Examples of Homily in Literature

Definition of Homily

A homily is a speech or lecture that provides moral or religious advice and instruction. In literature, homilies are often used by writers and speakers in stories, poems, and plays to make a point, teach a lesson, or give guidance to other characters or the reader.

Examples of Homily in literature


Polonius’ Advice to Laertes in Hamlet

One of the most famous homilies comes from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. Before leaving for France, Polonius gives moral instruction to his son Laertes:

“Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame! The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail, And you are stay’d for. There; my blessing with thee! And these few precepts in thy memory See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue, Nor any unproportioned thought his act. Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar. Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel; But do not dull thy palm with entertainment Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee. Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice; Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment. Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy; For the apparel oft proclaims the man, And they in France of the best rank and station Are of a most select and generous chief in that. Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. This above all: to thine ownself be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

In this lengthy homily, Polonius gives moral advice to his son as he is about to embark into the world on his own. He tells Laertes to think before he speaks, hold true friends close, avoid fights but stand your ground as needed, listen more than you speak, be weary of passing trends and friends, hold true to yourself, and avoid borrowing and lending money.

The instruction provides practical guidance to live an honorable life and interact properly with friends and enemies alike. Through the fatherly wisdom, Shakespeare allows Polonius to lecture the audience as well on moral values that were important in his society at the time.


“The Gravediggers Scene in Hamlet”

Another example of homily in Hamlet comes from the two gravediggers in Act 5, Scene 1. As they are digging Ophelia’s grave, the First Gravedigger tells the Second Gravedigger and then Hamlet a homily about the circle of life and how even the mighty will eventually die:

First Clown: “…There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers: they hold up Adam’s profession.
Other Clown: Was he a gentleman?
First Clown: A’ was the first that ever bore arms.
Other Clown: Why, he had none.
First Clown: What, art a heathen? How dost thou understand the Scripture? The Scripture says ‘Adam digged:’ could he dig without arms? I’ll put another question to thee: if thou answerest me not to the purpose, confess thyself—
Other Clown: Go to.
First Clown: What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?
Other Clown: The gallows-maker; for that frame outlives a thousand tenants.
First Clown: I like thy wit well, in good faith: the gallows does well; but how does it well? it does well to those that do in: now thou dost ill to say the gallows is built stronger than the church: argal, the gallows may do well to thee. To’t again, come.”

Here the Gravedigger, though amusing in his logic, provides a homily on how death comes for everyone, from Adam down to “a thousand tenants” who meet their fate at the gallows. The symbolism of the grave and gallows add weight to his point about the universality of death. Shakespeare used the comedy of the scene and the character of the Gravedigger to provide some comic relief while also allowing the Gravedigger to wax philosophical on the inevitability of death. His musings serve as a small homily for the audience on the shared mortality of all people regardless of station.


“Iago’s Advice to Roderigo in Othello”

In Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, the villain Iago delivers several homilies to the hopeless romantic Roderigo, who is distraught over the marriage between Othello and Desdemona. Iago plays the role of mentor, giving Roderigo questionable advice and life lessons. For example, in Act 1 Scene 3, Iago says:

“Virtue! a fig! ‘tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs, or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. So ‘tis clear as is the summer’s sun.”

Iago tells Roderigo here that each man determines his own virtue through the exercise of will and self-discipline. He compares man to a garden, able to cultivate vices or virtues. Of course, Iago is being hypocritical himself, failing to follow his own advice in his evil pursuits. But his homily serves to further manipulate Roderigo through the guise of moral wisdom.

Shakespeare cleverly uses Iago’s hypocritical advice to critique empty religious homilies and false morality guiding individuals like Roderigo astray rather than helping them cultivate true virtue.


“The Parson’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales”

Geoffrey Chaucer utilizes a homily in “The Parson’s Tale,” the final story told by the traveling pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. The Parson gives a lengthy homily that is in essence an earnest sermon on the importance of penance and repentance:

“Now shall ye understand what is perfect penitence…Penance makes a man to have contrition of heart, and sorrow for his sin, and make him al ashamed of his trespass…Penance must be continual, and that man be evermore desirous to confess him…First, man ought to be verily repentant for his sins”

The entire tale is full of moral instruction, Biblical exegesis, commentary on virtues and vices, and guidance for readers on how to examine their conscience and atone for sins. The homily is fitting to close Chaucer’s grand collection of stories, as the Parson brings everyone in the pilgrimage back to thoughts of morality and the state of their soul.

