The Role of Hendiadys in Hamlet, Eric Denby

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          William Shakespeare is unarguably one of the most influential writers of all time. He penned thirty-seven plays and one hundred fifty four sonnets, created an estimated seventeen-hundred new words of the English Language, and crafted some of the greatest characters the written word has ever known. For all his grandeur and rightful acclaim, he was not known for being fully original in his play’s plots. He took other sources and chronicles to fashion the major structure of most his work. His genius, says author James Shapiro, was not “inventing a play from scratch”, which held little appeal to him, but his use of the English language and his “verbal texture” (286). One of the more obscure rhetorical devices that Shakespeare utilized is called hendiadys. Although it shows up in many of his works, it is in The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark that it is seen the most, some “sixty six times, more than twice as often as in any other play” (Wright 173).

          Hendiadys is from the Greek phrase “one by means of two” (“hendiadys”). A more finite definition is “a figure of speech in which a complex idea is expressed by two words connected by a conjunction” (“hendiadys”). Examples of hendiadys in modern day usage would include ‘nice and warm’, ‘good and loud’, and ‘big and fat’, with each pair representing a single concept, and the second noun or adjective unpacking the meaning of the first. With this rhetorical device, on a subconscious level, readers expect a clearer meaning, but Shakespeare often does not stick to traditional use of hendiadys. George Wright, who wrote an extensive paper on Shakespeare’s use of hendiadys, explains that there are three major forms in Hamlet: the second word of the conjunction may unfold the first, as in “ponderous and marble” (51; I.4.55); The first word explains the second, as in “from cheer and from your former state” (147; III.2.185); or one word logically modifies the other, as in “law and heraldry” for the concept of heraldic law (Wright 169). The fourth use, and by far the most genius, is how Shakespeare explores his themes and probes his characters through the syntax of the play. Instead of adding insight and clarification, his use will on occasion produce a sort of “mental vertigo” (Shapiro 287). George Wright explains it as blurring logical lines, adding confusion, which “is in keeping with the tragic or weighty action of the major plays” (Wright 171). It is with his sophisticated levels of use that genius is found; he takes a relatively simple rhetorical device and creates something that confounds and mystifies, forcing the reader to work at understanding the rhetoric and reinforcing the play’s various themes.

          A clear example of connecting hendiadys to a theme is shown in Act II, Scene 1, where Polonius instructs his servant Reynaldo on the art of obtaining information regarding his son Laertes. He suggests that Reynaldo, while speaking with his son’s acquaintances in Paris, embrace “encompassment and drift of question” (73; II.1.12), that he use a type of questioning that is on the outskirts of knowledge, one that does not show how truly familiar he is with both Laertes and Polonius, hopefully receiving more information than if he were direct. A common theme withinHamlet is this mistrust between family members – Polonius and his son Laertes; Claudius and Hamlet; Hamlet and his mother. Shakespeare’s genius was to thwart the reader’s expectations of a definition. Hendiadys usually asks that a “parallelism of thought and meaning” (Wright 169) be applied, but in this instance there are two techniques of lying. The reader is not allowed to connect them, being how dissimilar in action they are. One word imagines concepts of “encirclement” and “being surrounded”, while the other simply applies a sort of “pressure” or “unseen force” in the questioning. Both are effective at reaching the end goal of drawing out information, but are really just words that fit within a more general classification of actions, not exactly synonyms of one same concept.

          Hendiadys does not always have to be difficult at translating; Shakespeare still effectively uses it as a means of enhancing his text without complicating the meaning. One such emphasis occurs during the last scene of Act One, where the Ghost first speaks to Hamlet:

My hour is almost come
When I to sulf’rous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself (57; I.5.5-7) ( emphasis added)

          The Ghost is making it clear that his time has come to return to purgatory, where the flames will continue to punish him for past sins. Instead of a more conventional phrasing, which may have switched the order of words to “tormenting and sulf’rous flames”, Shakespeare chooses to have the first word of the conjunction offer up a sensory experience to the second word of “tormenting”, which is the most concrete word of the two. This verbal structure forces a more emotional response to the idea of purgatory – the reader is given a smell, one that is well known, that adds to the overall effect of a hellish state for the Ghost. The Ghost continues on declaring he is Hamlet’s father and that he is doomed to walk the earth until “the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away ” (57; I.5.17-18, emphasis added). A typical translation of this conjunction would be “purged by burning”, but in the style and tone of the play, the original use leads to more eloquence and elevated speech.

