An aside is the term for a remark uttered out loud but understood by the audience as reflecting a character’s thought while not being heard by the other characters on the stage. Hamlet’s first words in the play, ‘‘A little more than kin, and less than kind,’’ constitute an aside. The words are not directed to the king, who has just addressed him, but reveal Hamlet’s own unuttered thoughts. Similarly, when Polonius is trying to sound Hamlet out, in act 2, scene 2, after Hamlet has referred to his daughter, Polonius says to himself, ‘‘How say you by that? Still harping on my daughter. Yet he knew me not at first.’’ And then he addresses Hamlet, asking, ‘‘What do you read, my lord?’’
Most of Hamlet, except for occasional prose passages, is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is called blank verse. Pentameter means that there are five poetic feet in each line, where a foot is composed of a certain number of syllables or beats. Iambic signifies the rhythm of the feet; in an iambic foot the first syllable is unaccented, the second accented. Thus, the iambic pentameter line ‘‘When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,’’ for example, is scanned as follows: ‘‘When WE have SHUFFled OFF this MORtal COIL.’’ Spoken English often falls into an iambic pattern.
Shakespeare is noted for his playing with words—punning—in order to simultaneously suggest multiple meanings in one word or phrase. In Hamlet, Shakespeare can be said to have given punning a rhetorical and dramatic relevance that he had not given it since the very early Comedy of Errors, when confusion regarding two sets of twins makes many comments have at least two contexts. Hamlet plays with language continuously and puns deliberately in order to tease and confuse those with whom he speaks, and he thereby also reveals the complexity of his personality.
In the 1590s, when Elizabeth I continued to reign, revenge tragedies were extremely popular. Structurally, these tragedies typically involve an initial crime that engenders waves of retribution for the crime and of counter-retribution for the retribution. These plays are often violent, brutal, and graphic. Hamlet follows in the tradition of the revenge tragedy but features a hero who, by virtue of his intellect and philosophical disposition, questions the conventions of his role while undertaking it.
A soliloquy is a speech a character delivers when alone on stage. It is an address to the audience revealing the character’s inner thoughts and feelings. Hamlet is famous for its soliloquies, particularly the one that Hamlet relates in act 3, scene 1, beginning ‘‘To be, or not to be.’’ Shakespeare gave Hamlet several soliloquies, a feature that emphasizes the character’s inward-looking nature and the activity of his mind.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007