Imagery and metaphors

Beatrice is represented as a shiny, expensive jewel.

Metaphors are detailed comparisons that make writing and speech come alive in our imaginations. On Shakespeare’s stage there were no special effects, the stage was pretty bare except for actors, and the props were few and far between. So the writing had to paint exciting scenes in the audience’s minds. This is imagery.

Analysis of imagery and metaphors in the play

Question

When discussing the possibility of marrying Hero with Benedick, why does Claudio compare her to a jewel?

Claudio says:

Claudio
Can the world buy such a jewel?
Act 1 Scene 1

On the one hand, the metaphor could be seen as saying that Hero is precious and beautiful and priceless. On the other, there’s something distasteful, particularly to a modern audience, with the suggestion that Hero is property that can be purchased, and that Claudio sees her as an object, or a trophy.

Question

What is Benedick trying to say by using a simile when comparing Hero’s looks with Beatrice’s?

Benedick is saying that he thinks Beatrice is much more beautiful than Hero – it’s a shame about her bad temper. He compares Beatrice to the first of May – a time of new life, blossom, sunshine, etc. He says:

Benedick
There’s her cousin, and she were not possessed with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December.
Act 1 Scene 1

There’s also perhaps a nudge towards the first of May being a time when birds and bees and young men and women fall in love. He compares Hero to the last of December – an image that suggests a lack of life, light and warmth. Hero is quiet and modest and perhaps is heavily overshadowed by her lively cousin.

Question

How does Claudio use a powerful image to express his disgust at Hero’s supposed betrayal of him at her window with another man?

Claudio tells Leonato:

Claudio
Give not this rotten orange to your friend
Act 4 Scene 1

Claudio’s metaphor is stronger than a simile, because he’s not just comparing Hero to a rotten orange; he says that she is a rotten orange: she looks sweet, but underneath this she is foul and no good. The image is both powerful and memorable, more so than simply calling her a rude name.

Listening task

In Act 2 Scene 1, Benedick uses a succession of vivid metaphors. In literature, huge exaggerations like the ones Benedick uses below are called hyperbole (you say it like this: hi-PURR-bowl y).

He complains to Don Pedro about how badly Beatrice treated him at the masked ball, how she would terrify even Greek gods, and how she is like a goddess herself – the goddess of disharmony – in a nice dress.

Question

Can you find any signs that Benedick secretly likes Beatrice in this speech?

That Beatrice’s words hurt Benedick’s feelings show that he likes her and wishes that she liked him. He also says that she’s like the Greek goddess of disharmony, but in a nicer dress.

Question

What do you think Don Pedro should be doing on stage as he listens to Benedick’s outburst?

Don Pedro would be laughing and shaking his head in disbelief. What do you think? Perhaps he’s trying to keep a straight face or offering Benedick some sympathy?