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Literary Origins: Shakespeare's Creative Wordplay: A Linguistic Analysis of Catachreses in Hamlet.

Updated on September 30, 2011
As if Hamlet could be any more famous, it is just as brilliant from a linguistic perspective.
As if Hamlet could be any more famous, it is just as brilliant from a linguistic perspective.

Hamlet as an intriguing historical document in the development of the English language.

The reputation of Hamlet as one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays often times overlooks one of the greatest achievements of the play.  While many scholars acknowledge the play as the birth of the modern man,[1] few seem to place as much significance on the language of the play as they do elements such as theme and character.  This appears to be oversight, given the fact that the play is one of the single greatest examples of creative use of language in not only Shakespeare’s works, but perhaps all works in the English language.[2]  Traditionally, those scholars that have tackled the issue of the language in Hamlet do so by either illuminating how specific aspects of his language are new or have had lasting effects upon the language.  One is hard pressed, however, to find an examination of how this inventiveness in language bears upon its presentation of the play’s central issues or characters.

            This creative use of language in the play should be considered when evaluating it because the play’s interconnectedness is another of the great achievements of Hamlet.  The task becomes to see what the language of the play actually says about the play.  More specifically, since Shakespeare’s vehicle for this creativity was the words of his characters, what does their language say about who they are?  To focus the discussion, in hopes of managing the task at hand; how specifically is Shakespeare linguistically creative within the language of the primary character of the play, Hamlet, and how does this creativity affect this character? While one critic, M. M. Mahood, says, “there cannot be, on the wave band of speculation, room for any new theory of Hamlet’s inability to act”, he also acknowledges that Hamlet’s “wordplay releases his deepest feelings” (112, 119).  Ruth Stevenson, in her examination of the play as a poem, states that the creativity in Hamlet’s wordplay “gradually create a linguistic drama which takes on a coherent life of its own” (435).[3]  A careful examination of this linguistic drama in Hamlet’s speech, reveals how his words draw attention to the limitations language presents him, an anxiety Hamlet ultimately expresses when he claims to “have that within which passeth show” (Shakespeare 1.2.85).  While this claim can be read simply as a refusal on Hamlet’s part, to reveal his inner-self and expose his plan for revenge, an examination of the linguistic drama Shakespeare creates with the character of Hamlet’s abundant use of poetic and tropic language, in particular Shakespeare’s exploitation of the creative potential of catachresis, reveals Hamlet is not simply refusing to uncover his true intentions, but that deep down, he is essentially worried about the dangers arising from the linguistic enterprise of the revelation and concealing of this inner-self, an enterprise that this inner-self’s very existence necessitates of him. These dangers, for Hamlet, originate in the failure of an inherently limited thing such as language, as revealed and enriched through Shakespeare’s creative use of catachresis, to ultimately either conceal or reveal his inner-self. 

            Speaking more generally about this language Hamlet finds so limiting, scholars have long recognized several facets of Shakespeare’s linguistic achievements in Hamlet.  As critic N. F. Blake has noted, “Each writer…has to use the resources of the language of his time and to exploit them to his own purposes” (15).  Hamlet is a catalogue of masterful “exploitations” by one of the most creative minds in the history of the English literature.[4]   For example, “by one scholars count, [Shakespeare] introduced over six hundred words in Hamlet...many of these words do not appear, at least with the form or meaning they have here, in any previous English text” (Greenblatt 1661).  Other scholars have noted Shakespeare’s syntactical innovations, stating, “In Hamlet, more so than in any play before, we find clusters of unusual syntactic devices” (Houston 83).[5]  Still Hamlet’s morphological ingenuity has been the focus for others; one scholar even notes that in Act one alone, Shakespeare creates fifty-one different words the suffix “ing” (Stevenson 442).  Another critic points out how Shakespeare uses his understanding of morphology to create new negative terms by means of the prefix “un”, which create “vigor and freshness” in his language (Joseph 133).  Still other critics have explored the tropic and poetic devices Shakespeare employs to work out “vivid combinations” of words and ideas (Stevenson 435).[6]  Ruth Stevenson’s essay even interprets the play as “the poem of the millennium” and thoroughly examines different aspects of this claim taken from the play’s language throughout the length of her paper (435). 

[1] For discussions of different historical significances scholars have found in the play see (Grazia 355) (Stevenson 435, 437). 

