The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark

The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark - William Shakespeare

      The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark –  Spelling and Pronunciation. From the philologist’s point of view, Shakespeare’s English is modern English. It requires footnotes, but the inexperienced reader can comprehend substantial passages with very little help, whereas for the same reader Chaucer’s Middle English is a foreign language. By the beginning of the fifteenth century the chief grammatical changes in English had taken place, and the final unaccented -e of Middle English had been lost (though it survives even today in spelling, as in name); during the fifteenth century the dialect of London, the commercial and political center, gradually displaced the provincial dialects, at least in writing; by the end of the century, printing had helped to regularize and stabilize the language, especially spelling. 

       Elizabethan spelling may seem erratic to us (there were dozens of spellings of Shakespeare, and a simple word like been was also spelled beene and bin), but it had much in common with our spelling. Elizabethan spelling was conservative in that for the most part it reflected an older pronunciation (Middle English) rather than the sound of the language as it was then spoken, just as our spelling continues to reflect medieval pronunciation-most obviously in the now silent but formerly pronounced letters in a word such as knight. The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark

        Elizabethan pronunciation, though not identical with ours, was much closer to ours than to that of the Middle Ages. Incidentally, though no one can be certain about what Elizabethan English sounded like, specialists tend to believe it was rather like the speech of a modern stage Irishman (time apparently was pronounced time, old pronounced awld, day pronounced die, and join pronounced jine) and not at all like the Oxford speech that most of us think it was.

        An awareness of the difference between our pronunciation and Shakespeare’s is crucial in three areas in accent, or number of syllables (many metrically regular lines may look irregular to us); in rhymes (which may not look like rhymes); and in puns (which may not look like puns). Examples will be useful. Some words that were at least on occasion stressed differently from today are aspect, complete, forlorn, revenue, and sepulcher. Words that sometimes had an additional syllable are emple)ress, Henery, mon[e]th, and villain (three syllables, vil-lay-in). An additional syllable is often found in possessives, like moon’s (pronounced moses) and in words ending in -tion or sin. Words that had one less syllable than they now have are needle (pronounced weel) and violet (pronounced vile). Among rhymes now lost are one with loan, love with prove, beast with jest, eat with great. (In reading, trust your sense of metrics and your ear, more than your eye.) An example of a pun that has become obliterated by a change in pronunciation is Falstaff’s reply to Prince Hal’s “Come, tell us your reason” in 1 Henry IV: “Give you a reason on compulsion? If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion, I” (2.4.237-40). The as in reason was pronounced rather like a long a, like the ai in naisin, hence the comparison with blackberries.

        Puns are not merely attempts to be funny; like metaphors they often involve bringing into a meaningful relationship areas of experience normally seen as remote. In 2 Henry IV, when Feeble is conscripted, he stoically says, “I care not. A man can die but once. We owe God a death” (3.2.242-43), punning on debt, which was the way death was pronounced. Here an enormously significant fact of life is put into simple commercial imagery, suggesting its commonplace quality. Shakespeare used the same pun earlier in 1 Henry IV, when Prince Hal says to Falstaff, “Why, thou owest God a death,” and Falstaff replies, ” “Tis not due yet: I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me?” 

        Sometimes the puns reveal a delightful playfulness; sometimes they reveal aggressiveness, as when, replying to Claudius’s “But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son,” Hamlet says, “A little more than kin, and less than kind!” (1.2.64- 65). These are Hamlet’s first words in the play, and we already hear him warring verbally against Claudius. Hamlet’s “less than kind” probably means (1) Hamlet is not of Claudius’s family or nature, kind having the sense it still has in our word mankind, (2) Hamlet is not kindly (affectionately) disposed toward Claudius; (3) Claudius is not naturally (but rather unnaturally, in a legal sense incestuously) Hamlet’s father. The puns evidently were not put in as sops to the groundlings; they are an important way of communicating a complex meaning.

        Vocabulary. A conspicuous difficulty in reading Shakespeare is rooted in the fact that some of his words are no longer in common use-for example, words concerned with armor, astrology, clothing, coinage, hawking, horsemanship, law, medicine, sailing, and war. Shakespeare had a large vocabulary-something near thirty thousand words-but it was not so much a vocabulary of big words as a vocabulary drawn from a wide range of life, and it is partly his ability to call upon a great body of concrete language that gives his plays the sense of being in close contact with life. When the right word did not already exist, he made it up. Among words thought to be his coinages are accommodation, all-knowing, amazement, bare-faced, countless, dexterously, dislocate, dwindle, fancy-free, frugal, indistinguishable, lackluster, laughable, overawe, premeditated, sea change, star-crossed. Among those that have not survived are the verb convive, meaning to feast together, and smilet, a little smile.

        Less overtly troublesome than the technical words but more treacherous are the words that seem readily intelligible to us but whose Elizabethan meanings differ from their modern ones. When Horatio describes the Ghost as an “erring spirit,” he is saying not that the ghost has sinned or made an error but that it is wandering. Here is a short list of some of the most common words in Shakespeare’s plays that often (but not always) have a meaning other than their most usual modern meaning:


The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark

William Shakespeare

With New and Updated

Critical Essays and a Revised Bibliography

Edited by Sylvan Barnet


General Editor: Sylvan Barnet





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