Alliteration is defined as the repetition of the first consonant sound or sounds in two or more words that follow each other in succession. These words may be immediately adjacent or separated by a few words. A simple example is "Betty had a baby boy."
Alliteration is often found in literature and poetry because it can frame a scene beautifully. It jumps off the page and into the reader's mind, but it can also emphasize a theme. When it's time to bring an idea home, alliteration is a great way to do it.
Using the works of William Shakespeare as a source to understand this literary tool is one of the finest places to start. For instance, alliteration examples in Romeo and Juliet abound.
In each of the quotes below, you'll know that, if Shakespeare is employing this tool, it's because he had something to say. Ready to see how a master of figurative language does it?
"From forth the fatal loins of these two foes; A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life." (Prologue to Act 1)
This is an example of alliteration with the letters "f" and "l." This line starts the second quatrain of the play's prologue (which is also a sonnet) and is used to strike a notable change in subject from the feud between the two families to the fatal dalliance between their children.
"Now old desire doth in his death-bed lie." (Prologue to Act 2)
The alliteration of the "d" sound is being used to emphasize the irony that Romeo once said he'd die for his former love, Rosaline. Once she's old news, isn't it ironic that he does, in fact, go on to die for Juliet?
"…the day to cheer and night's dank dew to dry." (Spoken by Friar Lawrence in Act 2, Scene 3)
These four repetitions of "d" are meant to emphasize the strength of the early morning light. It's enough to dry up the dank dew. (Light is a major motif within the play.)
"If e'er thou wast thyself, and these woes thine, thou and these woes were all for Rosaline." (Spoken by Friar Lawrence in Act 2, Scene 3)
The repeated "w" and "th" sounds add drama to the Friar's lament about how quickly Romeo has switched affections from Rosaline to Juliet.
"…slays all senses with the heart." (Spoken by Friar Lawrence in Act 2, Scene 3)
The alliteration of the "s" illustrates the power of a single flower. It can stop the senses, and even the heart.
"Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds, Towards Phoebus' lodging!" (Spoken by Juliet in Act 3, Scene 2)
This repetition is used to illustrate Juliet's desperate desire for Romeo to come to her. It also demonstrates the fact that alliteration isn't just a repeated letter but sound with the inclusion of "Phoebus."
"…as Phaethon would whip you to the west." (Spoken by Juliet in Act 3, Scene 2)
This is a continuation of Juliet's line above. Shakespeare is relying heavily on alliteration in this moment to illustrate Juliet's desperation for the sun to set so Romeo can come to her.
"I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins, that almost freezes up the heat of life." (Spoken by Juliet in Act 4, Scene 3)
The "f" sound is used three times to hype up the anticipation of Juliet's farewell to Lady Capulet and the Nurse.
"When griping grief the heart doth wound, and doleful dumps the mind oppress…" (Spoken by Peter in Act 4, Scene 5)
Alliteration is found in the "g" and "d" sounds to accentuate the power of impending depression.
"…and flecked darkness like a drunkard reels…" (Spoken by Friar Lawrence in Act 2, Scene 3)
The repetition of "d" here emphasizes the uncertainty of the darkness, similar to the uncertainty of a stammering drunk.
Alliteration is just one type of literary tool. Both assonance and consonance are related devices used by Shakespeare, as well many other poets and authors:
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds inside words that are close to one another. "He looked at the wooden bookcase" is an example of assonance with the "oo" sound.
Consonance is the repetition of a consonant sounds inside words that are close to one another. The difference between consonance and alliteration is that these repeated sounds don't come at the beginning of the word. Take note of the "ck" sound in the following example: "I will clean the muck off the duck in the crock."
Alliteration, and other literary tools, are important to consider when you want to emphasize certain words, add to the mood of the scene, or accentuate a motif.
Although Shakespeare was inarguably the master of alliteration (among other types of figurative language) we hope you'll continue to savor this tasty alliterative treat with a few Examples of Alliteration in Poems.