[2] For critical support for the claim of Hamlet’s linguistic significance see (Greenblatt 1661), (Joseph 57-61), (Houston 76-77), (Danner 32-33), (Mahood 114-115).

[3] See (Blake 7) and (Fisch 58-59) for other critical evaluations of the play that consider linguistic mechanisms and their implications. 

[4] A major example of Shakespeare’s tendency to exploit poetic device in every possibly imaginable way, in his other works, can be found in his treatment of the form of the sonnet or the theme of love in his 154 sonnets.

[5] Other examples of critical treatments of Hamlet’s creative syntax can be found in (Joseph 54, 294-295), (Blake 2), and (Brook 67, 72). 

[6] Examples of Shakespeare’s use of tropic language, that is, poetic device, can be found in (Danner 32-33), (Joseph 144-145), (Brook 174-176).   

The Bard of Avon. (April of 1564 to April of 1616).
The Bard of Avon. (April of 1564 to April of 1616).
For a man whose works were full of wit, humor and passion, Shakespeare's pictures don't show it.
For a man whose works were full of wit, humor and passion, Shakespeare's pictures don't show it. | Source

The Language of Hamlet Haunts Us Still

Given the apparent breadth of such linguistic inventiveness within the play, focusing simply on Shakespeare’s creativity within Hamlet’s speech alone is still too broad a topic for discussion. To be thorough, the discussion should be limited to one aspect, or item, of linguistic inventiveness within the speech of the character Hamlet. Bruce Danner’s recent essay about Hamlet’s confusion between the literal and figurative in Hamlet proves a valuable source for one such item of linguistic inventiveness. In the essay, Danner discusses a specific type of trope, catachresis, which Shakespeare exploits the creative possibilities of, in Hamlet, to great effect (Danner 33). The task at hand becomes the investigation Shakespeare’s exploitation of the creative possibilities of catachreses in the speech of the character Hamlet.

The creative possibilities Shakespeare finds exploitable in catachreses must be understood, because, as G. L. Brook notes, “The question is not from what sources did [Shakespeare] draw…but how did he use them” (176). The traditional critical understanding of a catachresis, as defined by Miriam Joseph, in her book length examination of Shakespeare’s language, “is the wrenching of a word, most often a verb or adjective, from its proper application to another not proper as when one says that the sword devours” (146). Often times, this has been seen as an ill formed or strained metaphor that does not quite achieve its intended analogous relationship. This view seems to ignore the creative possibilities Shakespeare finds within the “wrenching” feeling characteristic of effective catachreses. Bruce Danner, in his essay, explains this characteristic strain as resulting from Shakespeare’s creative choice of words “to describe something for which no actual term exists” (33).[1]

To illustrate not only how this analogous relationship breaks down, but also to reveal exactly how Shakespeare will creatively exploit this device again and again, an example from the text is provided, “it is but squeezing you, and, / sponge, you shall be dry again” (4.2.18-19). The analogy, sponge : water :: body : information, illustrates the relationship a traditional metaphor would set up using the elements of this catachresis. The correct reading of an analogy, presented like this, would be “The relationship of sponge to water is similar to the relationship of a body to information.” The strength of the term “similar,” traditionally, directly correlates to the effectiveness of a metaphor, as metaphors are analogous tropes. For the correct understanding of the usage of the term “catachresis,” in this essay, it should be noted that the failure to produce an analogy with a strong similarity is not a criticism, but an intentional artistic method used by Shakespeare.

[1] For this paper, Danner’s understanding of catachresis will be used, because, more so than the traditional critical definition, it speaks to the fact that there is something inexpressible attempting to be said, specifically by employing the traditional understanding of the trope as an incomplete formation of a metaphor, as suggested by Joseph.

Catachresis, the strained analogy.

The analogy described here is strained at best because while it correctly identifies a strong similarity between how both items intake their respective objective, the similarity weakens when examining the object’s method’s of regurgitation. The analogous relationship would require the body to be squeezed empty of information like a sponge, an implication that cannot be taken literally without conjuring grizzly or at least unpleasant images. Shakespeare takes the opportunity to strain catachreses in every imaginable manner, to different effect, seemingly at will throughout the play. By contrast, metaphor produces quite a different effect, and by comparing the difference between the two, the way Shakespeare uses catachresis to call attention to that which cannot be expressed, will become more evident. Following is a similar example taken from the text, “do not dull they palm with entertainment” (1.3.64). The analogy, formed in the same way the first example was, becomes, hands : lose skill :: disused knife : dull . This trope is considered a metaphor because the strength of the similarity holds through to the logical analogous conclusion implied, as opposed to catachresis which often produces a grizzly or unpleasant image specifically because the similarity does not hold.