          Shakespeare will at times develop hendiadys as a way of emphasizing the dual nature of a character, as he does with Laertes. He is speaking with his sister Ophelia about Hamlet and his love, warning her to be aware of Hamlet “and the trifling of his favor / Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood” (39; I.3.6-7, emphasis added). She should consider Hamlet’s behavior as something one might expect from a youth in his position as Prince. Laertes forewarns her that this affection of Hamlet’s could be whimsical and short lived, and that she should forget his love and move on. Laertes continues saying that Hamlet’s “will is not his own” (41; I.3.20) and that he is “subject to his birth” (41; I.3.21); that all of Hamlet’s choices will stem from “the safety and health of this whole state” (41; I.3.24). As he resumes to talk of duality during these 30 or so lines the use of hendiadys increases – “voice and yielding”, “act and place”, “shot and danger”, “morn and liquid dew of youth” – calling into question all of Hamlet’s love and intent towards his sister. Ophelia, as a testament to her acuity, responds with her own hendiadys:

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to Heaven
Whilst, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede. (43; I.3.51-55) (Emphasis added)

          Ophelia, matching Laertes’ elevated language, makes clear that she understands his concern, but he should heed his own warnings and not continue on his path of sin. The only way to liberation is for everyone to be true to themselves. The dialog between Laertes and Ophelia also demonstrates Shakespeare’s occasional use of hendiadys “in passages of certain elevation” (Wright 173) and how the “uncertain and divided sensibility” (Wright 176) of Laertes was increased with this rhetorical device.

          Of course no great tragedy is tragic without its hero, and Shakespeare employs hendiadys throughout Hamlet’s dialog as a way to “explore the problematic depths of thought and feeling” (Wright 173). Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, has many questions of duality throughout the play. He doubts the various personal relationships he is in. The relations of power within the state of Denmark. The relation of humans within the universe they live. The madness and feigned madness he exhibits. And most famously, his thoughts on life and death, the “to be or not to be” (127; III.1.64) of his mind. Fortune plays a major role in the play and one example of non-parallel hendiadys would be “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (127; III.1.66). Both terms are in the same category of tools, but they are not parallel or connected in any other fashion. Slings are to be slung by rocks, not arrows, and conversely, arrows are to be used by bows. The wordplay still emphasizes Hamlet’s thoughts of questioning ones fight against fortune, but readers are asked to think about the images that occur in the original text. It is not a play made of simplistic language. Another instance is during one of Hamlet’s first sightings of the Ghost. He prays for “Angels and ministers of grace defend us” (51; I.4.43), evoking imagery of “ministering angels of justice.” Upon further reflection though, readers become aware of the hidden duality between these two nouns – angels are inherently trustworthy and good, while ministers can go either way. It sets up the following line, “Be though a spirit of health or goblin damned” (51; I.4.44). Hamlet cares not who will protect him, just as long as he is safe from harm. One final example, out of the many available, is Hamlet’s soliloquy after being ordered by the Ghost to kill Claudius. He vows to avenge his father, remembering what the Ghost commanded him to do:

Any thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven! (63; I.5.109-111) (Emphasis added)

          What causes a pause to readers during this passage is the use of both words “book” and “volume”. The pair indicates a media format where memories are kept and recorded, but “volume” also adds the concept of space and largeness. Hamlet is indicating that not only will he remember, and record his commitment, but the expanse of his voluminous brain will hold the vow of revenge. It will be all encompassing, all powerful, taking up all space in his mind. As George Wright articulates, hendiadys in Hamlet is “not merely amplification or intensification but an interweaving, indeed sometimes muddling, of meaning” which keeps perfect harmony in “Shakespeare’s exploration” (173) of large themes and existential questions.

          While some would take issue with such a micro-rhetorical reading of Hamlet, it is within the small verbs and nouns that one finds the true treasure of Shakespeare’s genius. He astutely connects Hamlet’s madness and questioning with small pairings of simple English words. He reinforces themes and motifs with the language of Laertes and Ophelia. He quite simply creates a text that is both large in scope, deep in meaning, and intricate in selection of words. George Write contends that “In the great enigma of Hamlet, this perplexing figure [hendiadys] serves to remind us … how uncertain and treacherous language and behavior can be” (Wright 176). It is as if a mirror is showing two sides of an image, both the reflected and reflector. Neither image being exact replicas, but both offering intensity to the concepts being expressed.