Over the past several centuries the tragedy of Hamlet has divided both critics and readers alike. T.S. Eliot deemed it an artistic failure, while Sir Laurence Olivier called it pound for pound, the greatest play ever written. Perhaps T.S. Eliot was caught in the tunnel of his own criticism and failed to see the larger picture. Through Shakespeare’s brilliant use of language, characterization, and Hamlet’s soliloquies, Hamlet has stood as a literary masterpiece for almost four hundred years.
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Although William Shakespeare did not invent the pun, he certainly perfected it. He conveys much of Hamlet’s contempt toward his father’s murderer, the new king, through abstracted language. In Act I, scene ii, line 64, the King addresses Hamlet as “my son.” Hamlet wittily responds, “A little more than kin, and less than kind!” This falls on deaf ears to the disillusioned King, but the reader picks up the double meaning. He is asserting that he neither resembles Claudius in nature nor feels kindly to him. Along with the pun, Shakespeare makes abundant use of intricate, roundabout language. In Act I, scene ii, line 156, Hamlet cries, “O, most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!” The language suggests more outrage and emotion than if he had said “It’s bad for my mother to be sleeping with my uncle so soon after my father’s death.” Though it may bother some that his puns and fuzzy language are not always easy to notice, that was Shakespeare’s intent. With every successive perusal of the tragedy the reader picks up on still another brilliant use of language.
Much of the negative criticism Hamlet has received is in regard to vague characterization. This only helps the play. It allows the reader to make his or her own inferences about the character. Prince Hamlet is the best example of this. There is no quintessential Hamlet to be discovered by poring over the text, and there is no need for such a discovery; yet one can hardly shrug their shoulders in resignation, for the pleasure of this play comes largely from the quest to solve its mysteries, to interrogate its ghost; and if one fails to seek what it never surrenders, they fail to enjoy what it renders (Bloom 31). Many shortcomings of other works come in overdeveloping characters. There is much to be said for brevity.
Hamlet’s soliloquies are characterized by raging emotion, vivid language, and an introspective tone where one travels into the depths of his mind. Whether it is one seeing visions of the flesh dissolving into a dew, or the world like an unweeded garden, these metaphors paint a picture for the reader and captivate them from start to finish. Beneath the superficial beauty of the words one may see the true soul of the speaker. In his “to be or not to be” soliloquy Hamlet shows himself as a man, distracted with contrariety of desires, and overwhelmed with the magnitude of his own purposes (Johnson 22). Like these, most character traits, tendencies, and motives expressed in the play come from Hamlet’s wonderfully crafted soliloquies.
Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Notes. Broomal: Chelsea House Publishers, 1996.
Johnson, Samuel. Modern Critical Interpretations (William Shakespeare’s Hamlet). New Haven: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.