By contrast, the analogous relationship here definitely retains a strong similarity to its logical analogous conclusion, literally making this metaphor a perfect analogy by which Polonius can illustrate to his son the dangers of idleness and the need for bodily discipline: the body is like a knife, it requires honing to become truly virtuous. Shakespeare obviously employs catachresis to a much different end, one that, unlike his use of metaphor, does not reinforce the point of the character who utters it, but rather calls attention to the problematic aspects of figurative language. Shakespeare’s deft use of catachreses marks his brilliance in language by the seemingly effortless way in which he manipulates this trope.

Danner’s explanation of Shakespeare’s manipulation of catachreses, although used to different ends in his own paper, provides an interesting point of view from which it appears that Hamlet is expressing the desire to put into language a phenomenon for which he knows know words to describe. Shakespeare, as illustrated in the example of catachresis provided earlier, recognizes the arbitrarily imposed figurative language catachreses use, and uses the strain of this imposed relationship to give voice to “reemphasize the discontinuity” Hamlet feels in the strained relationship between his inner and outer self (Danner 56). This creativity, on Shakespeare’s part, has had its significance overlooked by even Danner, though he recognizes that catachreses call “attention to the arbitrary conditions [they] impose” (56). What exactly these arbitrary conditions are and how they reemphasize the gap between the inner-self and outer world that so concerns Hamlet, requires an investigation of the specific catachreses within Hamlet’s speech, and an examination of how each one is specifically used to enhance the play by Shakespeare.

Many famous actors throughout time have been drawn to the play Hamlet.  Kenneth Branagh was one of the most ambitious with his 242 minute version of the play committed to film in 1996.
Many famous actors throughout time have been drawn to the play Hamlet. Kenneth Branagh was one of the most ambitious with his 242 minute version of the play committed to film in 1996. | Source
Mel Gibson also portrayed Hamlet in his 1990 version of the film.
Mel Gibson also portrayed Hamlet in his 1990 version of the film. | Source
Lawrence Olivier was the first to make Hamlet a huge hit in Hollywood with his 1948 version of the play.
Lawrence Olivier was the first to make Hamlet a huge hit in Hollywood with his 1948 version of the play. | Source

Before conducting this investigation though, it becomes important to acknowledge an objection that has been raised against interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays that utilize such approaches traditionally reserved for criticism of poetry as acceptable for use when discussing a play.  This point is made clear by Harold Fisch, who, in his book, Hamlet and the Word: The Covenant Pattern in Shakespeare, objects to investigations such as this because to understand them fully they require “a kind of mental agility not to be found in common audiences of Shakespeare’s time or our own” (23).  He argues that if a critic moves too far into the text of a play, they lose touch with the performance where the true meaning of the play can be found.  Rather than arguing that true meaning can only be found in Shakespeare by an examination of the text, critic Margreta De Grazia responds to this concern by pointing out that the intellectual crowd which followed Shakespeare’s plays, in his own time, would most certainly view his plays more than once (437).  She argues that though observations such as these might be lost on nearly every first time viewer of the Hamlet, it is precisely this sort of word play that would give the play repeat viewing power (437).  History supports de Grazia’s claim to the staying power such language lends a play.

            Another response to this criticism that supports de Grazia’s argument can be found by simply looking at contemporary 21st century culture.  Examples of popular entertainment, now via television and film rather than the stage, which contain esoteric themes, concepts, and mechanisms that require a mental agility beyond that of the average, or even majority of viewers that routinely watch them.  Perhaps the best example offhand is Fox Network’s “The Simpsons”, a show that presents a tour-de-force of attractions for an audience not unlike Shakespeare’s multi-faceted plays.  Hamlet, like “The Simpsons”, offers far more than simply high minded linguistic inventiveness,[1] and has obviously been able to retain the interest of an audience, far beyond a single viewing. 

