Shakespeare uses many types of figurative language like metaphor, simile, and personification. Recognizing when his characters are speaking figuratively helps to understand what they are saying.
At the beginning of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy he is contemplating his own mortality and uses the slings and arrows as a metaphor for the attacks he feels in his life, as well of sea of troubles as a description of the mounting problems he feels he’s drowning in.
Shakespeare’s Language: Prose vs. Verse
Many students—and adults, for that matter—find Shakespeare difficult to read and hard to understand. They accuse him of not speaking English and refuse to believe that ordinary people spoke the way his characters do. However, if you understand more about his language, it is easier to understand. One idea that may help is to remember that his plays are written in two forms: prose and verse.
Prose is the form of speech used by common, and often comic, people in Shakespearean drama. There is no rhythm or meter in the line. It is everyday language. Shakespeare’s audiences would recognize the speech as their language. When a character in a play speaks in prose, you know that he is a lower class member of society. These are characters such as criminals, servants, and pages. However, sometimes important characters can speak in prose. For example, the majority of The Merry Wives of Windsor is written in prose because it deals with the middle-class.
An Example of Prose
The following example is from one of the Gravediggers in Hamlet.
“Cudgel thy brains no more about it, for your dull ass will not mend his pace with beating. And when you are asked this question next, say “A grave-maker.” The houses that he makes last till doomsday. Go, get thee in. Fetch me a stoup of liquor.”
Most of Shakespeare’s characters speak in what is called “blank verse.” It contains no rhyme, but each line has an internal rhythm with a regular rhythmic pattern. The pattern most favored by Shakespeare is iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is defined as a ten-syllable line with the accent on every other syllable, beginning with the second one. The rhythm of this pattern of speech is often compared to a beating heart. Examine this line from another famous Hamlet speech.
“Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt.”
Place the words with syllabic count:
1-2 3-4 5-6 7-8 9-10
Replace the words with a ‘da’ sound to hear the heart beat:
da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA
Now put the emphasis on the words themselves:
Oh-THAT this-TOO too-SUL lied-FLESH would-MELT
An Example of Verse
The Ghost (telling Hamlet of his murder):
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched,
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled.
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
Oh, horrible, oh, horrible, most horrible!
Breaking the Rules
Like all great writers even Shakespeare broke his own rules in his plays. The greatest example of this in Hamlet is perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous line of text.
“To be or not to be, that is the question.”
If we add the iambic emphasis on the line something strange happens. We notice there is an extra syllable.
To-BE or-NOT to-BE that-IS the-QUES tion
This is called a feminine ending (when the line of text ends on an unstressed syllable.) In fact the entire beginning of this famous speech is full of them.
“To be, or not to be--that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.”
By breaking the conventional meter we have heard throughout the show we seem to subconsciously understand that Hamlet is troubled by these thoughts of suicide.
Monologue vs. Soliloquy
The text of this play is full of speeches. There are two distinctive types of speeches, monologues and soliloquies. The difference between the two is simple.
Monologues are long speeches that are addressed to other characters. In Hamlet Claudius is a great example as most of his speaking is addressing other people.
Soliloquies are a single character speaking only to themselves as a tool to let the audience in on what is happening in their mind. Hamlet is the best example of these kind of speeches in the show.