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Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet

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    John Russell Brown’s “Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet”

    Most Hamlet scholarship focuses on the body of the play, or on the monologues, or on the historical context of Shakespeare’s writing. The article that I have analyzed below, however, is a formalist criticism of the last scene of the play, and the avenues of interpretation that Shakespeare intentionally left open in order to give the play and its characters more depth. The theme of secrecy in the play, which is also seen in the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, is a major factor in the multiple meanings that can be attributed to the last scene. In Hamlet, Shakespeare created a character with a substantial inner life, which Brown acknowledges by quoting a number of Hamlet’s references to the depth of his own sadness (Brown, 17). Reading this article gave me a new perspective on a play I had thought to be relatively unproblematic compared to contemporary drama. In clarifying the meanings of the last moments of Hamlet, Brown actually muddies the waters, creating new possibilities for directors and scholars alike.


    The phrase “multiplicity of meaning” is a recent one, and makes reference to the subjectivity of modern scholarly research, and how interpretation of text is informed by the reader/listener’s background as much as by the text itself. But in relation to a Shakespearian text, multiplicity of meaning refers as much to the characters’ interpretation of events as to the interpretation of the text as a whole. While there is an overt conclusion that the audience must come to (e.g., murder has its consequences), the characters in Hamlet each clearly have their own distinct thoughts on morality, action, and grief. That the characters may not have access to their thoughts is, to Brown, the most fascinating aspect of the play: “Hamlet moves through the tragedy with a secret within him, and defies his audience to guess at it. Yet he never seems able to name it” (ibid.).

    Brown draws our attention first to the vagueness of Hamlet’s speech, and the constant multiple meanings that live in Hamlet’s words, as well as those he coaxes from the speech of those around him. “Words are restless within his mind, changing meaning, shifting form, extending reference, awaking others close in sound but different in meaning” (Brown, 18). His wordplay, especially in his conversations with Claudius and Gertrude, would be considered rude, except that it is excused by his extreme grief. Brown uses the technical-sounding term ‘paranomasia,’ meaning simply rhyming phrase or wordplay, to call attention to the importance of Hamlet’s game with words. Brown outlines the possible motives Hamlet’s wordplay might serve: to confuse those around him? To distance himself from people who cannot understand his sadness? To censor his angry thoughts? (Brown, 20) Although wit is always assumed to be intentional, Hamlet’s wit may occasionally reveal more than he intends. Particularly in his soliloquies, when his wordplay is for himself alone, wordassociation games are an important way to gain insight into Hamlet’s thought process. Brown points out the possibility of multiple meanings in Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy: “oh that this too, too solid (sullied) flesh would melt / and resolve itself into a dew (adieu).”

    The resolution of the plot, accomplished in the last scene, is the subject of most of the essay’s analysis, after this clarification of Hamlet’s complicity in the play of words. Brown strongly suggests that the narrative is nothing deeper than the average murder mystery, but that most of the dramatic development takes place inside Hamlet’s head.

    “The narrative is a kind of mystery and chase, so that, underneath the various guises of his wordplay, we are made keenly aware of [Hamlet’s] inner dissatisfaction, and come to expect some resolution at the end of the tragedy, some unambiguous "giving out" which will report Hamlet and his cause aright to the unsatisfied among the audience” (Brown, 22-23).

    Hamlet’s words to Claudius, Laertes, Horatio, and Gertrude during the last scene of the play are still fraught with vagueness and innuendo, albeit much more pointedly than in the preceding acts. Hamlet keeps his thoughts mostly to himself throughout the bulk of the play; even at the end we are not quite sure about the details of the story Horatio is enjoined to “tell aright.”

    A great deal of the article is devoted to a deconstruction of Hamlet’s last line, “the rest is silence.” The meanings that Brown distills from Hamlet’s last speech have implications both within the play and for moral or religious points that can be made quite separate from the play. There are four separate meanings that Brown points out:

    1. “All that remains for me to say must be unspoken.”
    2. “The remainder of my life will have no impact on the future.”
    3. “The rest (quietus) of the afterlife has nothing to say about the unrest of the present.”
    4. “I have no further objection to my ultimate fate.”

    All of these interpretations have textual support; some more than others, but all contribute to the interpretation that Hamlet cannot make definite statements about anything, because the evidence he has for his beliefs comes mostly in the form of mental events.


    I have always been fascinated by readings of Hamlet that point out the ambiguity of the evidence for Hamlet’s belief in his father’s murder and Claudius’ deep alignment with evil. Some of Brown’s arguments rest on ambiguities between the different Quarto and Folio versions of the play, which I have never had a chance to explore in detail. Brown’s concentration on the conflicts inherent in Hamlet’s words draws the reader’s attention away from the conflicts that most of us presume to be driving the play: Hamlet’s father dies, Hamlet must deal with his grief while more and more “evidence” comes to light confirming his uncle’s guilt of Hamlet Sr.’s murder. This play is no mere Revenger’s Tragedy, we are told, but an examination of how deeply emotion can influence reason. Could find the unique paper on Hamlet? No problem. We can write a dissertation on Hamlet that will be 100% free from plagiarism

    It is unsurprising that Hamlet scholars should use Shakespearian terms in their work, as Brown seems to have absorbed a number of turns of phrase that create much the same atmosphere of semantic hopscotch as Hamlet’s own paranomasia. Thus, Brown creates the open possibility that his interpretation of the text is just as fraught with multiple meanings as Hamlet’s interpretation of his situation. This is not the safest position for a scholar to take, but in an article explicitly addressing multiplicity of meaning, it would be poor form to claim that the interpretation offered by the author was indeed the only one possible.

    By focusing on Hamlet’s wit and wordplay, Brown creates the rest of the characters as simple, two-dimensional, and relatively lacking in inner conflict. However, few characters in the play are without multiple motives for their actions; even Laertes’ assault on Hamlet could be motivated not by the death of his father, but by his sister’s loss (of life and possibly of virtue), or it could have political motivations that are masked by traditional reasons for revenge. Brown neglects to mention the possibility that Hamlet is truly psychotic, that he suffers from hallucinations and paranoia, and that his facile wordplay is his way of convincing himself and others that he isn’t crazy, but merely “deep.” Fortunately, Shakespeare provides enough evidence throughout the play that a simpler interpretation can be reached. If, for instance, Hamlet Elder’s ghost had not been witnessed by multiple characters, the intricacies of Hamlet’s phrasing might rightly be dismissed as the ravings of a madman.

    • Brown, John Russell, “Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet,” in Connotations v2n1 (1992), p.16-33.
    • Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.

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