Color is often used by writers to evoke feelings and create understanding in their audience. With color usage, the writer often conveys a large idea or theme artistically and successfully. William Shakespeare scattered lush, colorful language (often literally so) throughout his plays. This device helps speeches come alive. In Hamlet, black and green are found in the first act, pointing to larger ideas contained in this tragedy.
When one thinks of Hamlet, the color that comes to mind is black. This famous tragic play has dark and melancholy associations that one cannot ignore. Even if one had not read this play, many know that Hamlet is a character who dons black because of his image in popular culture. The color choice is rooted in the original text. The stage directions found in 1.2 state, “Hamlet [dressed in black].” His black dress signifies multiple things. Primarily it is his mode of showing grief and mourning for the recently deceased King Hamlet, his father. Donning black is not uncommon today when one goes to funerals, so Shakespeare’s choice is still pertinent to modern Western culture. This color choice also separates the character from others, who are not described as wearing a specific tone. Hamlet is very much an outsider in this play - alone in his thoughts and plots. The black showcases his inner emotional struggle from losing his father and his mother being married to his uncle.
Act one mentions black more than any other color, so it is worthy to note and obviously important to Shakespeare. Queen Gertrude questions her son with concern over his attire and attitude: “Good Hamlet, cast thy nightly colour off/ And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark” (1.2.68-9). I love the imagery Shakespeare conveys with the rich description of “nightly colour.” While abstract, it is still easy to understand the concept behind Gertrude’s words. I think of deep blues, purples, and blacks when “nightly colour” is said. This evokes moodiness and weight in the scene and in Hamlet’s overall condition. The footnote in the text cites her words to reference not only Hamlet’s dark garments, but his “melancholic behavior” (p.1072, footnote 8). The description perfectly captures both aspects. Later, in the same scene, Hamlet states that inner feelings are truthfully reflected in his outer mode. He is not simply putting on a show: “But I have that within which passeth show-/These but the trappings and the suits of woe” (1.2.85-6). Shakespeare is hinting through these lines that Hamlet is not ashamed of his emotions and mourning.
More allusions to blackness are found in the speech previously mentioned as Hamlet answers the Queen. His “inky cloak,” and “suits of solemn black” refer to color, but in creative ways (1.2.77-8). I think the description “inky” is perfect as it makes one think of Hamlet covered in some liquid black that is seeping into his soul. It is much more valuable to say “inky” than simply “black cloak.” The word “solemn” contrasts nicely with the actions of Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius. With the quick funeral and wedding afterwards, Hamlet views Claudius as irreverent. The prince chooses to observe and memorialize his father’s life with the color black. Claudius even states that his nephew’s “obstinate condolement is a course/ Of impious stubbornness, ‘tis unmanly grief…”(1.2.93-4). Perhaps this showcase of “black” makes Claudius nervous as it is a constant, visual reminder of the wicked death deed he has done to become king.
Black is not a solo color in the play. Green appears multiple times in act one. In the beginning of 1.2, Claudius puts on a show of sadness over his brother’s death with, “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death/ The memory be green, and that it us befitted To bear our hearts in grief…” (1-3). A modern version might say, “the king’s life and death are still fresh in our minds.” It is so close in time to the king’s murder it is as if he is still is alive and no one has had time to process the death, especially the black wearing Hamlet. Green symbolizes not only life and springtime, but also prosperity. King Hamlet is still prospering, although deceased, because his memory lives on in the minds of the court. Shakespeare provides a wonderful contrast between the black that Hamlet wears and the greenness that describes his father. The former is the one actually living, but shrouded in a death-like color, while the latter bears the tone of life.
Green is not used exclusively for the royal family in the text. Polonius calls his daughter the same color that Claudius uses in relation to the former king. In 1.4, Polonius sates, “You speak like a green girl/ Unsifted in such perilous circumstance” (101- 02). The “green girl,” Ophelia, is belittled and treated as a child by her father. This color touches more on inexperience. Polonius does not trust his daughter, so he tells her what to do and not to do. He later commands her to “think yourself a baby,” and a “woodcock” or gullible bird (1.3.105 and 115). The color choice fits perfectly with Ophelia being naive, young, and dependent on others. Her father and brother want to think for this “green girl” who has so much to learn.
In Hamlet, black and green are filled with meaning. They showcase themes in a powerful manner. I am eager to notice more color usage by Shakespeare throughout the remainder of this tragedy.