Perhaps Shakespeare's most famous play, Hamlet has been the center of critical debate ever since its creation. As noted Shakespeare scholar Michael Neill states in his article “Hamlet: A Modern Perspective,” part of what makes Hamlet important is its ability to support wildly different readings, readings which have changed as cultural context has changed. He points out that as schools of literary criticism have changed over the ages, different readings of Hamlet emerge. Most often, this debate centers on what should be considered the 'facts' of the play, most notably, the nature of Hamlet's madness (Neill 320-321). In my own personal experience, I have seen how wildly different people's opinions on Hamlet's madness can be, as my own personal interpretation varied significantly compared to almost every other peer in my undergraduate Shakespeare class. This leads us to question what it is about the nature of Hamlet that creates these wildly different readings, and it can be argued that the answer to this question can be found in the very language of the play.
Studying the specific figurative language used in the play allows us to see a possible answer for the ambiguity that surrounds Hamlet. The creative style of writing, which can be used to define most fiction writing, including plays and stories, often employs various schemes and tropes that help shape the meaning of the text involved. While tropes focus on creating a variation of meaning for a specific word or phrase, schemes focus on creating variations of standard word orders. Despite their differences, both of these techniques work in ways that help shape meaning in language. Their intention is to create layers of meaning within language, where meaning is dependent on your personal interpretations of how these tropes and schemes interact. Focusing on a speech made by Polonius in Act II, where he claims that Hamlet is mad, we can see how creative variations on language create a sense of ambiguity that leads to arguments over true meaning.
Literary critics often appear to be wasting their time in attempting to decode exact meaning from certain texts, as many would argue there is no true meaning. However, it could be argued that the goal of literary criticism is to bring to light facts and ideas about human nature that are revealed by literature. This is a main reason that debate continues to be centered on Hamlet and its main character, because understanding Hamlet’s relationship with his mind could help us understand our own views in life. If the main character, who at the outset of the play feels very truly the depth of the human experience, has truly lost his mind, perhaps it is a warning that over-thinking life’s philosophical questions can cost you dearly. And if he hasn’t lost his mind, how can we explain the deep detachment that Hamlet feels to the world in the end of the play? Understanding Hamlet can shed light onto how we as humans deal with the realities and unanswerable questions of everyday life.
This quest for insight into a personal, difficult topic explains why the ambiguity created by the creative style is important to study in Polonius’ speech, as well as throughout the entire play. If this debate is centered on philosophical, potentially unknowable concepts, then the language used by those involved must aim to invoke inquiry into the topics. A simple re-phrasing of a direct accusation takes what is plain fact and subjects it to questioning and examination. Furthermore, an understanding on such topics could never be agreed upon by all people, which also shows the need for any discussion on the topic to hold an ambiguous aspect. In allowing us to construct our own interpretation of one fictional character, we are given the tools to begin relating these ideas back to our understandings of ourselves.
In his speech, Polonius uses a large number of tropes and schemes, many of which are very common in Shakespeare's writing, who is renowned for his ability to employ styles in his writing that many others cannot compare to. In this passage, however, the way he employs three specific techniques serve to create the ambiguity that is present throughout Hamlet. He employs two tropes, metanoia and apophasis, and one scheme, hyperbaton, in key moments of the passage, to create that effect. Apophasis refers to stating an idea only for the purpose of denying it, while metanoia is the technique of stating an idea, and then restating it in hopes of presenting it in a clearer manner. Hyperbaton is a scheme which refers to usage on non-typical word order in sentence structures. Studying the lines below, we see these techniques being employed at the moments where Polonius is declaring Hamlet as mad.
I will be brief: your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it; for, to define true madness, 100
What is't but to be nothing else but mad?
But let that go.
Madam, I swear I use no art at all.
That he is mad, 'tis true: 'tis true 'tis pity; 105
And pity 'tis 'tis true: a foolish figure;
But farewell it, for I will use no art.
Mad let us grant him, then: and now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say, the cause of this defect, 110
For this effect defective comes by cause:
Thus it remains, and the remainder thus. Perpend
Both instances in which Polonius is making an accusation that Hamlet is mad, he varies his sentence structure through hyperbaton. Instead of following a standard subject-verb-object construction, Polonius places the object first in each case. Instead of reading 'I call it madness,' he states “Mad call I it.” While the two seem to be sending a similar message, by placing the object first, Polonius is taking away the aspect of accusation. With this construction, we no longer have the subject directly accusing Hamlet of madness, it is just implied. In the second instance, Polonius states “Mad let us grant him,” rather than 'Let us grant him mad'. Again, the object has been shifted to the beginning of the phrase, which separates the subject and verb, making it an indirect accusation. This creates a sense of Polonius being hesitant to directly implicate Hamlet as mad, which would have an influence on the audience. If the character who is making the claim is uncertain, that's more than reason enough for an audience to begin doubting the claim as well.
The tropes used by Polonius also give the audience ways to begin doubting the validity of his claims. Polonius uses metanoia when he states “or rather say,” as well as “Mad call I it; for, to define true madness.” Polonius is searching for better ways to state his ideas, as if he is not sure whether what he is saying is actually correct or not. This constant re-clarification of his ideas shows Polonius’ uncertainty regarding Hamlet’s madness. Due to this, the audience would begin to doubt whether they actually believe Polonius' claims or not; consequently, the audience would begin to form their own opinions. This idea is further supported by Polonius' use of apophasis in lines immediately after he claims that Hamlet is crazy.
Apophasis is a technique of bringing up a subject just to deny its existence. In both sections given above, we hear Polonius asking the listener to forget what he had just stated. First, after implicating that Hamlet is mad, he instructs us: “but let that go,” and second, after again discussing Hamlet’s madness, he says: “but farewell it.” If the audience hadn’t already been given enough reason to begin to doubt Polonius, here he is using apophasis to directly ask the listener of his speech to disregard what he is stating. All of this uncertainty created by Polonius means that it is up to the reader to determine their own interpretations.
Is Hamlet crazy or not? Polonius can’t seem to decide, and because of this, it has driven scholars mad for years trying to decide whether his madness is real, imagined, or a cross between the two. The specific ways creative style is being used in the speech shows how easily a few ambiguous phrases can create a sense of uncertainty. This uncertainty is key due to the nature of the idea in question, because whether or not you consider Hamlet as crazy has implications on the ways you interpret your own thoughts in regards to some of the deeper philosophical questions at play in Hamlet. Has the exploration of what comes after death, of what constitutes revenge, and of the purpose of life damaged Hamlet’s mind to the point that it is no longer logical? Or is it all a ploy that he does not have time to retract before the end of the play? Depending on your answer, your personal exploration of these issues will take on different dimensions, and you have to consider whether an answer is possible, or if it is fruitless philosophical searching that will leave you dying without an answer. Due to this, there is no end in sight for the discussion of Hamlet, and there is no hope for a definitive reading on the true nature of Hamlet’s madness. So, just how crazy is Hamlet?
Written By: Brandon N.