Hamlet Dramaturgy

Informing Bethany Lutheran College's Spring 2013 Production. Shows at: April 19, 20, 26, 27 at 7:30pm and April 21 at 2pm

Michael Lilienthal on “Words”

Hey guys, I asked Michael awhile ago about writing about a theory he has on words. This is what he gave me and let me tell you, it’s some pretty fascinating stuff and it applies to LITERALLY EVERYONE. – Lydia

Words, Words, Words: A Discussion of Themes in Hamlet

By Michael Lilienthal 

We’ve all heard the talk about the theme of revenge in Hamlet, and the theme of suicide, and of pride.  All these themes apply, but there is one that overarches these and connects them and, I believe, is the central theme to this tragedy.  That is the theme of words.

From the start of the play, when Horatio, Marcellus, and Francisco stand and confront the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the importance of words is revealed, as Horatio cries out to the spectre:

If thou hast any sound, or use of voice,

Speak to me.

If there be any good thing to be done,

That may to thee do ease and grace to me,

Speak to me.

If thou art privy to thy country’s fate,

Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid,

O, speak!

Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life

Extorted treasure in the womb of earth,

For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death,

Speak of it.  Stay, and speak! (I.i.128-139)

What good can this ghost do, if it is not accompanied by words?  There is an absence, a silence in his presence, which serves only to cause fear, and thus we can almost detect the franticness with which Horatio begs that this ghost utter just one word.

When Hamlet is told of the ghost a scene later, one of his first questions is, “Did you not speak to it?” (I.ii.214).  Again, there is a reality to be detected in the words that one speaks.

Something too much of this: consider now the various characters.  Polonius is perhaps one of the most representative characters to this theme, described (post mortem) as “a foolish, prating knave” (III.iv.215).  Indeed, he serves as a windbag, a babbler who likes to hear his own voice.  If anything defines Polonius, it is words – and ironically, words that go on ad nauseum and thus lose their meaning.  And this is especially ironic because the old man himself advises against overuse and waste of words:

to expostulate

What majesty should be, what duty is,

Why day is day, night night, and time is time,

Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time.

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,

And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,

I will be brief. (II.ii.86-92)

He likewise advises his son, “Give thy thoughts no tongue,” and, “Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice; / Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment,” advice which he himself cannot take (I.iii.59; 68-69).  Further, he almost seems to admit this fault of his to his daughter when he says, “I do know, / When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul / Lends the tongue vow” (I.iii.115-117).  Finally, too, it is an ill-timed word which brings doom down on Polonius’ head: crying out in Gertrude’s closet he reveals himself and Hamlet strikes him down.

But this is no great revelation.  Everyone knows how words are the bane of Polonius, that tedious old fool.  Likewise the theory of words is popularly inserted into a dual analysis of the characters of Laertes and Hamlet – the former being one who acts without thinking, the latter one who thinks without acting.  It is asserted that Hamlet lacks the courage to act, but rather is more like Polonius than he would care to admit, talking about his problems, rather than performing them: he himself says,

This is most brave,

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,

And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,

A scullion!” (II.ii.568-573)



Words, Words, Words. 

Hamlet himself falls into similar prating as Polonius on occasion.  Simply look at the volume of words he speaks throughout the play, and how at the play-within-a-play he writes a speech for the players, and advises them on exactly how it should be spoken, “trippingly on the tongue.  But if you mouth it as many of your players do, I had as life the town-crier spoke my lines” (III.ii.2-3).  Whereas Polonius seemed a slave to his words and was aware only that words may enslave, Hamlet sees that he himself is a slave of tAnd consider, now, the center of Shakespeare’s art: its profound, central medium is words: the performance, the actions that occur on the stage, all move to serve the words.  The irony in looking at this medium is that it serves itself.  Words are not only the means by which this writer’s message is communicated, but they form the central theme of that message.  Hamlet, then, comes in the center of the Bard’s career, written sometime ca. 1600-01.  I’ll make another connection now to an event in Shakespeare’s life only four years precedent to the writing of this play: Hamnet his son, died in illness.  Stephen Greenblatt writes a powerful account of how this event may have affected the writing of Shakespeare’s most famous play, “The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet.”  He notes that, in the four years between the boy’s death and the writing of Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote a number of great comedies, but this is by no means indicative that he was unaffected by grief, especially in connection with King John and the character of a “mother so frantic at the loss of her son that she is driven to thoughts of suicide.”

Greenblatt also notes that many poets of the time “wrote grief-stricken poems about the loss of beloved children,” while “Shakespeare published no elegies and left no direct record of his paternal feelings.”  Indeed, if a parent’s primary form of expression was through words, one would expect that that parent would express such a feeling of grief through these words.  Why, then, delay?  If Hamlet is Shakespeare’s ultimate manifestation of grief over his son’s death, why was he so silent over that theme for four years?  Of course, here I am assuming that Hamlet indeed served this purpose, which is by no means proven, but if the question of the delay is asked, the answer, I feel, must come in the nature of words.

One may say that Shakespeare projected himself into the character of Hamlet, but it is by no means so simple.  The author of any work may not so simplistically be found in only one of his characters.  Shakespeare has cast his genius over the prism of the dramatic medium, dividing all the colors of his psyche over each character – thus the author is the melancholy prince, the incestuous king, the prating fool, the mad lady, the duped courtiers.  It is intriguing to unify the man behind all these masks, and here we see the connection point in the preoccupation with words, per se.

