juliet shines more brightly than a torch", and so torches could learn from her, what brightness really is. 

"She doth teach the torches to burn bright"

The next 2 lines are even more intricately "telescoped" and carry on from the first (bright light against weak light) but now, light is set against dark: Juliet's bright face set against the dark face of night as. jewel is set against Ethiop's ear.

Here are the submerged / telescoped similes. You could expand the implicit similes like thi

Juliet is like a bright star/torch in the contrasting black night, 

or in the night, Juliet is like a bright jewel that contrasts with the black skin of an Ethiop.

But instead of star or torch in the night, it is Juliet that "hangs upon the night", and so as to make the next image possible of "Ethiop's ear", the night is given a "face".(metaphor). The secret power of these 3 lines derives from hang and face. "Hang" works both as simple verb (a jewel hangs) and metaphor (Juliet can't hang upon the "face of night", and besides, night does not have a "face"). The whole 2 lines functions thanks to the "misapplied" metaphoric senses of hang and face.

It seems she hangs upon the face of night

Like a jewel on an Ethiop's ear.


The speed and compretion of metaphoric imagery

What happens is that we "understand" Shakespeare's language intuitively. We understand it in the same way that we "make out" (intravediamo) music. We make sense of the torrent of sounds.

This is typical of Shakespeare's condensed, compressed language, which in its rapidity is often used with dramatic appropriateness as in this hallucinating moment in Macbeth, in which HOPE is personified in nightmarish fashion...

Lady Macbeth replies to Macbeth's "We shall proceed no further"

Lady Macbeth. 

Was the hope drunk      (hope can't be drunk!)

Wherein you dress'd yourself?   

(you can't be dressed with hope that was drunk!)

hath it slept since? And wakes it now, 

(Hope can't sleep or be drunk!)

to look so green and pale at what it did so freely? 

(hope can't be about to be sick!)

The rationalist 18th century tended to disapprove of this aspect of Shakespeare, and certainly it seemed utterly barbaric to the French. (Mostly it was the Romantic period that rediscovered Shakespeare, because of this emotional type of language).

However what the French might have judged as the unhinged quality of this language is often suitable dramatically , but it is also true that in Shakespeare, this heaping up of imagery is a constant.

Timon of Athensanother example    

"………………………..But myself,
Who had the world as my confectionary;     dolci, caramelle ecc.
The mouths, the tongues, the eyes, and hearts of men
At duty, more than I could frame employment;  dovuto organizzare
That numberless upon me stuck, as leaves       si sono appicicati
Do on an oak, have with one Winter's brush    olmo,   spazzare
Fell from their boughs, and left me open, bare   rami
For every storm that blows."                               tira

   First there is confectionary; (sweets - caramelle). Confectionary has suggested that which confectionary appeals to: mouths, the tongues, the eyes, and hearts of men, then comes the idea of sycophants "sticking" (was this verb suggested to Shakespeare by the association of "sweet meats" (confectionary) that are sticky? But this "stick" seems to call up a connotation of leaves that either stick or fall from trees; so immediately Shakespeare develops further the "I am like a tree" simile, but with just the tree vocabulary remaining as the metaphors of the truncated simile. There are some contemporary accounts of Shakespeare's speed of writing, and this kind of language seems almost like free association, it goes at such breakneck speed, but also has some realistic similarity to word-tumbling, passionate speech - something suitable to drama.


There is such particularity to Shakespeare's imagery. It is not tired or conventional; it often seems the freshly minted description of something unforgettable. Here to close is something beautiful from Hamlet

"But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,                 

    un tinto commune e a buonmercato rosso-marone scuro

Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastern hill."              

      Ruggiarda, di la in lontananza

It paints a vivid picture and in so doing paints the stage by stimulating our own imagination to feel/see the dawn in its silhouetted freshness and coldness. Shakespeare's imagery has the theatrical function of scene painting. The personification of the dawn as the labourer in his simple russet mantle, gives us sun and early rising labourer, merged together and the "high" of "o'er yon high eastern hill", brings vividly before our eyes the bedewed fields under the yellowing, empty sky of dawn.

MucA do about Nothing

Often the descriptive language (as in the following lines  from  will not stop at the description but deviates to tell us what the described natural thing resembles in the human world. The description of the bower of Honeysuckle expands into a simile that likens the sun excluding shady bower to the over proud favorites of a Prince. It's as if Shakespeare couldn't resist making the humble description of the honeysuckle bower also illustrate a moral fact: the selfish attitudes of favorites. 

steal into the pleached bower     

   andare di nascosto,  rami intrecciati, posto in giardino secluso

Whose honeysuckle, ripened by the sun,        

caprifolgio, maturato

Forbid the sun to enter; like favorites,         

 prohibire, favorito

Made proud by princes, that advance their pride    

                               diventato superbi, avvanzare l'orgoglio

Against the power that bred it.    generare


Here there is straight forward simile, which keeps apart the 2 compared halves and renders it rather prosaically didactic and homely. Honeysuckle - Favorites, but as with much of Shakespeare's metaphor, there is a strange interfusion. And the fine natural observation contains a sort of moral vision that runs like a warp through both the metaphor's descriptive function and the weft of the play's own moral story. The language pulses with all the superimposed life within these jostling metaphors.


