Style in Hamlet frequently functions as an extension of character: the way characters speak gives us insight into how they think. This observation is especially true for Hamlet himself, who speaks more than one-third of the play’s total lines, and whose linguistic style changes—often rapidly—depending on context. For example, whenever he’s alone, or thinks he’s alone, Hamlet speaks patiently and at length, and his words frequently take on a philosophical quality.
Hamlet is at his most philosophical when he delivers the monologue that begins with his famous question, “To be, or not to be?” (III.i.55). This monologue continues for nearly 35 lines, in which Hamlet pontificates on the suffering inherent in existence and considers the pros and cons of committing suicide. The gravity of his subject matter and the philosophical weight of his diction reveal the heavy burden of sadness he carries from the very beginning of the play.
In other moments of solitude Hamlet’s style proves less blatantly philosophical but equally discursive. This means that his speech has less philosophical gravitas, but remains fluent, full of rhetorical flourish, and characterized by interruptions of thought. Hamlet’s first monologue, where he rages against his mother’s marriage to Claudius, provides a touchstone example:
Frailty, thy name is woman!—
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears. Why, she—
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reasons
Would have mourned longer!—married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. (I.ii.146–53)
Here an angry Hamlet attempts to make sense of his mother’s decision to remarry after such a short period of mourning. Shakespeare makes the rapid twists and turns in Hamlet’s thought evident in a couple of ways. First, he has Hamlet move quickly between low and high registers, such that he delivers cutting insults and alludes to Greek mythology in the same breath. Second, he includes dashes to indicate quick interruptions of thought. Hamlet begins the third sentence with a thought about his mother, but interrupts himself after two words to compare her unfavorably to “a beast” who “would have mourned longer.” Then, instead of returning to his original thought about his mother, Hamlet concludes by reflecting on the vast dissimilarity between his father and Claudius. Though a fiercely intelligent man, Hamlet’s speech sometimes indicates a lack of focus in his thinking.
Hamlet adopts yet another style when he’s in the company of others. Although he still demonstrates his wit through his command of language, Hamlet’s interactions with others often feature a kind of double-speak in which he conceals his own meaning. He frequently does this in Polonius's presence by feigning madness.
But perhaps the best example of Hamlet’s double-speak is his first line in the play. When Claudius refers to him as “my son,” Hamlet replies somewhat aggressively: “A little more than kin, and less than kind” (I.ii.65). Hamlet’s words play off a common English proverb that states, “The nearer in kin the less in kindness.” The original proverb indicates a close link between kinship and cruelty, but Hamlet complicates it. His phrase “A little more than kin” implies that, through his uncle’s marriage to his mother, he and Claudius have become more closely related than they were before. But then he cleverly reverses this claim. Hamlet's use of the word “kind” has a double significance here. In addition to meaning “considerate,” it also means “natural.” Hamlet, therefore, indicates that Claudius’ behavior has been inconsiderate and unnatural, which makes him not a true member of Hamlet’s family.
Prose and Verse
Like all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Hamlet is written mostly in verse, but over 30% of the lines are in prose, which is the highest percentage of any of the tragedies. One reason for the high amount of prose is that Hamlet has more comic scenes than any of Shakespeare’s other tragedies. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the gravedigger, and often Hamlet himself all make jokes, while Polonius has jokes made at his expense in almost every one of his scenes. Shakespeare preferred to use verse when he was tackling serious themes, and prose when he was writing comedy, so in Hamlet he switches often, sometimes in the middle of a scene.
Hamlet’s frequent switching between verse and prose is part of what makes the style of the play feel evasive. Hamlet’s facility with both prose and verse, and tendency to alternate between the two styles, also underscores the sense of him as a character who is of two minds, or who is not quite sure who he is, so adopts different speaking manners trying to figure out how to really sound like himself.
Another reason why Shakespeare switches between verse and prose is to mark the difference between careful speech and disordered speech. In Act III, Scene 1, Hamlet begins by speaking in verse. His famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be” (III.i.), expresses a complex, ordered thought which Hamlet seems to have been mulling for some time. When Ophelia enters and tries to return the presents Hamlet has given her, he switches abruptly to prose. His switch to prose shows us that Hamlet is no longer thinking clearly, and we understand that Ophelia has surprised and upset him.
One reason Hamlet has more prose than most of Shakespeare’s tragedies is that Hamlet spends a large part of the play pretending to be crazy. In those scenes, Hamlet is deliberately speaking in a disordered way, so he speaks in prose. Likewise, when Ophelia actually goes mad, she too speaks in prose (when she’s not singing). The effect of a character speaking prose when mad is also evident in Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth speaks in nonsense prose as she loses her grip on reality at the end of the play, and also in King Lear, where Lear speaks in disordered, unintelligible prose as he wanders on the heath in a deranged state.
Another function of prose is to mark the speech of lower-status characters. Members of the nobility, like Claudius, almost always speak in verse, but commoners like the gravedigger use prose. When Hamlet speaks in prose to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—who are high-status enough to speak verse with the King—it suggests he is talking down to them. He is happy to exchange jokes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but he does not trust or respect them enough to express himself seriously, using verse.
One exception is the monologue which begins “I will tell you why…” (II.ii.). This speech expresses a complex thought and Hamlet seems to be serious about it, but it’s in prose. It may be that Hamlet is speaking in prose because his speech, in which he seems to be describing himself as seriously depressed, is evidence of Hamlet’s real mental disorder. The speech may also mark the beginning of Hamlet’s loss of control over himself, and his speech, as he loses the ability to manipulate others with complex, misleading phrases.