The questions on Shakespeare’s mind about these words are, Do these words have any weight apart from their appearance and external sound?  E.g. see when Hamlet objects to his mother’s use of the word “seems,” and rather insists on verbal precision:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’

’Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,

Nor customary suits of solemn black,

Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,

No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,

Nor the dejected havior of the visage,

Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,

That can denote me truly.  These indeed seem

For they are actions that a man might play,

But I have that within which passeth show;

These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (I.ii.76-86)

Consider, too, the amount of the play preoccupied with performance and the work of the audience.  One almost expects the lines from As You Like It to appear here, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” (II.vii.139-140).  Shakespeare’s words and performances are all interconnected.  Consider, too, the hypocrites in the play (N.B. hypocrite is from the Greek for “actor”), as Claudius confesses, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; / Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (III.iii.97-98).  Likewise Hamlet, too, when he goes to confront his mother, he intends to use deceptive words to motivate her to repentance and salvation, vowing to himself, “My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites” (III.ii.380).

Shakespeare’s art in words acknowledges the power that those devices carry to change the mood, to work reason, to motivate action.  And yet with all this power these words are powerless.  Can Hamlet’s words cause Claudius to die for his murder?  Can Claudius’ words give him the forgiveness he desires?  Can Shakespeare’s words bring his son back to life?  This last is certainly reflected in the exchange between Hamlet and Laertes near the end of the play:

And if thou prate of mountains, let them throw

Millions of acres on us, till our ground,

Singeing his pate against the burning zone,

Make Ossa like a wart!  Nay, an thou’lt mouth,

I’ll rant as well as thou. (V.i.265-269)

Indeed, prior to this Hamlet cries out,

What is he whose grief

Bears such an emphasis? whose phrase of sorrow

Conjures the wand’ring stars and makes them stand

Like wonder-wounded hearers? (V.i.239-242)

Throughout this scene Hamlet wonders whether his words can outdo Laertes’, and whether, even if they do so, they might effect something real, even if it is not to bring the beloved Ophelia back to the earth.  This is especially ironic in that it immediately follows the conversation the prince held with the gravedigger, of whom he said, “How absolute the knave is!  We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us” (V.i.125-126).  Note too, that with the gravedigger he spoke in prose, but to Laertes, when his own words were a matter of import, he spoke in poetry.

What weight do words carry?  This is the question the Bard asks.  Indeed, consider words from the source of Scripture.  With these humble tools God created the cosmos, and the Savior of all is himself called “the Word.”  And this divine instrument is given to man?  Adam was given the privilege to name the animals – to invent words, making the art of the wordsmith perhaps the oldest profession (not digging, as the gravedigger would pronounce [V.i.27-28]).  At the Tower of Babel language was confused, so that this grand work was corrupted with the rest of creation.  Shakespeare wonders, then, what remains?  What can a man do with his words?  Will words do anything?  And if they will not, is it even their purpose to do anything?  He certainly hopes that with his words, “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (II.ii.591-592).  Indeed, it seems to have that hoped-for effect.  Yet by the end of the play comes a sort of fatalism.  Man’s words cannot change much, it may seem, as “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (V.ii.10-11).  Likewise,

There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.  If it be not now, ’tis not to come.  If it be not to come, it will be now.  If it be not now, yet it will come.  The readiness is all. (V.ii.205-208)

Shakespeare may have come to peace by the end of this play.  The question of why he should continue to use his words, of whether they may do anything in the face of fate, of whether a man has any power, he ultimately leaves unanswered.  With Hamlet’s dying voice he enjoins Horatio his friend to tell Fortinbras that the dying prince supports him, “with the occurents, more and less, / Which have solicited” (V.ii.343-344).  “More and less,” he says, indicating that there are some things he would have told, others he would not.  Though man’s words may be powerless, it is no matter, for he will say what he will, and his words always endeavor to accomplish something.  But finally the prince is free of this web of words that may or may not hold power and strength, for, “The rest,” he says, “is silence” (V.ii.344).  It is not off to a dread, fearful night that he departs, with “the dread of something after death, / The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns” (III.i.78-80).  It is, rather, peace, and the escape from the struggle – a struggle which itself is defined by a multitude of noises, voices, and words.


4 comments on “Michael Lilienthal on “Words”

  1. Kristin Carr
    March 25, 2013

    Wow! This was a really interesting take on Hamlet. One for sure that most people do not think about. However, in reading it, the theory completely makes sense! I got especially excited when I realized in the last paragraph the conclusion to the play: “The rest is silence.” Goosebumps!

  2. Kaitlyn
    March 25, 2013

    Michael, if your preaching is half as good as your writing, I hope you’re my pastor one day! Haha but in all seriousness, this was a thought on Hamlet I have rarely heard articulated so well. I totally agree with this! I am loving the idea of this blog.

  3. lissasassypants
    March 25, 2013

    Thanks Michael!

  4. mglilienthal
    March 25, 2013

    Glad to hear the positive feedback! Kristin, I also got goosebumps when I first read Hamlet’s last line. One thing I didn’t touch on in this post so much was that while Hamlet’s departure into silence seems to him a relief, at the beginning of the play the silence of the ghost is a point of agitation and fear. I think this is indicative of the growth and maturity of Hamlet throughout the play (and that of Shakespeare). He realizes by the end that he no longer needs to fill the world with his prating, but can simply allow some things to happen without his attempted control.

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This entry was posted on March 25, 2013 by in Shakespeare/Hamlet History, Text.

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