            Furthermore, as is already becoming evident in the discussion of catachresis, a member of the audience need not understand the technical and metaphysical ramifications of a particular catachresis Shakespeare employs, to be able to react emotionally to the power of the tropic device.  This speaks again to the aspect of catachresis that Shakespeare exploits so well; it invokes a disturbing feeling on the part of the audience.  For example, Hamlet’s first soliloquy begins with one of his first catachreses.  He says, “O that this too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew” (1.2.129-130).  According to the analogous relationships setup earlier, in this catachresis, the word “melt” is borrowed from the relationship between ice and water, to describe a relationship between the external self and inner self that there really is no word for.  Furthermore, this presents the audience with a figurative image that is viscerally disturbing, if imagined to their logical analogous conclusion as metaphors traditionally encourage.  This imposed analogy reinforces Hamlet’s sentiment precisely because of the break down in similarities between the realities of the inferred analogous relationship between the human body and ice.  

            Shakespeare is using the tropic device to call our attention to that which Hamlet cannot express through his soliloquies.  This thing is precisely his desire to “[shuffle] off this mortal coil” a desire, which, given the plot of the play, cannot be confused with a desire for death; and therefore must speak to his possession of something “within that passeth show” and its feeling somehow imprisoned or oppressed by the mortal coil of flesh that cuts it off from the world (Shakespeare 3.1.69).  Speculations on anything more specific about this desire are not as profitable for the discussion of how Shakespeare is linguistically creative.  What is profitable is the realization of the fact that language, at least for Hamlet, has no words to describe his feeling, which reinforces the failure of the linguistic enterprise of soliloquy in its aim at unburdening, or revealing, Hamlet’s inner-self.  This brings up a significant find in the investigation of Shakespeare’s use of catachresis in the language of Hamlet.  He uses it to try to reveal his inner-self to the audience, during soliloquy, which he resorts to because “he is cut off and alienated” (Fisch 75).  At the same time, Shakespeare employs the same linguistic device to enrich the effect of the failure of Hamlet’s attempt to conceal that same self from other characters in the play.

            The most notable of this deceptive type of catachresis is spoken by Hamlet when planning out how to talk to Gertrude, his mother after Claudius suddenly cancelled the play in mid-performance. 

                        I will speak daggers to her but use none.

                        My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites—

                        How in my words somever she be shent,

                        To give them seals never my soul consent  (3.2.365-369)     

As Danner notes, “Hamlet’s figured violence to the ear is itself a curious sublimation of the revenge play’s original case” (43).  While he appoints this sublimation to the character Hamlet as “confusing the literal with the figurative” in his obsession with language, it seems much more probable that any discernable intent is on Shakespeare’s part, and was linguistically motivated to reinforce a strained feeling that both the subject matter and linguistic device work together to create.[2]  In effect, by drawing the comparison that language somehow wounds the hearer, an analogy whose “similarity” factor is weak at best, Shakespeare has done several things to enhance an understanding of how the limits of language frustrate Hamlet’s attempt at concealing himself, just as much as it does his self-revelation. 

[1] War, revenge, murder, pirates, political intrigue, duels, and ghosts, all show up en force in Hamlet.

[2] Language : Ears :: Daggers : Wounds

Other Plays by Shakespeare

Haven't read Hamlet? Order it now!

A color drawing of the type of theater house Shakespeare's plays were written to be performed in.
A color drawing of the type of theater house Shakespeare's plays were written to be performed in.
Here is a sketch of "The Globe" as it would have stood in Shakespeare's time.
Here is a sketch of "The Globe" as it would have stood in Shakespeare's time.
A modern photograph of "The Globe" as it stands today in its restored state.
A modern photograph of "The Globe" as it stands today in its restored state. | Source

First, by using the imagery of the original crime, the poisoning through the ear of Hamlet’s father, Hamlet’s words do just the opposite of what they states he is going to do.  He is revealing the central thing that is his motivation, the murder of his father.  His very language calls attention to what is on the inside that so frightens Gertrude, when she responds to Hamlet’s threat to reveal the secrets of her own soul, by saying, “What wilt thou do?  Thou wilt not murder me?” (3.4.21). Gertrude’s acknowledgement of the susceptibility of the senses to harm from information from the inner-self, underlines the failure of Hamlet’s hypocritical tongue.

