Language in Hamlet

Speak the Speech!

Language in Hamlet

By Aurelia Clunie, Education Associate for Student Audiences

Matthew Rauch and Kate Forbes in Macbeth. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Matthew Rauch and Kate Forbes in Macbeth. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.”
-Hamlet III.2.1-2

For over four hundred years, the language of Shakespeare’s plays has moved audiences, inspired actors, and baffled many. Shakespeare’s complex texts can be confusing at first, but can also be decoded and spoken by all. With a little work, everyone from third grade students to Patrick Stewart can perform Shakespeare’s text with confidence.

Shakespeare did much of his writing in a form called Iambic Pentameter, in which each line of text contains ten alternately stressed syllables (five pairs/feet). There are five iambs in each line. A full line of iambic pentameter has the rhythm:

da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum

For example:

  • but soft what light through yonder window breaks (Romeo, Act II Scene 2, Romeo and Juliet)
  • A little more than kin, and less than kind: (Hamlet, Act I Scene 2, Hamlet)

Some say this rhythm echoes the human heartbeat and is a naturally spoken rhythm in English—usually. Actors generally do not speak it in a sing-song fashion, emphasizing the meter, but are aware of it and allow it to influence which words are stressed in the context of a scene.

Shakespeare primarily wrote in blank verse for his tragedies and history plays. However, blank verse, like life, is not perfect. Sometimes Shakespeare’s lines have extra syllables, or are short some syllables. Many scholars and actors believe variation in blank verse offers insight into a character’s state of mind, emotional state, or reaction to what is happening onstage. Does he or she rush to get the whole line out? Does the character pause? If so, why? Hamlet is also notable because characters often speak partial or shared lines. One character may begin a line of iambic pentameter but not finish it, suggesting an extended pause. Or, another character may finish the line, indicating no pause at all. Here, after Horatio describes the ghost that looks like Hamlet’s father, Hamlet grills his friend for more information:

Did you not speak to it?

My lord, I did;
But answer made it none. Yet once methought
It lifted up its head and did address
Itself to motion, like as it would speak.
But even then the morning cock crew loud,
And at the sound it shrunk in haste away
And vanished from our sight.

‘Tis very strange.