In some images, as here in  Cymbeline, the condensed simile of metaphor includes a detail that you have little time to fully notice but works like the all important but fugitive notes of music.

                   "If there be.

Yet left in heaven as small a drop of pity       goccia

As a wren's eye"!                                scricciolo

the "wren's eye" is what Shakespeare's sympathetic "eye" has remembered, and in this quotation, the image is so much more than imago: You feel with certainty that Shakespeare has seen a wren close to, which means in some state of helplessness and inability to fly and it is this that forms the association in his mind of "wren" "pity":: for, once, he had pitied a wren in its black-eyed vivacious helplessness.


So too in this image from Lucretius, the verb "tremble" vividly recalls the pity:

Wrapped and confounded in a thousand fears     

imballare, =conquistato

Like a new killed bird she trembling lies.      tremare

   Venus and Adonis.

A similarly remembered sympathy is this from Venus and Adonis.

Like the snail, whose tender horns being hit, 

chiocciola , tenero

Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain,           

                tirarsi indietro (no verb in Italian), conchiglia!

And there, all smothered up in shade doth sit, asfissare ombra

Long after fearing to creep forth again.   Strisciarsi   fuori

Perhaps this idea of the intelligent heart is what Thomas Carlyle meant with this judgment:

"If I say that Shakespeare is the greatest of intellects, I have said all concerning him. But there is more in Shakespeare's intellect than we have yet seen. It is what I call an unconscious intellect; there is more virtue in it that he himself is aware of."

An unusual but interesting pairing: "unconscious intellect". It shows what we now days call "the intelligent heart". The comparison to bird or snail, which are after all, only the comparisons of secondary importance, overwhelm, with their sympathetic detail, the principle part of the comparison. .

In similar vein, John Dryden wrote: "He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul". (=intelligent heart?)   "He was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature. He looked inwards, and found her there."

All's well that ends well.

Here Helena in All's Well, describes her hopeless and unrequited love, and it is the extremity of the metaphor that makes her sorrow immediately believable.

Yet, in this captious and intenible sieve,      

      pero',  capiente, =che puo' contenere molto

I still pour in the waters of my love.              versare

            There is so much sympathic understanding in the conception of such a metaphor: a beautiful definition (through metaphor) of disinterested love. There is the double thread in Shakespeare: a warp and weft.. There is the play and its characters and what they do, but also like a weft, there are all the "strands of life" carried in the pulsating metaphoric language.


In the following example from Macbeth, there are only what you could call the submerged metaphors within the noun and adjective choice that reveal a similar sympathetic moral pressure in the words that Shakespeare chooses to allow the murderers in Macbeth to voice.

Second murderer:

And I another,

So weary with disasters, tugged with fortune,   

molto stanco,tirato

That I would set my life on any chance    scomettere

To mend it or be rid on't                     reparare

First murderer:

I am one, my liege,                  signore

Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world

       odioso, colpi, spini forti

Hath so incensed that I am reckless what   

         m'hanno arrabiato, avventato/spericolato

I do to spite the world.     Fare un dispetto/per ripicca

Weary and tugged, blows, buffets, are very strongly pictorial, and the phrase "to spite the world" seems the result of a life time's humiliation.

Ordinary daily language, while remaining down to earth and "unpoetic", often makes use of metaphoric language... So in these words of Queen Margaret in King John, there is both ordinariness and heart stopping sensibility in the metaphoric "exaggeration" of her personification of grief as the dead child itself, who: "fills up the room", or "stuffs out the vacant garments"..

King John

 Grief fills the room up of my absent child,

Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,

Speaks with his words,

Remembers me of all his pretty ways

Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form  imbottire, vestiti

Romeo and Juliet

Obviously the language is often character specific. So we find these effulgences of Juliet suitable: after all she is in love.

Give me my Romeo, and, when he shall die,

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine,

That all the world will be in love with night,

And pay no worship to the garish sun.        rendere omaggio

Troilus and Cressida

In this from Troilus and Cressida the language is as excited as is Troilus's expectation is "giddy", and the "relish", "sweet", "sense", "watery palate", taste, "nectar" pile up sensuous abundance and giddying profusion.

I am giddy, expectation whirls me round.   

 Sento vertigine, aspettative, fare turninare

The imaginary relish is so sweet  

=gustare con piacere sensuale

That it enchants my sense: what will it be,  incantare

When that the watery palate taste indeed     palato

Love's thrice repured nectar?    

