Hamlet and Hyperbole

“Hamlet” by Kmyechan on Deviantart

Last night I caught up with WJC on some of Hamlet’s soliloquies — “O, all you host of heaven,” “O what a rogue and peasant slave and I” and “‘Tis now the very witching time of night.” Although we spent some time on all these speeches back in the summertime, that was before we’d made any attempt to integrate them into their scenes. Now, with two-thirds of the play blocked, and after many conversations about “which Hamlet” appears in each scene, it’s a good time to revisit them, to see if our original assumptions still hold true.

First, though, I wanted to revisit some of the most basic mechanical tenets of Shakespearean verse. I made sure WJC knew his keywords, and could classify his lines as rough or smooth verse. I asked him about tactics, and only from there did we gradually expand to discuss broader thematic questions. Inevitably with Shakespeare, patterns emerged. In every speech, Hamlet seemed to be struggling with the same dialectic, although he framed it in different terms each time.

Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe.

In 1.5, Hamlet clears away the “trivial fond records” of his past in order to make space for his father’s commandment, which “all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of [his] brain / Unmixed with baser matter.” But at the end 2.2, the “baser matter” is still there, but now it goes by the name of “coward”:

Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing…

The contrast is between his “cause,” aka the Ghost’s “commandment,” and his own nature. Interestingly, when he expresses his suspicion that the Ghost is a devil, he cites his own “weakness and melancholy” as tools which the devil might be able to use to damn him.

In 3.2, after the Mousetrap, Hamlet forces himself to think bloody thoughts, but even the idea of “speaking daggers” to his mother makes him soul-sick: “My tongue and soul in this are hypocrites.” According to WJC, the self-applied charge of hypocrisy is even worse, to Hamlet, than that of cowardice, since it leaves him paralyzed and without honour. Even as Hamlet is goading himself to perform the seemingly imminent act of revenge, he has fallen lower than ever before in his own self-esteem.

The “witching hour” speech also contains an example of Hamlet’s trademark hyperbole — one of two rhetorical devices that seem as fundamental to his nature as wordplay or morbidity:

Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world…

This is not the first time we’ve heard about the supernatural connotations of the midnight hour, but Hamlet takes his imagery to an immediate ne plus ultra: midnight is not just a time for ghosts or devils, it’s the time when everything is poisoned. Two scenes later, he bombards his mother with a series of rapid-fire hyperboles. Her sin is not just bad, it is an act

That blurs the grace and blush of modesty,
Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love
And sets a blister there, makes marriage-vows
As false as dicers’ oaths…

Why is her remarriage such a crime? Because her former husband was some sort of ultimate gestalt god-blend:

See, what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion’s curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal,
To give the world assurance of a man:

More often, though, his exaggerations are subtle tendencies towards invoking one or more of the cosmic forces which he believes can play an active role in men’s lives:

  • “Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven”
  • “I’ll speak to it, though hell itself should gape”
  • “Though all the earth o’erwhelm them to men’s eyes”

Hamlet’s tendency towards hyperbole reveals his profound sensitivity. He is always feeling deeply, and he never feels an emotion in half-measures. In his first soliloquy, it’s not just his current situation that makes the world seem “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,” it’s “all the uses of this world.” And when his mother (whom he sees as the true hypocrite at this point) grieved for her husband, she was “Like Niobe, all tears.” That little world, “all,” swirls around in Hamlet’s mind, daring him to embrace love and hate, vengeance and compassion, destiny and free will. His efforts to grasp these opposites threaten to drive him mad, and he only learns to let go very shortly before his own death, when he turns the word “all” to his own advantage in “the readiness is all.”

Those “this and that” examples I just mentioned represent another rhetorical device — antithesis — but I can’t argue that it’s unique to Hamlet, because nearly all of Shakespeare’s characters use it. But Hamlet does have a slightly different verbal habit, and it took us awhile to figure out what its use could suggest.

The device is called hendiadys, and it’s basically a verbal pairing of two or more synonyms, joined by a conjunction (usually “and”). It’s not a contrast of opposites, such as (for example) found in Hamlet’s first line in the play:

A little more than kin, and less than kind.

Rather, it’s using two descriptors when one would suffice.

  • “There but the trappings and the suits of woe”
  • “Thaw and resolve itself into a dew”
  • “Angels and ministers of grace defend us”
  • “Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws”
  • “How strange or odd howe’er I bear myself”
  • “So grace and mercy at your most need help you.”
  • “Out of my weakness and my melancholy”
  • “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”
  • “To grunt and sweat under a weary life”
  • “And still do, by these pickers and stealers”
  • “That I must be their scourge and minister”

As you can see by this sampling, Hamlet uses hendiadys often enough that one cannot dismiss it as a mere trick for Shakespeare to pad out his verse. I think it’s psychologically revealing, showing a mind that grasps past simple words or definitions in search of something more profound. And I think, in Hamlet’s case, it is compulsive — not a conscious verbal device (like so many of his other, wittier tropes), but rather a tic of the constantly racing mind.

Intriguingly, Hamlet’s use of hendiadys seems to drop off after he returns from his ocean adventures (although his penchant for hyperbole remains as keen as ever). But after his death, it seems as if his compulsion for Xs and Ys has begun to spread, as Horatio greets Fortinbras with: “If aught of woe or wonder, cease your search,” and “lest more mischance / On plots and errors happen.” And Fortinbras requests “The soldier’s music and the rite of war” for Hamlet’s funeral.

Is hendiadys contagiys?



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