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Word and Deed in Hamlet’s Death Scene

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The very act of engaging with fiction necessitates recognizing the possibilities and the limits of words. The audience of, for example, Hamlet obviously recognizes that the aim of words is not always to accurately describe reality. Yet, this recognition brings along with it a frightening realization: even when one tries, it is next to impossible to use words to accurately describe reality. In his 1951 article The Word In Hamlet, John Paterson argues that this crisis alarms Hamlet because of its relation to the greater chasm between appearance and substance; and that the crisis is ultimately solved by a reunion of word and deed in the play’s end. Yet, a closer reading of Hamlet’s death scene, while recognizing some superficial union of word and deed, suggests the ultimate failure of words to capture reality. Paterson addresses the dual nature of Hamlet as a play beloved for “the fullness and richness of the language” and a play that take an “intensely critical, almost disillusionist, attitude” toward language itself (47). Paterson argues that the play’s dismissive stance on language results from the greater issue within Hamlet of the gaps between reality and appearance. Words, Paterson argues, “stand for artifice, insincerity, falsity. Their meaning is not as true as their music. They operate everywhere at some remove from real meaning” (48). The play’s end apparently mends this gap between word and deed (that is, between appearance and reality) by reestablishing the validity of the word, in part through Hamlet’s dying request that the truth be told (54-55). An initial reading of Hamlet’s final lines supports, Paterson’s suggestion that word and deed are ultimately reunited in the play’s end. It is clear, certainly, how concern... ... middle of paper ... ...n behind the words and appearances. Yet much as they do Hamlet, words begin to rebel against Paterson, ambushing him in his quest for their concealed truths. A more nuanced reading of Hamlet is perhaps less satisfying, as it fails to provide the reader with a neat answer. Yet, like Hamlet, the audience is ultimately unwilling to forgo truth for artifice. When the audience brushes away Paterson’s artifice, they come to find a more complicated relationship between word and deed, even in the play’s final moments--yet, ultimately a more fruitful relationship as well. Works Cited Austin, J. L.. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962. Print. Paterson, John. "The Word in Hamlet." Shakespeare Quarterly 2.1 (1951): 47-55. JSTOR. Web. 11 Jan. 2014. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1603. Reprint. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Print.
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