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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE PLAY

STYLE

The language of Shakespeare's plays tends to frighten many students and put them off. This comes from being told Shakespeare's plays are great poetry. To get around this, always remember that for Shakespeare's audience poetry was a kind of game, a way of marking in words the difference between a play and real life.

For Elizabethans, the poetic imagery and feeling of the great speeches in Hamlet had the excitement that a big song number in a musical comedy or a rock concert has for us. Like music, poetry is a way of heightening the power of what is being said in a play. It does this with sound and rhythm, with images, and, in Elizabethan verse, with what we call rhetoric. Rhetoric was taught to educated people in Shakespeare's time through the study of the Latin poets and orators. An Elizabethan gentleman was expected to be able to indulge in this elegant form of showing-off, and a gift for it was a way of gaining recognition at court or in the theater. Courtiers took for granted that flights of rhetoric would be part of any play they went to see, and ordinary people enjoyed it as something special and outside their daily experience. Shakespeare first became famous for his great rhetorical gift: You can see it in Hamlet when he makes Hamlet say he loved Ophelia more than forty thousand brothers could, or when he makes his mother compare the pictures of his father and Claudius.


Closely tied up with rhetoric as a field of study for the Elizabethans was logic, or the art of thinking in sequence. It is especially important in Hamlet because the hero is a student of philosophy, which means he has been learning how to express ideas in logical form. Sometimes Shakespeare uses logic to show Hamlet's sense of humor, as when he "proves" that Claudius is his mother. At other times he builds, out of the textbook ideas of logic, the great soliloquies in which Hamlet meditates on the purpose of life and death. In fact, the line "To be or not to be: that is the question," though the most famous in the play, is not original with Shakespeare; he is making Hamlet quote the opening of the standard philosophic debate on whether life is worth living. What is important, of course, is that these elements are always used in a human and individual way. Hamlet is a story about people and their lives, not a textbook discussion of abstract ideas.

At the time it was written, Shakespeare was just beginning to develop the innovative approach of what we think of as his late style, in which the smooth and conventional rhetoric of his earlier plays is chopped up and fragmented to reflect the inner rhythms of a human mind, and not the polish of a system of writing in which all the characters think alike. When Hamlet bandies words with Osric or Polonius, or makes fun of Claudius' proclamations, Shakespeare is ridiculing the conventions of rhetoric; and in the soliloquies, with their jumps from one thought to the next, he develops a lean and disturbing poetry that has made the play seem alive to every century.

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