What is an Apostrophe?
Apostrophe is one of the more elusive literary devices and presents students with difficulty in identifying its usage. Not to be confused with the punctuation mark of the same name, apostrophe is a rhetorical device used by playwrights and authors whenever their characters address a character that isn’t present in the scene. To make matters more confusing. An apostrophe is often used by characters who are addressing a personification or an idea. Once you learn the characteristics of an apostrophe, identifying the use of this literary device will be easy.
William Shakespeare is without a doubt the most famous English playwright. Shakespeare made use of many literary devices, including apostrophe. We’ve comprised a list of Shakespeare’s most memorable uses of apostrophe to illustrate how this literary device functions.
List of Apostrophe Examples
• Macbeth Act 1 Scene 5 Lines 30-31
“Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here”
Our first use of apostrophe in Shakespeare is in the tragedy of Macbeth. In this example, Lady Macbeth during a soliloquy calls out to spirits. This is but one type of apostrophe that Shakespeare employs. Lady Macbeth is calling out to spirits not present in the scene. This type of apostrophe is very common in Shakespeare, as you will see.
• Hamlet Act 1 Scene 2 Line 132-134
“O God, God! / How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!”
Just like in Macbeth, Shakespeare uses apostrophe so his characters can address spiritual beings. The most common usage of apostrophe in many works of literature beyond Shakespeare are evocations of deities, like God. Just like in Macbeth, the example of apostrophe in Hamlet takes place within another soliloquy. Hamlet cries out to God. And just like in Macbeth, the character using apostrophe is calling out to an absent spiritual being.
• The Taming of the Shrew Introduction Scene 1 Line 30
“Grim death, how foul and loathsome is thine image!”
In The Taming of the Shrew, we see another example of apostrophe. However, in this example, a character is not just addressing a deity or spirit, but a personification of an idea. Personification is when non-human things are given human-like qualities. In this instance, a wealthy nobleman addresses death personified. In this apostrophe, the idea of death is personified and called out to by the character. Personification is another way Shakespeare utilizes apostrophe.
• Macbeth Act 1 Scene 5 Lines 48-52
“Come, thick night, / And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, / That my keen knife see not the wound it makes.”
Another example of an apostrophe aimed at a personified element occurs in the first act of Macbeth. In the same soliloquy as number 1 on the list, Lady Macbeth calls out to night personified. In this example, Lady Macbeth is calling upon the night itself to come and conceal her actions. This apostrophe is slightly different than the previous example from Macbeth. In this example, night itself is personified and addressed directly by Lady Macbeth.
• Romeo and Juliet Act 2 Scene 2 Line 5
“Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon. “
In Romeo and Juliet, in one of the most famous and often quoted scenes from which Romeo speaks to Juliet on a balcony above him, Shakespeare uses another apostrophe in the form of a personification. Unlike the previous example, where Lady Macbeth personifies and calls out the night to assist her, Romeo compares Juliet to the sun, and as such, commands the sun to arise and release him of his longing.
• Julius Caesar Act 3 Scene 1 Line 269
“O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth.”
Our last example of personification-based apostrophe comes from the tragedy Julius Caesar. In the first scene of the third act, Caesar has been murdered and Antony, Caesar’s loyal friend is left alone on stage. This is a somewhat unique case of apostrophe. Antony is addressing a lifeless Caesar, who is now a corpse, asking Caesar for forgiveness. Like most of the previous examples, this apostrophe occurs during a soliloquy.
• Romeo and Juliet Act 5 Scene 3 Lines 182-183
“O happy dagger, /This is thy sheath. / There rust and let me die.”
The next example illustrates a different kind of apostrophe that Shakespeare makes use of in his plays. Our previous examples had characters addressing spiritual beings or personifications, but sometimes a character can address an inanimate object. In the pivotal scene of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet, immediately before stabbing herself and ending her life, she speaks to the dagger itself. This type of apostrophe is very common in Shakespeare’s plays.
• Macbeth Act 2 Scene 1 Lines 33-35
“Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch / thee.”
Daggers as dramatic props are present in many of Shakespeare’s plays. And just like in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare uses the dagger as another opportunity to utilize the apostrophe. And just like Juliet in the last example, here Macbeth is speaking directly to a dagger.
• Othello Act 4 Scene 1 Lines 35-36
“Work on, my medicine, work! Thus credulous fools / are caught.”
Another memorable usage of apostrophe comes in the tragedy Othello. Cunning Iago is attempting to poison the mind of unsuspecting Othello, in order to evoke the Moor’s rage. He refers to his deceit as a medicine. In this instance, Shakespeare has elected to use metaphor along with apostrophe.
• Romeo and Juliet Act 2 Scene 2 Line 33
“O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?”
To finish our list, we have one of the most quoted lines in all of Shakespeare. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo stands underneath Juliet’s balcony. Unaware that he is near she calls out to him. While many of our examples have utilized other literary devices such as personification and metaphor, this time our character is simply calling out someone who is believed to be somewhere else. It is a way for Shakespeare to make clear the inner workings of his characters.
These ten memorable uses of apostrophe are great examples that illustrate the various uses of this literary device. As a device frequently used by Shakespeare, there are many other apostrophes in his various plays. And no matter a tragedy or comedy, the dramatic effect created by this use of apostrophe is intentional and important to be able to recognize.