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Language Techniques - HAMLET

 For a general discussion on Shakespeare's Language Click here.

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet uses the most memorable language.  One school student asked for his opinion of the play tried to impress by admitting he enjoyed the action but found the language clichéd!  It is true many of Hamlet’s phrases have resonated so well they have been frequently quoted and become clichéd.


“Frailty, thy name is woman!” (Act I, Scene ii)

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” (Act I, Scene iii)

“This above all: to thine own self be true.” (Act I, Scene iii)

“That it should come to this!” (Act I, Scene ii)

“In my mind’s eye.” (Act I, Scene ii)

“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” (Act II, Scene ii)

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t:’ (Act II, Scene ii)

“What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!” (Act II, Scene ii)

“To be, or not to be: that is the question:’ (Act III, Scene i)

“Ay, there’s the rub:’ (Act III, Scene i)

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” (Act III, Scene ii)

“Good night, sweet prince: and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” (Act V, Scene ii)

 “Hoist by his own petard”  (Shot himself in the foot – injured by your own device)


Shakespeare was not squeamish or prudish in his use of bawdy or suggestive language.


¨      Innuendo/double entendre:


Hamlet“have you a daughter?”

Polonius:  “I have my Lord.”

  “Let her not walk i’ th’ sun. Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive –Friend, look to’t.”  2.2. 179-183

Pol: “Will you walk out of the air sir?  “Into my grave”   2.2. 201

 Ham. To Ophelia: “Do you think I meant country matters?  3.2. 104

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s equilibrium is related to Fortuna’s body where they live - not on her cap or the soles of her shoe, so Hamlet concludes:

“Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favours?

Guild: “Faith, her privates we.

 Ham:  “In the secret parts of Fortune? ..she is a strumpet.”


Polonius, the supreme diplomat uses language to obfuscate or confuse rather than clarify and Hamlet reacts by playing on his insincerity and sycophancy:

Pol: “Will you walk out of  the air?”

Haml:  “Into my grave?”                  (2.2.202 -3)



Hamlet: “Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in the shape of a camel?”

Pol: “Tis like a camel indeed”.

Haml: “Methinks it is like a weasel”.

Pol:   “It is backed like a weasel”

Ham:  “Or like e a whale”.

Pol:   “ Very like a Whale.”




The actors are come hither, my lord.


Buz, buz!


Hamlet gives much the same treatment to the fop – Osric.



…. Put your bonnet to his right use; 'tis for the head.


I thank your lordship, it is very hot.


No, believe me, 'tis very cold; the wind is


It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.


But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my


Exceedingly, my lord; it is very sultry,--as
'twere,--I cannot tell how.


(Mocking Osric by the derisive use of a pejorative – dirt for real estate)


He hath much land, and fertile: let a
beast be lord of beasts, and his crib shall stand at
the king's mess: 'tis a chough; but, as I say,
spacious in the possession of dirt.


Osric also uses language to obfuscate and impress rather than simply communicate:



Sir, here is newly come to court Laertes; believe
me, an absolute gentleman, full of most excellent
differences, of very soft society and great showing:
indeed, to speak feelingly of him, he is the card or
calendar of gentry, for you shall find in him the
continent of what part a gentleman would see.


Hamlet responds with mimicry, mocking Osric’s bloated language:


Sir, his definement suffers no perdition in you;
though, I know, to divide him inventorially would
dizzy the arithmetic of memory, and yet but yaw
neither, in respect of his quick sail. But, in the
verity of extolment, I take him to be a soul of
great article; and his infusion of such dearth and
rareness, as, to make true diction of him, his
semblable is his mirror; and who else would trace
him, his umbrage, nothing more.


Horatio pleads to both for normal simpler language:



Is't not possible to understand in another tongue?
You will do't, sir, really.


Hamlet also ridicules Osric’s pompous language:



Your lordship speaks most infallibly of him.


The concernancy, sir? why do we wrap the gentleman
in our more rawer breath?





Hamlet plays with logic in his sparring with Claudius:


………………. But, come; for
England! Farewell, dear mother.


Thy loving father, Hamlet.


My mother: father and mother is man and wife; man
and wife is one flesh; and so, my mother. Come, for England!


Biblical Allusions:



Am I not i' the right, old Jephthah?


If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter
that I love passing well.


In Judges 11, Jephthah vowed to God that if he were victorious in battle, he would give to God whoever came through the doors of his house upon his return from battle.(implying he is willing to sacrifice his daughter.)

1Apologetics Press: Scripturally Speaking  Jephthah's Daughter  by Dave Miller, Ph.D.

More at: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2320


Figurative language:


'twas caviare to the general: 










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