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English 11-12

Literary Techniques: Symbolism

You know how apples are often associated with temptation? That's symbolism. In this post, we explain what symbolism is, how to analyse it, and how to discuss it in your essays,

Welcome to our glossary of Literary Techniques SYMBOLISM post. This post expands on symbolism, which is one of the many techniques from our Literary Techniques Part 1: Techniques for Analysing a Written Text guide.


Table of Contents

  1. What is symbolism?
  2. How does symbolism work?
  3. How to analyse symbolism – step-by-step
  4. Symbolism examples


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Some common student questions about symbolism are:

  • What is symbolism?
  • How do I identify symbols and find its meaning?
  • How do I discuss symbolism in my essay?

Here, we will define symbolism, discuss the purpose of symbolism in texts, and take you through a step-by-step process – using examples – to show you how to discuss it in your responses.


Literary techniques: Symbolism

Symbolism is a powerful and common technique used by composers to provide more depth and significance to an idea through an object, action, situation, or character.

This is quite similar to a metaphor. However, whereas, a metaphor explicitly compares two subjects, symbolism requires the audience to search for a meaning themselves.

Let’s unpack this for you in a bit more detail.


What is symbolism?

Symbolism is when a symbol (object, action, subject…) is used to represent another meaning that is different from its literal definition.

However, there is one important thing to consider when analysing symbolism: context.

Let’s say a couple was filmed and a red filter was used over the shot. If the couple was arguing, you would automatically associate red with anger and frustration. So, if this scene was changed to portray them smile and hug each other, would your perspective on this colour change?

You see, when it comes to deciphering the meaning of a symbol, it is very important to consider the context in which the symbol appears.

There are so many different ways you can interpret a symbol.

And they’re NOT all wrong! Symbolism’s implicit nature forces you to engage with the text, and think outside the box. This helps the composer hammer a message into your mind. And this is why symbols are so powerful and so commonly used.


How does symbolism work?

Often, there is a universal agreement on what certain objects represent. For example, someone from Australia and someone from Japan would both see skulls as a symbol of death and mortality. This is because we were taught to associate certain visual images to an abstract idea from a young age.

Knowing this, composers use this association to their advantage when creating texts by using symbols.

However, a symbol’s meaning is not always so explicit. This is when you need to consider the characteristics that this object holds and the significance of such qualities in relation to the text’s themes and messages. We will go into further detail about this process in the next section.


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How to analyse symbolism? – A step-by-step process

Symbols can sometimes be hidden within a text. However, there are some methodical steps that will aid you in identifying and analysing them. All you need to do is to keep practising.

  1. Read the passage. See if there is a subject that stands out to you, is repeated, or can usually be associated with another meaning.
  2. Consider possible ideas that are usually represented by this object. Or you can create a logical and reasonable link to an idea of your own. Here’s how:
    1. What is the object?
    2. What are its main characteristics?
    3. What is the significance of this characteristic? Think about the THEMES in your text.
    4. What can this mean? Link to the text’s themes and messages.
  3. Figure out the effect of symbolism.
    1. What is the author’s intention in using a symbol?
    2. How would the audience react to such findings?
  4. Discuss your insights in a T.E.E.L structure.


Now, we have an overview of how to identify and analyse symbolism, let’s do it together using examples.

Step 1: Identify any objects that seem significant

Symbols can be easy or hard to identify. Usually, they stand out, reoccur throughout the text, or are given special attention by the composer. It can come in various forms like objects, physical features, actions or even characters. However, sometimes they can be hidden. It is up to you to decide whether or not it is significant.

Let’s have a look at an extract from an HSC Module B text: Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Act 1, Scene 2

‘I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mist
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.’

Here, we see that Prince Henry has agreed to put on a rowdy persona as part of a scheme to impress the public when he becomes ‘good’.

When you read this, what are some strong visual images that stand out to you? Think about common symbols used by composers or if there are any extra details or description regarding a certain object. (REMEMBER, keep thinking about possible meanings that the objects and/or images can hold as you come across them. That way, you are not mindlessly searching for interesting objects).

‘The sun’, ‘Contagious clouds’, ‘Foul and ugly mist’

From this, we can identify that the sun and the clouds are symbols.

Step 2: Figure out the meaning of this symbol

After finding the symbol, think about the most common ideas that are usually represented by this object. In our case, the sun traditionally holds religious connotations, representing heavenly light, God, or even rebirth. However, we must take context into consideration:

  • According to the plot, Prince Henry has just decided to hide his good nature behind a persona
  • A major theme in this text is ‘legitimacy of power.’

From these two pieces of context, we can deduce that Shakespeare has used the sun to represent God’s characteristic (goodness) in Prince Henry.

But do we have more evidence to support this? Let’s look further by unpacking another symbol.

We see that Shakespeare has also referenced clouds and mist. A characteristic that these two have in common is its murkiness. We can then identify the significance of the murkiness; it has the ability to hide things. Therefore, taking another step, we can conclude that the clouds and mist are symbolic of a hidden truth.

Now, when we tie these two findings together, we can figure out the meaning.

The sun hidden by the clouds is symbolic of Prince Henry’s good nature that is masked behind a persona of a misbehaved man.

However, that is not all…

Step 3: What effect does this symbol have on the audience?

First, we need to figure out what the composer’s intended message is. In this case, Shakespeare is trying to warn his audience of the corruption existing in politics.

So why use symbolism out of all techniques? Well, we need to think about how the audience will react.

