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Shakespeare's Metaphors

A compliation of Shakespeare's most powerful metaphors by Shakespearean scholar Henry Norman Hudson.

As Hudson begins: "These are from the most dramatic of all writing; so that the virtue of the imagery is inextricably bound up with the characters and occasions of the speakers":
"Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder East:
Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops."
Rom. and Jul., iii. 5.

"Death, that hath suck'd the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty:
Thou art not conquer'd; beauty's ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death's pale flag is not advancèd there."

"Why art thou yet so fair? shall I believe
That unsubstantial Death is amorous;
And that the lean abhorrèd monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?"
Ibid., v. 3.

"My gentle Puck, come hither. Thou remember'st
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid, on a dolphin's back,
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song;
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid's music."
Midsum. Night's D., ii. 1.

"Rush on his host, as doth the melted snow
Upon the valleys, whose low vassal seat
The Alps doth spit and void his rheum upon."
King Henry V., iii. 5.

"His face is all bubukles, and whelks, and knobs, and flames of fire; and his lips plows at his nose, and it is like a coal of fire, sometimes plue, and sometimes red; but his nose is executed, and his fire is out."
Ibid., iii. 6.

"O, then th' Earth shook to see the heavens on fire,
And not in fear of your nativity.
Diseasèd Nature oftentimes breaks forth
In strange eruptions; oft the teeming Earth
Is with a kind of cholic pinch'd and vex'd
By the imprisoning of unruly wind
Within her womb; which, for enlargement striving,
Shakes the old beldame Earth, and topples down
Steeples and moss-grown towers. At your birth,
Our grandam Earth, having this distemperature,
In passion shook."
1 King Henry IV., iii. 1.

"Let heaven kiss earth! now let not Nature's hand
Keep the wild flood-confin'd! let order die!
And let this world no longer be a stage
To feed contention in a lingering act;
But let one spirit of the first-born Cain
Reign in all bosoms, that, each heart being set
On bloody courses, the rude scene may end,
And darkness be the burier of the dead!"
2 King Henry IV., i. 1.

"An habitation giddy and unsure
Hath he that buildeth on the vulgar heart.
O thou fond many! with what loud applause
Didst thou beat heaven with blessing Bolingbroke,
Before he was what thou would'st have him be!
And being now trimm'd in thine own desires,
Thou, beastly feeder, art so full of him,
That thou provok'st thyself to cast him up.
So, so, thou common dog, did'st thou disgorge
Thy glutton bosom of the royal Richard;
And now thou would'st eat thy dead vomit up,
And howl'st to find it."
Ibid., i. 3.

"But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastern hill."
Hamlet, i. 1.

"So, haply slander--
Whose whisper o'er the world's diameter,
As level as the cannon to his blank,
Transports his poison'd shot--may miss our name,
And hit the woundless air."
Ibid., iv. 1.

"Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
The very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it."
Macbeth, ii. 1.

"O thou day o' the world,
Chain mine arm'd neck; leap thou, attire and all,
Through proof of harness to my heart, and there
Ride on the pants triúmphing!"
Ant. and Cleo., iv. 8.

"For his bounty,
There was no Winter in't; an Autumn 'twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show'd his back above
The element they liv'd in: in his livery
Walk'd crowns and crownets."
Ibid., v. 2.

"The ample proposition that hope makes
In all designs begun on earth below
Fails in the promis'd largeness: checks and disasters
Grow in the veins of actions highest rear'd."

"Distinction, with a broad and powerful fan,
Puffing at all, winnows the light away."
Troil. and Cres., i. 3.

"Be as a planetary plague, when Jove
Will o'er some high-vie'd city hang his poison
In the sick air."

"Put armour on thine ears and on thine eyes;
Whose proof, nor yells of mothers, maids, nor babes,
Nor sight of priests in holy vestments bleeding,
Shall pierce a jot."

"Common mother, thou,
Whose womb unmeasurable, and infinite breast,
Teems, and feeds all; whose self-same mettle,
Whereof thy proud child, arrogant man, is puff'd.
Engenders the black toad and adder blue,
The gilded newt and eyeless venom'd worm;
Yield him, who all thy human sons doth hate,
From forth thy plenteous bosom, one poor root!"

"What, think'st
That the bleak air, thy boisterous chamberlain,
Will put thy shirt on warm? will these moss'd trees,
That have outliv'd the eagle, page thy heels,
And skip where thou point'st out? will the cold brook.
Candied with ice, caudle thy morning taste,
To cure thy o'er-night's surfeit?"