            Second, Hamlet’s desires to keep himself hidden and speak hypocritically, prove problematic for him.  His emotions towards his mother are ambivalent and he is torn between his violent desires to harm her and his desire to see her reform her ways and abandon Claudius.  This ambivalence is embodied within the catachresis.  He denies his violent intent, but his language points towards violent intent despite the fact he is using it to deny that very violence.  To examine the catachresis quite literally, it expresses a desire on Hamlet’s part, for his words to turn into daggers and kill his mother, in a manner that seems to indicate he does not want to be responsible for the act.  The catachresis, by calling attention to the artificially imposed image of sharp and deadly words, prevents Hamlet from pulling off his masquerade.  His words do exactly what he says he wants to avoid, wounding and extracting revenge.  Whatever Hamlet is trying to reach for with this catachresis, in which he wishes something that is like murder, upon his mother, but in actuality is not, the limits of language fail him and she can only see him as utterly lost to her.

            Third, the failure of this catachresis exemplifies the fulfillment of an earlier catachresis.  Earlier in the play, when Hamlet is discussing the play as a means to observe the King’s guilt, he states that “murder, though it have no tongue, will speak / with most miraculous organ” (2.2.570).  The analogy reads something like, murder’s relationship with its communicable organ is similar to a human body’s, that has no tongue, but can still speak, relationship to whatever organ it utilizes for speech.[1]  The idea of some organ capable of speech besides the tongue, is another viscerally upsetting image Shakespeare utilizes to call attention to the desire to express that which cannot be expressed.  To try to literally imagine the body capable of such speech, at best, conjures up mysterious or confusing images and likely horrific ones in the right circumstances.  To imbue murder, with not only an intent to make itself known, but also such an obviously strained concept of a speech organ creates quite a frightening figurative image.  This image is completed in Hamlet’s speech to his mother, for the catachresis employed there, “speaking daggers,” and its failure, is that same misshapen organ through which murder announces itself, for it cannot be ignored that Hamlet’s scene with his mother is also the first scene wherein he murders someone by stabbing Polonius through the curtains.

            Furthermore, the figurative image of murder, created by the strained analogy in a catachresis that compares it to an abnormal human body, obviously parallels the quite literal image of Hamlet in the play in his attempt to communicate that which cannot be communicated with a tongue.  This also speaks to the identity of Hamlet’s inner-self, being at least in part, murderous intent.  The different threads of tropic language are woven together by Shakespeare to create a dramatic tapestry of language that is harmonious with what Shakespeare and his characters are actually doing and saying.  The brilliance in this is that, as his linguistic tapestry comes together in the play; the effect upon the audience is a heightened sense of anxiety over the same issues Hamlet himself is worried about, that is the hopeless and irrecoverable discrepancy between his inner-self and the world. 

            Shakespeare is not done here with his exploitation of the dramatic possibilities of catachresis at illuminating Hamlet’s plight.  Hamlet observes to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, at one point, that “A dream itself is but a shadow” (2.2.253).  It can almost certainly be assumed that any figurative implications of this catachresis were lost upon his audience on stage due to their famous naivety.  This would make this catachresis more about his attempt to reveal to the audience, despite the presence of characters on stage, his inner-essence than hide it from on-stage characters.  The analogy for this catachresis is simple to form, but hard to complete.  The relationship of a shadow to the object that casts it, is the same as the relationship between a dream and the object that casts it.

[1] Murder : Organ of Communication :: Body with no tongue but can still communicate : the nameless organ the body utilizes in the stead of a tongue.

Henry Fuseli's "Hamlet and the Ghost" (1789).
Henry Fuseli's "Hamlet and the Ghost" (1789). | Source
A famous scene where Hamlet considers death and Yorick, a court jester he once knew that was so full of life.
A famous scene where Hamlet considers death and Yorick, a court jester he once knew that was so full of life. | Source

One possible way to interpret what could be the object that casts a dream like a shadow, could be the dreamer himself. A careful examination of the analogy, however, reveals that an object only creates a shadow by coming between another object and the sun. This makes the position of the dreamer to his dream, in the analogy, a metaphysical conundrum, because the questions must now be asked, what is similar to the light of the sun that models the shape of the dream after the dreamer; and upon what is the dream cast that is similar to the ground on which shadows normally fall? Investigating this metaphysical proposition is not profitable for the current discussion, as it has nothing to bear upon the conversation of how Shakespeare uses the tropic device to create a linguistic drama that illuminates Hamlet’s precarious position in relation to others, both the audience and characters on stage.