As mentioned above, symbolism forces us to directly engage with the text by invoking deep thoughts about its themes as we try to figure out the meaning behind the symbols. As such, the use of symbolism here confronts us with the truth about the corruption in politics, as we realise the extent of manipulation and deceit used for one to achieve and sustain power.

Step 4: Put your findings into a T.E.E.L paragraph

Now, we have all the necessary ingredients to put together a T.E.E.L paragraph.

T.E.E.L stands for:

  • Technique: The technique used in the example
  • Example: The example
  • Effect: Your explanation of the effect of this technique and how it develops meaning
  • Link: An explanation of how this example supports your argument.

You can find a more detailed explanation of using T.E.E.L in our post on paragraph structure (this post is part of our series on Essay Writing and shows you the methods Matrix English Students learn to write Band 6 essays in the Matrix Holiday and Term courses). Let’s use this T.E.E.L to write about this example of imagery.

  • The technique being used is symbolism
  • The example of symbolism is “Yet herein will I imitate the sun / Who doth permit the base contagious clouds / To smother up his beauty from the world.
  • The effect of this technique is that Shakespeare represents Prince Henry’s desire to uphold a misbehaved and rowdy persona, to fulfill his scheme of  gaining the awe and appreciation of his public when he changes into his good-natured self.
  • The link to our argument about the corruption of power is that Shakespeare horrifies his audience of the extent in which one uses manipulation and deceit to achieve their desired position of power, thus creating an awareness of the nature of politics.

Let’s put this into a complete statement about this use of symbolism.

Shakespeare creates an awareness of the corruption that exists in politics, where manipulation and deceit are used by individuals as they pursue and maintain power. When Prince Henry declares that he will “imitate the sun,” the sun symbolises Prince Henry’s good character, as Shakespeare’s immediate religious audience understand that the sun holds connotations of heavenly light. Thus, aligning Prince Henry with God. However, the strong visual imagery of the ‘foul and ugly mist’ covering the sun symbolises Prince Henry’s facade of misbehaviour in his scheme to win the affection of the public when he changes into a ‘good person’. As such, Shakespeare warns audiences of the extent of manipulation and deceit that exists in politics when an individual strives for power.

Now, we have a solid understanding of symbolism and how to analyse it. What you need to do is read over this example again and make sure you keep practising analysing the symbolism you find to master this.


Symbolism examples

Symbolism is a commonly used technique. You will find symbols in many texts set for study. Now that we know how to analyse symbolism step-by-step, let’s take a look at another example to make sure you fully understand what symbolism is, and how to use it in your writing.

Let’s take a look at how to analyse symbolism a comparative study of texts for Year 12 Module A texts.


Symbolism example 1: Shakespeare’s, King Richard III

In scene 5, the ghosts of those killed by King Richard III – whether directly or indirectly – return to haunt him.

Ghost of Clarence: Let me sit heavy in thy soul tomorrow”

Ghost of Rivers: Let me sit heavy in thy soul tomorrow”

Ghost of Grey: Thin upon Grey, and let thy soul despair!” 

All: Awake and think our / wrongs in Richard’s bosom / Will conquer him! Awake,”

Here, we see that the ghosts are symbolic of the divine power punishing Richard as he challenges the Great Chain of Being in his quest to become king. This is reflective of Shakespeare’s highly religious context where they believe in God’s retribution and predeterminism. This means that  one cannot climb up the social ladder, either through merit or the murderous point of a sword.


Symbolism example 2: Al Pacino’s , Looking For Richard.

Pacino has reinterpreted Shakespeare’s ghost scene in various ways.

Here, he removes the significance of the ghosts in the film and focuses on Richard’s tormented facial expressions, which is represented by the tilted camera angles and the close-up shots of Richard’s tormented face

From this, we know that in Pacino’s adaptation, the ghosts are no longer symbolic of God’s retribution. Instead, they represent the deterioration of Richard’s psyche as he is haunted by his realisation of the detrimental effects of his immoral actions during his quest to become king. This is influenced by Pacino’s 20th century secular context where there is an increased understanding of human psychology.


Now let’s put these two analyses together in the style of a Mod A comparative response:

Over time, society’s perspective on an individual’s quest for power shifts. Shakespeare’s ghost scene in King Richard III is reflective of Richard’s predetermined state, warning his audience of the retribution that will ensure an individual’s challenging of the Great Chain of Being. As such, the ghosts here are symbolic of the divine power punishing Richard for his attempt to move up the social ladder and become king. This is further emphasised with the haunting repetition of “despair and die” that the ghosts chants as audiences are horrified by the damage caused during the immoral pursuit of power during the Elizabethan period. However, by the 1990s, society had become more secular and developed a greater understanding of human psychology. Reflecting this, Pacino reshapes this scene to warn modern audiences of the need to maintain their integrity when pursuing their ambitions. This is especially prominent in the decreased significance of the ghosts in this scene, as Pacino uses the dutch shots to focus on Richard’s tormented facial expressions instead of the apparitions. As such, the ghost’s insignificance symbolises the deterioration of Richard’s psyche as he realises the immorality of his actions when attempting to become king. As a consequence, modern audiences understand that while ambitious goals are acceptable in society now, one must always maintain their integrity in such pursuits.

You’ll notice, too, that this analysis includes more information about the context of the texts as required by the Module A syllabus.

Now you have a solid understanding of symbolism and how to use it, you want to ensure you start practising identifying and writing about it yourself.


Written by Tammy Dang

Tammy is a former student of Matrix and is now studying Law / Media (Screen and Sound Production) at UNSW. She is a Digital Content Writer for the Matrix Education blog. Tammy aspires to become a lawyer in the future while continuing to run her art business.


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