Monday, November 5, 2012

Hamlet; Our New "Master of Words"

Even at the start of the play, there seems to be something different about Hamlet in comparison to the other main characters of the tragedies we've read; his first lines (and first soliloquy) reveal a strong and intelligent yet wildly emotional young man (on deck to be king!). He seems to be the "master of words"; a title previously held by more secondary characters in other plays (Feste in Twelfth Night, Beatrice in Much Ado, Iago in Othello, etc.) It is undeniable that characters like Feste, Beatrice and Iago played large roles in their respective plays, but they are not their play's namesake nor do they serve as the focal point but rather as ironic or catalyzing components. This early characterization of Hamlet as a main character with drive and the strongest grasp of language (out of the other characters) paints him as a character with depth; perhaps one that tragedy doesn't "happen upon" but one that orchestrates it himself.

Hamlet's first lines in the play are defiant, emotional and quick-witted in response to King Claudius (his uncle/step-father!) calling him "son", "A little more than kin and less than kind"(1.2 65) As the footnote in our Norton reveals to us, this one line carries a big punch- it serves as a means for Hamlet to backhandedly insult Claudius, announce his displeasure at the marriage between and his mother and Claudius and also introduces Hamlet as a poetic character. Perhaps this early development of Hamlet as a force not to be reckoned with in speech and discussion is why this play has more soliloquies than we've seen in other tragedies thus far. 

Hamlet's first soliloquy in Act I Scene II divulges important information to the audience that is either partially already known by the other characters in the play or can only be known by the audience for the impending drama to unfold the way Shakespeare plans. Hamlet starts off in the midst of tragedy, Hamlet Senior has passed away, his ghost seems to be haunting the grounds of the Castle and just after a month of his death his wife remarried his brother and his son is still mourning. Because Hamlet (Jr.) is such an eloquent, intelligent character from the start he addresses us, the audience, alone and allows us into his inner thoughts rather than other characters and situations revealing important information to us (another one of Shakespeare's plot-development techniques).

"...O most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue"
(1.2 156-159)

If this ending to a soliloquy does not insinuate Hamlet's potential involvement in a tragic corrosion of what's left of his family (and himself), I'm not sure what would. Our main character, quick with his tongue and drenched in sorrow is so angry at his mother, angry at his father for leaving him in this position, upset that his father is gone and disgusted with his uncle seems to be insinuating that he is breaking. Could this breaking point destroy his family? Is Hamlet, the future prince of Denmark going to be a powerful character that creates his own tragedy (perhaps like Richard) rather than one that get's manipulated by the power of others (like Othello)? 


Amanda Wolfer said...

Nice Post. The first Act leaves the reader with a lot of questions. I can understand Hamlet's anger towards his mother, just one month after his father passes, she seems to quickly move on to his uncle. Hamlet also describes to the audience the love-filled and happy marriage his mother and father shared. Seeing her not grieve her husband seems a bit strange. Although later in the scene, Hamlet discovers the ghost is actually his father, he tells Hamlet to prevent this incest and yet, not harm his mother. I have a feeling Hamlet will in some way, harm his mother because of his severe anger and disgust to this new relationship.

Barbara Gallagher said...

I like the way you are comparing Hamlet to other characters we've gotten to know through other Shakespeare plays. Hamlet IS a different sort of character. He is revealing his inner thoughts and his psychology more so than in any other plays we've read. Hamlet seems very aware that his mother has done a disservice to his father and seems to imagine her lusts are what drove her to marry Claudius so soon after her husband's death. I love the first sentence of your last paragraph: "If this ending to a soliloquy does not insinuate Hamlet's potential involvement in a tragic corrosion of what's left of his family (and himself), I'm not sure what would." Excellent point! As the play evolves, we'll see whether Hamlet is a powerful character or one who is manipulated but it does seem as if this "master of words" is a force to be reckoned with.

Christina_Joseph said...

I think that it is important to see if there are any similarities among the characters of Shakespeare's plays. I think that Hamlet seems a lot like Othello. He uses his situation to his advantage and is eloquent in his speech. He is fooling everyone yet still achieving what he set out to do. The only difference between him and Othello at the moment is that while Hamlet chooses to use insanity to his benefit, Othello actually loses his grasp on reality and is consumed by his anxiety and jealousy. As Barbara mentions, it will be very interesting to see if Hamlet's insanity will continue to be something that he is in control of or if he will soon be consumed by his desire to avenge his father's death.

Cyrus Mulready said...

This is a great analysis of Hamlet's language, Julian, and you are keen to note the ways in which he reminds us of other characters we have seen, I'd be curious to know if you think this wordplay at all undermines his position as prince within the play? In other words, is Shakespeare showing us something about this character through the way he demonstrates his wit?