It is, however, profitable to acknowledge that such a metaphysical conundrum is suggested by the comparison of dreams to shadows. Once again, it appears Hamlet is trying to describe a situation between his inner-self and the outer world, for dreams are the very substance of inner and shadows the very substance of outer world; but all he accomplishes, is a disjointing image that brings up more questions than answers. In an attempt to communicate, Hamlet’s words have definitely failed him. Instead of interpretations, they bring mysteries. Instead of illumination, they bring shadows. Shadows and mysteries, shades and ghosts, the imagery here, and the mood conjured by it, are harmonious with the action in the play. Shakespeare, the artist, can be seen at work here, weaving large themes together with language and character motivations to create an unprecedented dramatic tapestry.

Furthermore, considering Hamlet expressed this catachresis to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the utter failure of language is brought to the surface once again. This time, instead of suggesting the right word cannot be found, or that the message destroys the hearer, or that the “mortal coil” of flesh is an insurmountable obstacle to human understanding for Hamlet, Shakespeare exploits another possible use out of the catachresis. The suggestion here is, even if Hamlet is in complete control of his linguistic facility and absolutely and perfectly conceals or expresses his inner-self, there is no guarantee of audience. In his characteristic fashion, as in the sonnets, for one, Shakespeare is leaving no possible use of catachresis to enhance the drama unturned. The point should not be taken lightly. There is no guarantee of audience in a play in which Shakespeare introduces a character who, by his continual use of soliloquy to disclose his true intent to the audience alone, is obviously anxious about what his audience thinks of him.

This anxiety over audience, as evidenced by Shakespeare’s use of this particular catachresis, is essentially the same thing Hamlet says to the players, when instructing them on how to perform their parts in the play (Shakespeare 2.2). In fact, Shakespeare uses another catachresis to reinforce this idea in that scene as well. Hamlet, while instructing the players to follow the script, portrays a player who embellishes his lines and goes on at inappropriate moments to one who “[cleaves] the general ear with horrid speech” (2.2.540). The analogy is almost exactly the same as the one formed from the catachresis he states, when announcing his intent to deceive his mother with one important exception. The difference is exactly this: while Shakespeare uses the image of a knife to portray words that hurt because of their malicious and hypocritical intent, he instead uses the image of a meat cleaver to describe the damage done by a foolish and inept performance upon an unsuspecting audience. The reason for this difference can be demonstrated by completing the working analogy to form a metaphor. Shakespeare is suggesting that a bad performance mangles the ears of an audience, like a meat cleaver, similar to the way a malicious, hypocritical words, or lies, pierce them like a dagger. There image of lies as something small like a dagger that can be hidden and still deadly creates an unsettling similar image. Once again, Shakespeare, the artist, can be seen at work, weaving different aspect of tropic device and dramatic element together in new and inventive ways.

When examining all of the catachreses together, certain aspects of Hamlet’s plight become evident. The catachresis of flesh and ice reveals, through its attempt to express the inexpressible, the fundamental problem for Hamlet, the uncertainty of any enterprise concerned with the revelation or concealment of the incongruity between his soul and the physical body that is the object of this catachresis. The catachresis of deadly or violent language reveals, through its appealing and self-referential qualities, the inability to disguise intent, or that which lies within the “mortal coil.” The catachresis of murder and the tongueless body reveals, through its parallels to Hamlet’s own situation, and its groping for some sort of truth about an incongruity between what is being said what is being communicated, the true murderous intent of Hamlet’s inner-self.

The catachresis of a dream as a shadow reveals, through its tendency towards infinite regress, the inability of figurative language to capture the literal, and thus another limitation of language. The catachresis of a bad performance as a meat cleaver reveals, through the viscerally wrenching images the analogy conjures, the inherent dangerousness of language and the artificiality of performance that words impose upon the speaker. In each case, the catachreses, by their effectiveness to elicit an unlooked for response because of their failure to fulfill the expectation of the more traditional employed tropic device, metaphor, reinforce the idea that any talk at all about this inner-self is indeed a dangerous enterprise for Hamlet.