"O thou sweet king-killer, and dear divorce
'Twixt natural son and sire! thou bright defiler
Of Hymen's purest bed! thou valiant Mars!
Thou ever young, fresh, lov'd, and delicate wooer,
Whose blush doth thaw the consecrated snow
That lies on Dian's lap! thou visible god,
That solder'st close impossibilities,
And mak'st them kiss! that speak'st with every tongue,
To every purpose! O thou touch of hearts!
Think, thy slave man rebels; and by thy virtue
Set them into confounding odds, that beasts
May have the world in empire!"
Timon of Athens, iv. 3.

Shakespeare's boldness in metaphors is pretty strongly exemplified in some of the forecited passages; but he has instances of still greater boldness. Among these may be named Lady Macbeth's--

"Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of Hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry Hold, hold!"
Here "blanket of the dark" runs to so high a pitch, that divers critics, Coleridge among them, have been staggered by it, and have been fain to set it down as a corruption of the text. In this they are no doubt mistaken: the metaphor is in the right style of Shakespeare, and, with all its daring, runs in too fair keeping to be ruled out of the family. Hardly less bold is this of Macbeth's--
"Heaven's cherubin, hors'd
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind."
With these I suspect may be fitly classed, notwithstanding its delicacy, the following from Iachimo's description of Imogen, when he comes out of the trunk in her chamber:
"The flame o' the taper
Bows toward her; and would under-peep her lids,
To see th' enclosèd lights, now canopied
Under these windows, white and azure, lac'd
With blue of heaven's own tinct."
Also this, from the soliloquy of Posthumus in repentance for the supposed death of Imogen by his order:
"My conscience, thou art fetter'd
More than my shanks and wrists: you good gods give me
The penitent instrument to pick that bolt,
Then free for ever!"
I add still another example; from one of old Nestor's speeches on the selection of a champion to fight with the Trojan hero:
"It is suppos'd,
He that meets Hector issues from our choice:
And choice, being mutual act of all our souls,
Makes merit her election; and doth boil,
As 'twere from forth us all, a man distill'd
Out of our virtues."
All these--and I could quote a hundred such--are, to my thinking, instances of happy and, I will add, even wise audacity: at least, if there be any overstraining of imagery, I can easily shrive the fault, for the subtile felicity involved in them. They are certainly quite at home in the millennium of poetry which Shakespeare created for us; albeit I can well remember the time when such transcendent raptures were to me as
"Some joy too fine,
Too subtle-potent, tun'd too sharp in sweetness,
For the capacity of my ruder powers."
It would be strange indeed if a man so exceedingly daring did not now and then overdare. And so I think the Poet's boldness in metaphor sometimes makes him overbold, or at least betrays him into infelicities of boldness. Here are two instances, from The Tempest, v. 1:
"The charm dissolves apace;
And as the morning steals upon the night,
Melting the darkness, so their rising senses
Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle
Their clearer reason."

"Their understanding
Begins to swell; and the approaching tide
Will shortly fill the reasonable shore
That now lies foul and muddy."
And here is another, of perhaps still more questionable character, from Macbeth, i. 7:
"His two chamberlains
Will I with wine and wassail so convince,
That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbeck only."
What, again, shall be said of the two following, where Coriolanus snaps off his fierce scorn of the multitude?--
"What's the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?"

"So shall my lungs
Coin words till their decay against those measles,
Which we disdain should tetter us, yet sought
The very way to catch them."
Either from overboldness in the metaphors, or from some unaptness in the material of them, I have to confess that my mind rather rebels against these stretches of poetical prerogative. Still more so, perhaps, in the well-known passage of King Henry the Fifth, iv. 3; though I am not sure but, in this case, the thing rightly belongs to the speaker's character:
"And those that leave their valiant bones in France,
Dying like men, though buried in your dunghills,
They shall be fam'd; for there the Sun shall greet them,
And draw their honours reeking up to heaven;
Leaving their earthly parts to choke your clime,
The smell whereof shall breed a plague in France.
Mark, then, abounding valour in our English;
That, being dead, like to the bullet's grazing,
Break out into a second course of mischief,
Killing in rélapse of mortality."
But, whatever be the right mark to set upon these and some other instances, I find but few occasions of such revolt; and my only wonder is, how any mere human genius could be so gloriously audacious, and yet be so seldom chargeable with passing the just bounds of poetical privilege.

Please click here for Hudson's analysis of Shakespeare's use of metaphors and similes.

How to cite this article:

Hudson, Henry Norman. Shakespeare: His Life, Art, and Characters, Volume I. New York: Ginn and Co., 1872. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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