Shakespeare employs language to explore characters in Hamlet. Hamlet himself uses language as a means of defence, taking refuge within words, delaying action, manipulating his opinion of others and ultimately concealing his own identity. Perhaps more so than any other character in the play, Hamlet is aware of his skill with words and uses rhetorical devices to make sense of his world and conceal his true self from it. Through his soliloquies, Hamlet presents the true complexity of his nature to the audience who gradually realises his inability to act decisively as his ultimate flaw. ‘Shakespeare takes only a limited interest in Hamlet as an avenger. His deeper interest is in Hamlet the tragic-hero, required to take upon himself the moral distress of the whole community.’
In Act 1 Scene 2 Hamlet appears as the only character unwilling to accept his uncle, Claudius as King. He is deeply offended by what has happened in the aftermath of his father’s death, which implies he is the only character in the royal court possessing a true insight into the nature of Claudius’s character. Hamlet’s vocabulary, use of metaphors, irony and puns throughout the play convey to the audience his incomprehension and mental frailty. This scene also serves to reflect the speed with which the court of Elsinore has recovered from the former King’s death. Hamlet’s inability to communicate his grief, anger and frustration amplifies his inability to understand how such a state of affairs can have come about and his unwillingness to join the acquiescence of the rank and file of the court in Claudius’s assumption of power.
The opening of the soliloquy begins in a regular iambic pentameter reflecting Hamlet’s musing on ending his own life, the metaphor of the ‘too solid flesh’ thawing and resolving itself into a dew’ (ll. 129-130) creates an image of Hamlet not in a heat of rage, but coolly reflective, his mind distant from the events around him. This is reinforced, ‘How weary, stale flat and unprofitable, Seem to me all the uses of this world.’ (ll-134-135). The repetition of ‘too’ in the first line emphasises Shakespeare’s wish to have these lines regular in rhythm to create a contrast with the sudden outburst of ‘O God! God’ (l-132) which breaks apart the mood of reflection and introduces intense emotion. This is typical of the constant extremes of passion to which Hamlet is subject.
The soliloquy poses the question of the morality of suicide and is a reference to the Christian framework of the play. The world may be unfair and full of suffering but to end life through ‘self-slaughter’, (l.132) leads to damnation and eternal suffering in hell. Hamlet’s inability to turn to religion for help is reinforced by his father’s torment by going to his death ‘With all my imperfections on my head.’ (Act 1 Scene 5, l.79). For this omission he suffers the torments of hell ‘Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night, And for the day confined to fast in fires.’ (Act 1 Scene 5, ll.10-11) Hamlet’s grief has led to his retreating within himself, he is disinterested in the court and those around him and suffering a profound melancholy. Unaware as yet of the full extent of Claudius’s crimes, he reflects on what he perceives as the shame and dishonour of his mother.
Hamlet contrasts the greatness and goodness of his father with the unseemly haste and ingratitude of his mother and uncle. The metaphor of the ‘unweeded garden’ (l.135) growing to seed reflecting his disdain for the court and the new king. ‘Things rank and gross in nature/ possess it merely’ (ll.136-137). The carefully structured soliloquy returns to the theme of nature comparing his mother to ‘a beast that wants discourse of reason/ Would have mourned longer.’ (ll.150-151) The sense of degradation created by comparing the highest in the land, the king and queen, to rank weeds and unenlightened beasts is deepened by the juxtaposition of classical references whenever his father is considered. ‘So excellent a king; that was, to this, like Hyperion to a satyr’ (ll.139-140) Harold Jenkins in his critical introduction to Hamlet states, ‘Hyperion, of course, is the God of the sun in human form and a satyr is a creature of half man half beast; so that his early image vividly suggests to us dual nature of man upon which Hamlet will repeatedly reflect’.
Hamlet’s father is the antithesis of Claudius. Hamlet further argues his uncle no more corresponds to his father than Hamlet himself does to Hercules. ‘My father’s brother, but no more like my father/ Than I to Hercules:’ (ll.152-153), ‘thus opposing himself to the doer of great deeds and implicitly to the father he would emulate.’ While the queen is rudely juxtaposed between ‘Niobe, all tears’ (l.149) as she followed her husband’s body and a beast. Jenkins states ‘And what is worse, his own mother has ceased to mourn Hyperion, and taken the satyr-brother in his place, becoming worse than a beast herself’.
