Rhetoric in Shakespeare's Hamlet

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Shakespeare was a skillful writer and had the ability to form different styles of characters effectively to develop the story to captivate his audience. In Hamlet, Shakespeare creates several “Masters of Rhetoric” who skillfully use language to gain an upper hand over other characters, as well as to accent the character’s personal motive’s and desire’s to the audience. Shakespeare develops certain characters such as Hamlet and Claudius as Masters of Rhetoric to show their puissance, and uses Polonius and his comical failed attempts at rhetoric to show his weaknesses. Hamlet and Claudius continually use rhetoric to battle each other with words, trying to prove their prowess and gain the upper hand by making the other look foolish. They think that through superior use of language, they will show they are higher on the Great Chain of Being, as both think they are destined to be the King of Denmark. As will be shown in a moment, Shakespeare aptly uses these “word battles” to make one character appear greater than another, at times humorously destroying or establishing the assumed Great Chain of Being. This constant battling also contributes to Shakespeare’s flux of order and chaos to make a great dramatic tragedy.

The first example we have of Masters of Rhetoric is in Scene 2 of Act 1.

King: But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son-

Hamlet: A little more than kin, and less than kind.

King: How is it that the clouds still hang on you?

Hamlet: Not so, my lord, I am too much in the sun (I.ii.)

Hamlet and Claudius retort towards each other from their very first conversation in the play. Hamlet is trying to display his anger of Claudius’ marriage to Gertrude. Then Hamlet uses the word “sun” as a pun, in reference to Claudius calling him “son” three lines previously. In this and some other uses of Hamlet’s speech, he seems to trying to show his anger through a sassy use of words that display his bitterness. At times, Hamlet will take a word from someone else’s speech and dwell on it and do something with it as a challenge, and to apply an emphasis.

Queen: Why seems it so particular with thee?

Hamlet: Seems, madam? nay, it is, I know not “seems.” (I.ii.)

Hamlet challenges his mother’s speech, just as he challenged his uncle’s speech in the previous example. This is his way of showing his vexation without saying so outright.

Manipulation of another character through use of rhetoric is a common theme in this play, and in Act II Scene ii, Hamlet is extremely effective in controlling a conversation with Polonius:

Hamlet: (in reference to Ophelia) Let her not walk I’ th’ sun. Conception is a blessing,//but as your daughter may conceive, friend, look to’t.

Polonius: …What do you read my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?

Hamlet: Between who?

Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord. (II.ii.)

Hamlet begins by speaking in a vulgar way of Polonius’ daughter, doubling “conception” as both understanding and birth. Hamlet then plays with Polonius by changing the obvious meaning of the word matter. I will show in a moment the manner in which Polonius is a windbag who makes attempts at being a master of Rhetoric, but in doing so becomes completely oblivious to the real rhetoric being used to mock him. Hamlet answers Polonius with a long description of the book he is reading, and only speaks of negative traits of an old man, mocking Polonius. The first hint of Polonius being a windbag comes in Act I Scene iv: “Marry, I will teach you: think yourself a baby//that you have ta’en theses tenders for true pay,//Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly,//Or (not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,//Wringing it thus) you’ll tender me a fool.” (I.iv) Polonius even admits to being longwinded. The Queen even accuses him of being a blusterer after one of his speeches in Act II Scene ii, yet he replies with even more failed attempt at rhetoric....
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