Word Play in Hamlet
A principal theme in Shakespeare's Hamlet is the strength and flexibility of language. Words are used to communicate ideas, but can also be used to distort or conceal the truth and manipulate. Throughout the play characters comment on the properties of language and exploit these for their own advantage.
Claudius, the shrewd politician is the most obvious example of a man who manipulates words to enhance his own power, possessing a professional grasp of the language. Using this he can oppress people and assert his authority, as we see him doing when delivering a polished speech to the council. He cleverly justifies the ill-viewed situation of his marriage to Gertrude, reminding them that their `better wisdoms' have `freely gone with this affair all along'. In this way he can brush past this sensitive matter, expect no interludes and proceed to other issues. It is interesting to note the changes and flexibility of his language. Addressing the crowd he initially adopts a personal tone on the matter of the past kings death, with creative oxymoron's like `wisest sorrow' and `defeated joy', knowing he speaks of a matter dear to all of them. He pays his own respect, in public, to the sensitive subject that should force the whole kingdom to `be contracted in one brow of woe'. Yet, once he has drawn the crowd to him, sympathised with them and become `one' of them in mourning, he then quickly proceeds to other matters in a far more formal tone. His clever use of language is once again shown, in his interrogation of Polonius's son. Laertes reveals that his `thoughts and wishes bend again toward France' and asks the Kings leave. Claudius does grant him the leave, but ...
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...y, intentionally directing the conversation away.
Words are portrayed throughout the play as flexible, valuable things. On seeing the ghost Marcellus urges Horatio to speak to it, as he is `a scholar'. Hamlet's strongest aspect of character is his ability to handle words effectively, yet they can also prove dangerous and slippery things. Despite possessing the sharpest grasp of the language, Hamlet denounces this aspect, proclaiming:
`That I, the son of a dear father murdered.
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words'
He regards them as useless, and acknowledges that words can never be a sufficient substitute for actions, only a temporary relief for Hamlet in the `rotten' state of Denmark.
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