Hamlet’s speech in this passage indicates a lack of focus in his thinking; the broken sentences, ‘Like Niobe, all tears:-why she, even she-even she- O, God!’ (ll.149-150) indicate quick interruptions of thought which reflect the depredated psychology of Hamlet. The final damning comment to his mother including all womankind conveys Hamlet’s shattered opinion on womanhood, ‘Frailty, thy name is woman! (l.146) This phrase continues to haunt the play in Hamlet’s ambiguous treatment of Ophelia. Neither Ophelia, Polonius, Claudius, the Queen or the audience are certain if he is in love with her or if it is a cover to hide the real cause of his assumed madness.
The middle section of the soliloquy, following on from the opening which sets the tone of Hamlet’s state of mind and shines a brief light on the unwholesome nature of the court, relates a touching picture of the relationship between Hamlet’s father and mother. His father ‘so loving to my mother/ That he might not between the winds of heaven/ Visit her face too roughly. (ll.140-142) While his mother ‘would hang on him/ As if increase of appetite had grown By what it fed on’. (ll.143-144) His remembrance of their love makes it all the more difficult to understand his mother’s actions in marrying Claudius and so soon after her husband’s death. Whilst the action of the scene is moving forward, Hamlet’s attitude to his dead father is being impressed upon us, ‘…my poor father’s body (l.148) provides a sympathetic attitude to the audience when compared with Claudius’s superficial attitude and his mother’s ‘unrighteous tears’. (l.154)
Before Hamlet’s soliloquy, Claudius advises Hamlet to adapt to a new life in Denmark and leave his grieving for his father behind. He accuses Hamlet of mourning out of “impious stubbornness’ (l.94) and suggests such outwards displays are ‘unmanly’. (l.94) Claudius’ speech and characterisation are full of contradictory ideas, words and phrases. Presented in verse rather than prose, he speaks clearly in a powerful tone. (ll.86-117) The function of the verse is to mark the higher-status characters to the lower-status characters who speak in prose. Members of nobility, like Claudius, always speak in verse. Hamlet speaks in both verse and prose. Shakespeare exploits the interplay of verse and prose to mark the difference between careful speech and disordered speech. Sentences from Claudius such as, ‘With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage/In equal scale weighing delight and dole’ (ll. 12-13) and ‘Though yet of Hamlet our late brother’s death/ The memory be green, (ll.1-2) combines the idea of death and decay with the idea of renewal, greenery and growth. Shakespeare uses language to give his audience an uncomfortable first impression of Claudius and asks the audience to question, how can sorrow for a brother’s death be balanced with happiness for having married his wife? In Hamlet’s first soliloquy, he speaks almost entirely in verse, but his speech becomes disordered at times. By employing prose here, Shakespeare is able to reveal the complexity of Hamlet’s mind and his increasing emotion. The repetition of ‘two months’, (1.138) ‘within a month, (l.145) ‘A little month’ (l.147) further suggest Hamlet’s inability to understand his mother’s behaviour.
The final ten lines show Hamlet’s emotion increasing as he considers what his mother and uncle have done. The frequent alliteration and repetition of the possessive pronoun ‘my’ increase the speed with which the lines may be spoken heightening the tension as the lines race on to the end of the soliloquy. ‘mourned longer– married with my uncle/ My father’s brother, but no more like my father’ (l.151) Hamlet’s reiterating of Claudius’s relationship to him reinforces his sense of disbelief as to his new relation to him as a stepfather. Hamlet is clearly in a state of agony with this situation. He has no interest in rebuilding a relationship with his mother and Claudius and is completely isolated within his own grief. Much of the drama is internal within Hamlet. ‘In Hamlet Shakespeare presents a revenger who is both ruthless and reluctant.’ Hamlet knows ‘It is not, nor it cannot come to good’, yet he delays action, ‘But break my heart; for I must hold my tongue. (l.159) In the end, Hamlet becomes incapable of action and events overtake him, destroying him in the process.