Chaucer uses the homily to provide a moral standard for judging the other pilgrims’ various stories ranging from the courtly love in “The Knight’s Tale” to the bawdy and comedic “The Miller’s Tale.” The Parson’s sober lecture is a final reminder to the reader to look deeper for meaning than just the rollicking adventures.


Jaques’ “Seven Ages of Man” Speech in As You Like It

In Shakespeare’s classic comedy As You Like It, the character Jaques delivers one of literature’s most recognized homilies as he meditates on the universal life stages of man:

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms. Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school. And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice, In fair round belly with good capon lined, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances; And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts Into the lean and slippered pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side; His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice, Turning again toward childish treble, pipes And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Jaques delivers this homily on the seven phases of man’s life to Orlando and the other characters in the forest of Arden. Each stage is vividly described through rich metaphors from mewling infant to forgetful elder entering oblivion.

The entire play deals with themes of illusion, morality, and examining one’s life so this thoughtful, philosophical homily fits with Jaques always playing the melancholy observer commenting on human affairs. Shakespeare allows Jaques to muse on life’s journey from birth to death to remind the audience to reflect on meaning amidst the comedy unfolding among figures in the pastoral forest setting.

The “Quality of Mercy” Speech in The Merchant of Venice

In Act 4 Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, Portia delivers one of literature’s most eloquent pleas for mercy in the form of a homily to Shylock as he stubbornly tries to exact his pound of flesh from Antonio:

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes the monarch better than his crown. His scepter shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this scepter’d sway. It is enthroned in the hearts of kings; It is an attribute to God himself. And earthly power doth then show like God’s When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, Though justice by thy plea be satisfied, Consider this: That in the course of justice none of us Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy, And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much To mitigate the justice of thy plea, Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice Must needs give sentence against the merchant there.”

Through this eloquent speech, Portia gives a powerful homily on why Shylock should grant mercy to Antonio rather than exacting the strict punishment of his bond.

She argues for mercy as a divine and noble virtue that makes earthly rulers godlike and is mightier than royal displays of temporal power through scepters and crowns. Her lesson serves as commentary against the unbending pursuit of vengeance and the law without considerations of compassion or understanding.

Portia admits the law is on Shylock’s side but appeals to his conscience to be merciful as an act of humanity. Shakespeare brilliantly utilizes the speech to insert a moral lesson on mercy versus vengeance into the courtroom drama while also establishing Portia’s wisdom and rhetorical power as she dons her disguise as the young lawyer saving Antonio.

The homilies in all the above examples, whether brief or lengthy, use moral commentary, metaphors, and calls to virtue to instruct audiences on spiritual matters, social norms, and the deeper meanings of life’s journey.

Writers have used the homiletic form whether through gravediggers or princesses for figurative teachings across eras, cultures, and gender to insert philosophical, ethical lessons into their fiction. The creative literary homilies stand as enduring calls to examine and improve our brief sojourns on this mortal coil.

Examples of Homily in literature
Examples of Homily in literature

Related Terms

Here are two literary terms related to homily:

I- Sermon

Sermon is considered as a religious discourse. It is normally delivered in a church by a member of the clergy. It aims to extend moral and spiritual instruction. On the other hand, homily is a type of sermon that is typically shorter and less formal than a traditional sermon.

It often focuses on a specific moral lesson and interpretation of a scriptural passage. Sermons and homilies are both forms of didactic rhetoric.

II- Parable

Parable is a short and simple story. Parables often use metaphors and allegories to convey their message in a memorable way. Many of the homilies and sermons delivered by religious leaders particularly in Christianity draw on and expound upon the parables found in religious texts, such as the Bible.

Parables provide concrete examples and narratives that make abstract moral and spiritual concepts more accessible for the audience.

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