When you write, you can make references to other things your readers may be familiar with, such as people, historical events, books, paintings, or music. Each reference you make is an allusion!
“Allusion” comes from the Latin word allusio, which means “play” or “sport.” And allusio, in turn, comes from the Latin alludere, meaning “to play,” “to joke,” and “to frolic,” in addition to “to refer to.” While not all allusions are playful or funny, they are still a way of playing with words.
When you make an allusion, you assume your reader will understand what you’re talking about. Without the cultural knowledge shared by both writer and reader, the point of an allusion is lost, and your writing might not make sense.
Writing can allude to just about any source material, including another part of the same text. The important thing is that an allusion makes an implied comparison, not a direct. A direct comparison is an analogy, which is a different (but related) figure of speech.
Using allusions in your writing is important because they enrich your text. And understanding how allusions work will help you better appreciate other people’s writing.
Generally speaking, allusion gives context, which helps your reader create a fuller picture of what you’re describing. In just a few words, you can create an atmosphere or invoke an emotional reaction. It’s a quick way to enhance your text with just a few words, by referencing what the reader already knows.
Also, allusion helps create a sense of shared understanding between the author and the reader, allowing the reader to feel more connected to the text.
Since allusions are implied, as the writer you have control over how obvious they are. And the most important aspect of writing good allusions is to make sure your readers make the connection you’re describing. If they don’t pick up on the allusion, they’re losing a lot of the meaning of your text.
Some allusions are obvious, while others are more obscure. For example, if you’re referencing Shakespeare, an allusion to Romeo and Juliet involving ill-fated lovers will be more obvious than an allusion to the cave in Timon of Athens.
In academia, literary allusion is sometimes divided into types. These 6 categories were created by R. F. Thomas, who derived them from Virgil’s Georgics.”
While these are not by any means the only ways in which to make allusions, they can be a useful basis for understanding how allusions work.
Allusions abound in writing, art, music, and pop culture in the Western world. But there are a few sources that show up more than others: the Bible, Shakespeare, and Classical literature.
The Bible has sold more copies than any other book in the world throughout history! And Bible stories are culturally important in predominantly Judeo-Christian societies. So, authors take advantage of this and incorporate biblical allusions into their writing. Here are some common examples:
Allusions to Shakespeare pop up all over Western culture. Sometimes it’s direct quotations from his work, and sometimes it’s plots or imagery.
Shakespeare influences everything from books to movies to music, and more. These are a few commonly-referenced plays:
Another major source for allusions is Classical literature. Stories, myths, and poems from ancient Greece and Rome are a major component of Western culture, and people have been alluding to them for hundreds and thousands of years.
Even Shakespeare alluded to Classical literature in his plays and poems! Here are just a few references you might see:
You’ll often come across allusions in everyday life without realizing that they’re actually references.
Maybe you have to leave a party early, and you tell your friends, “I’ll turn into a pumpkin if I’m not home on time!” That’s a reference to the story of Cinderella.
And if you have a big crush, you might say “I got hit with one of love’s arrows” referencing the Roman god Cupid. (Or you might just doodle a heart with an arrow through it on your notebook.)
Bringing allusions into your writing makes it richer because you add layers of meaning and cultural associations with just a few extra words. It’s a neat little trick!
So, pay attention when you’re reading, and you might find little treasures hidden in the text!