Shake 38

The Regulars

Disorder and Dodges: Using Rhetoric to Misdirect
Article by Cass Morris

Shakespeare is, sometimes, hard. I don’t have a problem with admitting that. The thing of it is, though, that it actually usually isn’t Shakespeare being hard, but rather Shakespeare using rhetorical devices to demonstrate that a character is being difficult. My favorite example is Claudius in 1.2 of Hamlet, where he introduces himself to the audience through the following bit of impenetrability:

Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death
The memory be green: and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe:
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him
Together with remembrance of ourselves.
Therefore our sometimes sister, now our queen,
Th’imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as ’twere, with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious and one dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,
Taken to wife; nor have we herein barred
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along. For all our thanks.

It’s no wonder that students take a look at that and panic, and I imagine Claudius’s courtiers would have been just as bemused by his linguistic acrobatics. When confronted by terrors like these, I encourage students to untangle the sentences and put them back together in the order that makes the most syntactical sense — and then to ask why Shakespeare, who was perfectly capable of writing sentences as simple as “Who’s there?”, chose to have a character speak in this fashion instead.

In this case, that untangling exercise would yield you something like “Discretion hath fought with nature so far that we think on Hamlet, our dear brother, with wisest sorrow together with remembrance of ourselves, though the memory of his death be yet green, and (though) it befitted us to bear our hearts in grief and (for) our whole kingdom to be contracted in one brow of woe. Therefore we have taken to wife our sometime sister, now our queen, the imperial jointress to this warlike state, as it were with a defeated joy, with an auspicious and a dropping eye, with mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage, weighing delight and dole in equal scale; we have not herein barred your better wisdoms, which have gone along with this affair freely. Our thanks for all.”

Even untangled, it’s a bit of a mess, but flattening out the kinks does help you to see exactly what Claudius has done. He’s using hyperbaton, disrupted syntax, to create a chain of thought that it would take supernaturally talented verbal agility to follow. This is especially clear in the second sentence, where he moves the subject (“we”), verb (“have taken to wife”), and object (“our sometime sister, now our queen”) as far away from each other as possible, and also puts them in the wrong order. By the time any listeners have ironed out what he said, he’s on to the next part of his speech, concerning a potential invasion by Fortinbras of Norway. It’s an impressive dodge, though not quite the sort of thing you’d hope for in your new leader’s inaugural speech.

So – When you encounter this sort of disorder and verbal dodging, don’t freeze up in horror: Interrogate it. Attack it. Figure out why the character is talking like this. Is he, like Claudius, a slippery politician hiding his true meaning? Is he over-excited? Angry? Scared? Confused? Whatever the reason, it isn’t just Shakespeare being difficult for difficulty’s sake – there’s some playable information for an actor there.

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