In two of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet and Othello, the power of words helps drive the central action of the plots. While there are different motivations for characters to employ the power of words and language in both Hamlet and Othello , the result is generally the same. First of all, it becomes clear that the words themselves have the power to shape and create a sense of reality. Without a steady stream of words, both internal and external, much of the tragic action in each play would likely be stunted. In Hamlet, words are weapons and can be like poison in the ear or like daggers. Furthermore, Hamlet’s deep connection with language and words causes him to base his perceptions of reality on his interpretation and understanding of words.
Being an introspective man, this is both one of Hamlet’s greatest gifts as well as Hamlet’s defining tragic flaw. Interestingly, despite the wide difference in plot, these two sub-themes also appear in Othello.Without the “poison in the ear” being spread by Iago, the action of the play might never have taken place since it is his language and words that spur Othello into action. Similarly, Othello’s understanding of his reality is shifted and reconstructed as a result of words and despite his demands for “ocular proof,” the poisonous words of Iago are his downfall. It is interesting that two vastly different plays should offer readers such a distinct parallel and it is worth exploring the ways in which these themes are expressed in either text.
One of the central images in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is that of the ear being poisoned, both literally and metaphorically. While in the case of Hamlet’s murdered father the poison was inserted directly into the ear, the meaning is extended to include the power offered by words and language to manipulate and destroy. In essence, as the play progresses, words are the key to both the driving action of the play as well its outcome as all characters have somehow been affected by poisoned words. In many senses, each character’s sense of reality has been created and shaped because of their relationship to language and words, often to tragic ends. The reader is offered some degree of foreshadowing when the ghost of Hamlet’s father states that Claudius has poisoned “the whole ear of Denmark” with his words. Although the reader is not aware of it yet, words will drive the action of the play. For instance, it is not necessarily Hamlet’s actions toward Ophelia that are part of what drives her to suicide, but his words. He, like other men in the play, scolds her like a child, telling her she should enter a nunnery instead of becoming a “breeder of sinners” (III.i.122-123). While he may have simply ignored her or shunned her in a more physical manner, instead he uses the power of words to act as daggers.
Unlike many of the other characters in the play, Hamlet understands fully his skill with words and language and he uses this, above all, to achieve his ends. His exchanges with Ophelia are just one example of his use of language to lead toward a desired result. For example, it is not simply his reaction to his mother that drives that their relationship, but his skillful use of words and language. At one point, Hamlet recognizes his power with words and tells the audience in one of the important quotes from “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, “I will speak daggers to her, but use none” (III.ii.366). The idea that words are equal with daggers is a central idea in this text and it is also noticeable how Hamlet’s belief in the power of language makes others believe it as well, especially those who are full of words, but who speak only hollow vapid sentences such as Polonius or Claudius, who actually makes the statement while praying that “my words fly up, my thoughts remain below” (II.iii.96). The idea expressed here is that he is always speaking but is not using language to his benefit—even when it is in supplication to God. The characters who are not as adept at weaving reality through language are not as sharp as Hamlet and as the play continues, one notices that the power of words is truly equivalent to that of the dagger.
Unfortunately, Hamlet’s use of language does not always benefit him. Due to his brooding and introspective nature, he often wrangles with language to help him understand a reality where he has little control. Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy questions the righteousness of life over death in moral terms and discusses the many possible reasons for either living or dying. Despite this more concrete meaning to the passage, it is important to note that the words themselves hold a great deal of meaning for Hamlet. Instead of taking words at face value, he picks apart the meaning of them and tries to make logical sense out of both the words alone as well as their implied meanings. The concept of death and suicide was not enough within itself to contend with, but the situation is further complicated for Hamlet because of the many possible ways of constructing his feelings based on language and the interpretation of words. When Hamlet utters the pained question in the famous speech saying, “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” (III.i.59-61) there is little doubt that he is thinking of death. Although he attempts to pose such a question in a rational and logical way, he is still left without an answer of whether the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” can be borne out since life after death is so uncertain. His language is poetic, despite a lack of an audience and he is trying to use his rich conception of words to help him gain a kind of divine insight.
The meaning of the “to be or not to be” speech is rooted in Hamlet’s complex relationship with language. He wonders about the nature of his death and thinks for a moment that it may be like a deep sleep, which seems at first to be acceptable until he speculates on what will come in such a deep sleep. Just when his “sleep” answer begins to appeal him, he stops short and explained, in one of the important quotes from Hamlet, “To sleep: perchance to dream:—ay there’s the rub; / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come” (III.i.68-69). The word “sleep” itself is so full of alternate meanings and various connotations and instead of choosing one, Hamlet must battle the words to gain an understanding of his reality. The “dreams” that he fears are the pains that the afterlife might bring and since there is no way to be positive that there will be a relief from his earthly sufferings through death, he forced to question death yet again. Hamlet is stuck because of his feelings of morality, but of equal importance, he is stalled because words hold so much power over him. He is an introspective man and the character who most recognizes the power of language as something that can either revive or destroy, depending on how it is interpreted. In other words, through his understanding of words and their associated meanings, Hamlet’s own sense of reality is constructed through his interpretation of words and language.