Tre volte, purificato, nettare

King Lear

Shakespeare's language is so unabstract; so body centred, sensuous, physical. Metaphoric description works by analogy, by finding unexpected similarity, and when there are no overt metaphors, this habit of mind remains in the choice of vocabulary. : verbs, adjectives, nouns that are pictorial or physical. Notice this from King Lear, where the king, for shame at his realization of how he has wronged his daughter Cordelia, does not wish to meet her.

The vocabulary is exaggeratedly physical and pictorial: (elbow, whip, sting, venom, burning, which you could call simile's reduced to the minimum), but they are suitable to this emotional description of the King's mental turmoil.

A sovereign shame so elbows him: his own unkindness       sgomitare

That stripped her from his benediction, turned her      


To foreign calamities………..

………………………these things sting    pungere

His mind so venomously, That burning shame     

              velenosamente, bruciante, vergogna

Detains him from Cordelia.            trattenere

DH Lawrence insisted in his obstinate way, that there was no merit in the characters of Shakespeare's plays, but couldn't help noticing the Shakespearean language. However he just noted the "opulence" of the language as if it were fine silks, rather than arising from a moral attentiveness and general sympathy for life itself, which makes Shakespearean "language" represent much more than mere gorgeousness. 

Timon of Athens. 

In this from Timon of Athens, there is an unillusioned moral eye, and a hint of what Laurence Olivier meant by "Shakespeare having- The nearest thing in incarnation to the eye of God."

                                     "What, think'st
That the bleak air, thy boisterous chamberlain,

               spoglio, chiassoso, ciambellano

Will put thy shirt on warm? will these moss'd trees,    


That have outliv'd the eagle, page thy heels,       

fare il paggio, taloni

And skip where thou point'st out? will the cold brook.                                  salti correndo, ruiscello

Candied with ice, caudle thy morning taste,               

          giaccio, pulire caremellato

To cure thy night's surfeit  surfeit?"  curare,abbuffata   

A last point. The originality and depth of the thinking in Shakespeare, is connected to the metaphor. Far from it being as Dr Johnson opined - that for which Shakespeare sold his soul, it was what illuminated his thought: carries it deep. You sense that it is the wide net of metaphoric comparison that brings in deep truths, and are much more quickly comprehended by the playgoer than !8th century "rational" abstract thought might be.

Troilus and Cressida

         How can I moderate it (my grief)?     Dolore profondo

If I could temporize with my affection,      temporaggiare

Or brew it to a weak and colder palate,   

le operazioni per fare birra

The like allayment could I give my grief.   diminuizione                        

.....................nay if we talk of reason,   

Let's shut our gates, and sleep: manhood and honour             

cancelli, virilita'

Should have hare hearts, would they but fat their thoughts      

cuore da lepre, 

With this crammed reason.                      stipare

Before closing with all these examples, it's worth noting an extraordinary quality that this Shakespearean mode of language and metaphoric  thinking confers. I would call it the Animistic sympathy of Shakespeare. This ceaseless metaphorical interfusion of human and natural world, was part of the Elizabethan age's still magical view of the world, and what Bishop Hooker called "The great chain of being".(The very thing that Macbeth wishes to "cancel and tear to pieces" in order to free his conscience to murder)

So in this description of Florizel wooing the shepherd's daughter: 

Winter's Tale

"………For never gazed the moon        guardare fissamnete

Upon the waters, as he'll stand and read

As t'were, her eyes".                             Per cosi dire

"Gazed the moon upon the waters" confuses the mind (since the moon can't "gaze"), but then follows the "simile" explanation of "gaze"; "as he'll stand and read my daughters eyes".

The real simile would be

As the moon steadily shines on the waters

So he gazes steadily upon my daughter as if to read her eyes.

But "gaze" has been moved from "he" to the moon! Magical effect! The characters of Shakespeare's plays are warmed into life by the vast imagery that permeates their speech and which then echoes back to us and rekindles in us our own loving memories of the world. All the beauty we have ever noticed of the moon shining on water, floods across Perdita and Florizel! The animism of love in Shakespeare!

A few days after writing this, I came across this passage form the famous book on "Shakespeare's Imagery" by Caroline Spurgeon, written in the thirties. It is a fine note on all the metaphors I've quqoted and commented on..

"Metaphor is a subject of such deep import that it calls for an abler pen than mine to deal adequately with it. For I tend to incline to the view that analogy = likeness between dissimilar things- which is the fact underlying the possibility and use of metaphor, holds within itself the very secret of the universe. The bare fact that germinating seeds or falling leaves are actually another expression of the processes that we see at work in human life and death, thrills me, as it must others, with a sense of being here in presence of a great mystery, which could we only understand it, would explain life and death itself".

This from Hamlet is a combination of Personification and metaphor.

"But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,  

Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastern hill