A selection from the text of the play.
A selection from the text of the play. | Source
The climactic duel in Act V as depicted in the 1996 Branagh directed version of the play.
The climactic duel in Act V as depicted in the 1996 Branagh directed version of the play. | Source

This resonates with the dangerousness of Hamlet’s position in relationship to his uncle and his position in the court and the kingdom of Denmark, which once again gives a glimpse of Shakespeare behind the scenes, weaving every aspect of his play together into an, at times, frightening, and other times wonderful amalgamation of dispirit characters, themes, elements of plot, and language.  The language of inexpressibility, as it permeates the play, gives rise to feelings of helplessness, as the audience watches Hamlet’s indecisiveness culminate into a bloody duel that had a far more costly human toll than the price of revenge demands.      

            Throughout this investigation, it has also become evident that Shakespeare uses this linguistic device to suggest the unreliability of the audience in a way completely unrelated to all the abuse and confusion language presents the speaker before the words ever reach their intended audiences’ ears.  In a play that has shown to be so linguistically inventive, all this fuss over the inability of language cannot be wasted energy on Shakespeare’s part.  The amount of creativity, and the consistency with which Shakespeare’s catachreses effectively work together to create a linguistic drama, justify an investigation that takes such a small linguistic matter to be so significant. 

            What this says about the larger issues of linguistic inventiveness and Hamlet is that such issues do indeed have impetus for their investigation.  The obvious power of Shakespeare, in his use of catachresis, is his ability to turn it over and over and continually find new ways for it to say very different things, using the same words and ideas again and again.  The obvious meaning this has for the play as a work of literature, is that the critic cannot overlook any word or minor linguistic device within it.  For the world of Shakespearean criticism, the obvious meaning is that even after four hundred years Shakespeare’s use of language is as powerful and creative today as it has ever been.  In fact, his works still remain one of the most linguistically rewarding pieces of English literature to date.  Still today, Shakespeare can be found within his plays, waiting to reveal new ideas, connections, themes, realizations, anxieties, and dramas that resonate within our own culture at least as often as they did in his own day.  This truly is why Shakespeare is for all time, not just his own.

Works Cited

Blake, N. F.  Shakespeare’s Language: An Introduction.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983.       

Brook, G. L.  The Language of Shakespeare.  London: Deutsch, 1976.       

Charney, Maurice.  Style in Hamlet.  Princeton: Princeton, 1969.      

Danner, Bruce.  “Speaking Daggers.”  Shakespeare Quarterly   54.1 (2003): 29-62.

De Grazia, Margreta. “Hamlet Before its Time.”  MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly.  62.4 (2001): 355-375.        

Fisch, Harold.  Hamlet and the Word: The Covenant Pattern in Shakespeare.  New York: Unger, 1971.   

Greenblatt, Stephen.  Introduction.  Hamlet.  By William Shakespeare.  The Norton Shakespeare.  Ed. Greenblatt.  New York: Norton, 1997.  1659-1666.         

Houston, John Porter.  Shakespearean Sentences: A Study in Style and Syntax.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State, 1988.  

Joseph, Miriam.  Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language.  New York: Columbia, 1947.          

Mahood, M. M.  Shakespeare’s Wordplay.  London: University, 1968.

Shakespeare, William.  HamletThe Norton Shakespeare.  Ed. Stephen Greenblatt.  New             York: Norton, 1997. 1668-1756.

Stevenson, Ruth.  “Hamlet's Mice, Motes, Moles, and Minching Malecho.”  New       Literary History.  33.3 (2002): 435-459.

Next in the Series...

We've covered Virgil, The Kalevala, and Shakespeare in the Literary Origins series so far. For the next installment, I want to examine American Literature and compare the archetypes that emerge from it with those in Western Literature as a whole. Using Joseph Campbell's definition of a hero, the next hub will examine Thomas Sutpen, from William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom!, as the specifically American hero, the anti-hero.

Update: I am pleased to announce the Faulkner Hub is now up and you can find it here.

As always, comments and questions are readily welcome. Some of the research on this paper I did a couple years back, and in the interest of accuracy, let me know if you are aware of an issue anywhere. Thanks for reading and check back soon.


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    • Zoraya Nash profile image


      6 years ago from Ukraine

      A very deep investigation. Now I know the facts about Shakespeare that I've never thought about. Thank you.

    • cdub77 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Portland Or


      I am glad you brought up the Sonnets. I am actually teaching them to Jr. High boys right now. As I am sure you are already aware, this brings into acute focus the "problem" of the speaker in the Sonnets.

