Hamlet: Meaning Within Meaning

Hamlet: Meaning Within Meaning

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Hamlet:  Meaning Within Meaning      

       Within the play Hamlet there exist many puns and phrases, which have a double meaning. Little plays on words which tend to add a bit of entertainment to the dialogue of the play. These forked tongue phrases are used by Shakespeare to cast an insight to the characters in the play to give them more depth and substance. However, most importantly, these phrases cause the reader or audience to think. They are able to show a double meaning that not all people would pick up on, which is the purpose of the comments.

Little is known about Shakespeare's life, other than he was a great playwright whose works serve to meld literary casts for ages to come. This was his occupation, he wrote and directed plays to be performed. This was his sole form of income that we know of, it was his way of putting the bread on the table. If people did not like what Shakespeare wrote, then he would not earn any money. If the people didn't like what they saw, he became the starving artist. Shakespeare wrote these dialogues in such a manner as to entertain the Nobility, as well as the peasants.

The Shakespearean theater is a physical manifestation of how Shakespeare catered to more than one social class in his theatrical productions. These Shakespearean theaters have a unique construction, which had specific seats for the wealthy, and likewise, a designated separate standing section for the peasants. This definite separation of the classes is also evident in Shakespeare's writing, in as much as the nobility of the productions speak in poetic iambic pentameter, whereas the peasants speak in ordinary prose. Perhaps Shakespeare incorporated these double meanings into the lines of his characters with the intention that only a select number of his audience were meant to hear it in either its double meaning, or its true meaning. However, even when the tragic hero, Hamlet's, wordplay is intentional, it is not always clear why he uses it. To confuse or to clarify? Or to control his own uncensored thoughts? The energy and turmoil of his mind brings words thronging into speech, stretching, over-turning and contorting their implications. Sometimes Hamlet has to struggle to use the simplest words repeatedly, as he tries to force meaning to flow in a single channel.

To Ophelia, after he has encountered her in her loneliness, "reading on a book," he repeats five times, "Get thee to a nunnery;" varying the phrase very little, simply reiterating what was already said by changing "get" to "go.

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" This well-known quote, to this day, cannot be deciphered in its entirety, for nunnery is a place where nuns live, yet it is also a brothel. Hamlet seems to knowingly cast a shade of confusion into the minds of the audience - or is it, in fact, clarity within confusion. That is, the audience is able to better understand the thoughts and inner struggle of Hamlet via these conflicting terms. After Hamlet has visited his mother "all alone" in her closet and killed Polonius, after she has begged him to "speak no more", and after his father's ghost has reappeared, Hamlet repeats "Good night" five times, with still fewer changes in the phrase than "Get thee to a nunnery" and those changes among accompanying words only. So Hamlet seems to be struggling to contain his thoughts, even by use of these simple words, rather than enforcing a single and simple message as a first reading of the text might suggest; and the words come to bear deeper, more ironic or more blatant meanings. It is from these phrases, which even manage to confuse the complex mind of Hamlet, that we begin to get a glimpse into the intentions of Hamlet’s mind, and to see the way he thinks.

Much of the dramatic action of this tragedy is within the head of Hamlet, and wordplay represents the amazing, contradictory, unsettled, mocking nature of that mind, as it is torn by disappointment and positive love. Hamlet seeks both acceptance and punishment, action and stillness, and wishes for consummation and annihilation within a world he perceives to be against him. He can be abruptly silent or vicious; he is capable of wild laughter and tears, and also playing polite and sane. The narrative is a kind of mystery and chase, so that, underneath the various guises of his wordplay, we are made keenly aware of his inner dissatisfaction, and come to expect some resolution at the end of the tragedy, some unambiguous "giving out" which will report Hamlet and his cause aright to the unsatisfied among the readers. Hamlet himself is aware of this expectation as the end approaches, and this still further whets our anticipation for what is to come.

A commonly recurring theme throughout the play is that of honesty. It is introduced in the beginning of the play, and as the play continues, its use becomes more and more common, as well as more and more ironic. This theme within the play itself is ironic, for as Marcellus said "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" and this corruption we see so exhibited in the play is far from honest. When Hamlet applies the word “honest” to the main characters of the play, his use of it becomes undeniably ironic, and much of the dark humor of the play derives from Hamlet's wordplay. Polonius remarks that though Hamlet's insults seem to make no sense, "yet there is method in 't." In Act II, it is Polonius who is the first target of Hamlet's irony in the use of “honest.” Hamlet calls him first a "fishmonger" which has many meanings, including the implication that Ophelia is a whore and Polonius is her pimp. And of course, Polonius has employed his daughter in his plot to discover the depth of Hamlet's "madness." When Polonius says he is not a fishmonger, Hamlet replies "Then I would you were so honest a man." In other words, he wishes Polonius was as honest as a simple fish seller, or even more insulting, as honest as the pimp Hamlet insinuated he was. In this scene, Hamlet also uses this ironic meaning of honesty against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when he tells them "...I will not sort you with the rest of my servants, for, to speak to you like an honest man, I am most dreadfully attended." He seems to mean that he cannot speak to them with honesty, because they themselves are dishonest in their intentions.

Honesty resonates as a theme in Hamlet, ironically. The King deceives the world and pretends a legitimacy he does not have; Hamlet deceives the court by feigning madness; Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all try to deceive Hamlet into revealing why he is distraught, and no one knows what is truth and what is a lie. The world has not grown honest, as Rosencrantz claims, but dishonest, and no one who lives in it can keep his honesty pure from the corrupting air.

Hamlet seems to be the character that uses the majority of such puns and phrases in the play. These phrases, which have double meaning, could represent the inner turmoil, which seems to be tearing Hamlet apart. By seeing a definite double meaning to many phrases in the play, we are able to easily see that all is not as it should be. Hamlet's personality is thrown into chaos. He is mourning the death of his father, and then his mother marries his uncle. He is enraged at her, and on top of all of this he sees the ghost of his father commanding him to avenge his wrongful murder. Yet, amongst all this turmoil, I believe that Hamlet was only playing the part of being crazy. He speaks in riddles and plays on words in order to create a certain suspicion about his sanity. This abnormal activity gives him the ability to sneak a few insults by without having to directly confront his enemies. It seems to be quite a bit worse if the person who was insulted isn't exactly sure whether or not they were just insulted. Hamlet is able to interject these insults without the other character noticing, which is the art of insult. It is the unpredictability of action, the sporadic bouts of insanity and sanity, the inner turmoil brewing within Hamlet, which keeps the audience's interest. Nobody is really sure whether or not Hamlet was insane.

Many have theories and beliefs, but Shakespeare never came out and said he definitely is or definitely is not sane, he only hints. There are valid arguments on either side, for Hamlet himself said "I am mad but north-northwest"; that is he is only mad about one thing in particular. The wordplay in Hamlet is a representation of the complexity of the minds of the characters that Shakespeare created. It is a depiction of the inner turmoil within a character struggling with sanity. However, more importantly it is necessary to keep in mind that Shakespeare was a playwright and that the play on words did one thing, in particular, which is why Shakespeare lived to write so many plays. Hamlet, because of its wording is entertaining and that made all the difference.

Works Cited:

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Betty Bealy. Toronto: Canadian School Book Exchange, 1996.
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