      I completely agree with you, if I follow your meaning, that all such interpretations are valid because of the obvious mastery demonstrated within the Sonnets. Shakespeare lived in double, triple, and even quadruple meanings. To deny him the forethought to apply such principals to the position of speaker with the same cleverness he approached other aspects of the Sonnet seems to me to be a shortsighted position.

      Certainly his blurring of roles, say "father" and "lover" appear problematic in the Sonnets to both those concerned with assessing a definitive meaning to his works (let alone a definitive version) as well as those whose ideas of morality are challenged by the idea that linguistic playfulness can be linguistically motivated.

      In my humble opinion, multiple interpretations of a text that each find adequate support within the text speak to the richness of the text and the brilliance of the mind (or circumstance) that brought it about, not to the incorrectness of other possible interpretation.

      For my students, I am really trying to focus on how Shakespeare redefined the Petrarchan Sonnet. I am explaining to them that the multiple interpretations of relationships between the speaker of the sonnets and the subject of the sonnets again speaks to the many layers the author of the sonnets embedded to make them so rich, as I have stipulated the term.

      Thanks again for the very thoughtful comment!

    • profile image

      jim pete 

      10 years ago

      Thanks for your insights into the language of Hamlet. I was intrigued by your mentioning of the sonnets for it has seemed to me one of the most enduring mysteries.

      Critics I otherwise respect get themselves hung up on who really wrote them or Shakespeare's sexual orientation. Your analysis of Hamlet addresses often the inner and outer selves (what I call the central and social selves) as acceptable and realistic forms.

      I see this as an inroad to the sonnets: we have many social selves. Need I list father, professor, lover, husband, citizen, and writer? Would it be inauthentic to write of love from these various points of view? Even so, a mystery hovers overall, the purpose of it. I propose one answer, that Shakespeare was able to do it and enjoyed playing around, which is not to say he couldn't thus be sincere in his lovemaking.

    • cdub77 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Portland Or


      Thanks for responding, I have read many of your articles of Hamlet and know you're very interested in Shakespeare criticism.

      I wanted to clarify that I took the option to defend the current trend in modern criticism for future people who read this hub. I really was writing to anyone else who might read your comment and then think that criticism is silly. I can tell, from reading your articles, you don't feel this way at all, even if you might feel a certain piece is silly. :)

      At any rate, I should have taken the time to communicate with your personally as it seems like my defensive response is directed at you, when I really mean it for future readers.

      Thanks so much for this and all your comments on all my hubs!

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      10 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :)

      It wasn't meant to be a criticism of your work, simply an observation.

      I am guessing, for example, that even some authors might have problems answering exam questions based on their works.

    • cdub77 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Portland Or

      As far as Shakespeare being amazed over the ink spilled on him, I think you're right. I have studied Shakespeare in academic circles for years (I work in higher education). I do think, however, given the ubiquity of the Bard of Avon's fondness for word play, he'd be far more shocked at the Freudian assessments of his plays and the relationships between his characters, for example King Lear than the assessment that he was aware he formed at best strained analogies.

      Certainly we run the risk of talking nonsense at all times in literary criticism, especially when it is hundreds of years later, or when using terms that were developed after the author wrote and those terms were developed to help distinguish that very writer from his peers. But that is why we must do critical research before writing an article like this. As a critic, I owe it to my readers to reflect the accurate critical consensus on my topic at the time I write.

      My research, and the inclusion of the twelve sources, establishes this article's awareness of the critical discussion of Hamlet's linguistics as it was before this paper was written, and for better or worse, justifies the inclusion of this discussion as a legitimate piece of Shakespeare criticism. Tropic inventiveness is one of the hallmarks of Shakespeare's genius. I challenge the worry that Shakespeare would be "amazed" with the amount of analysis that we have been able to harvest from his ripe texts as a criticism of this article with the response that there could be no sweeter "amazement" for an author than to see his fans make more out of his work than even he saw.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      10 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :)

      Certainly, the more one sees or reads 'Hamlet', the more one gains from it. Shakespeare's language is very clever and powerful and it adds increasing depths to the actual story of Elsinore.

      I cannot help but wonder, though, how deliberate this actually was on the part of Shakespeare. He was a great playwright, so I am sure that he chose his words and sentences carefully, but I sometimes think that some of the genius of his literature (and that of other writers) might have been subconscious and, so, if Shakespeare himself were reading this he, too, might be amazed at his own brilliance. :)

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Loved the article, ty


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