Hamlet’s Tongue: A Coming of Age in Tights I argue that the word tongue is the most important word in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, because it demonstrates that Hamlet was only able to come into his own identity once he publicly proclaimed who he was and spoke his truth. Tongue was defined by the Oxford English...
Hamlet’s Tongue: A Coming of Age in Tights
I argue that the word tongue is the most important word in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, because it demonstrates that Hamlet was only able to come into his own identity once he publicly proclaimed who he was and spoke his truth. Tongue was defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘The action of speaking; speech, talking, utterance, voice; also, what is spoken or uttered; words, talk, discourse’(Tongue. 5a). One could argue that one’s identity can only arise when candidly expressed to others, I will explore this notion through using two examples of the suppression and uprising of Hamlet’s self-fashioning.
The moment Hamlet expressed his feelings of grief and is stifled by Claudius, “’Tis unmanly grief. / It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,” (1.2.94-95) the descent into his self-decay commenced. Because Hamlet could not express himself freely, “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.” (1.2.159) instead giving in to their commands, “I shall in all my best obey you,”(1.2.120) he finds himself within the grip of passive reciprocation, where his sense of self is so weak that he submits without resistance, despite his strong feelings of contempt. In this example, Hamlet’s reality doesn’t align with how he feels, creating cognitive dissonance, thus disrupting the development of his self-fashioning. Hamlet’s internalised anguish is explored in soliloquies as he mulls over his position in life and the reality of who he is becoming. He is stifled by his position of nobility and the expectations of the Crown, evident in having to hold his ‘tongue’.
The suppression of Hamlet’s identity is even more apparent when he cannot share his thoughts and feelings with the one he loves during his infamous “To be, or not to be”
(3.1.57-76) soliloquy. Hamlet immediately stifles himself when Ophelia enters, “Soft you now” (3.1.89) and instead of engaging his ‘tongue’ to make some sense of himself by confiding in Ophelia, he takes out his frustration by berating her, “Get thee to a nunnery” (3.1.124). In this scene Hamlet is actively supressing thoughts and internalising his feelings as he assumes, they will fall on deaf ears, as had been reinforced by Claudius and Gertrude. Hamlet is now the architect of his own demise, choosing to conceal how he is feeling through silencing his true self.
However, when Hamlet is finally confronted by the consequences of his passivity and carelessness in regard to his destiny and particularly with Ophelia, he finds the will to proclaim who he is and to take calculated action. Ophelia’s character was used divisively to propel Hamlet into understanding his role as prince and the importance of taking intentional steps to fulfil that role. Hence, upon the discovery of Ophelia’s death, a wave of consciousness and motivation to take control of his fate and ultimately his identity washes over him, “This is I, / Hamlet the Dane.” (5.1.233-234). This proclamation was crucial in supporting the notion that public expression is needed to solidify your identity, because from that moment forward Hamlet couldn’t renege; he now had to act on the identity he so emphatically claimed. Therefore, Hamlet now had a foundation of self to facilitate proactive change.
The word tongue aptly exemplifies the role self-expression had on influencing Hamlet’s ability to form his identity. It was only when Hamlet walked in the light of his truth and verbally expressed it with others, that he had direction. The suppression and liberation of his voice was a key part of this text, without it the reason for Hamlet’s battle with himself would be hollow, hence making tongue the most important word within Hamlet.
“Tongue.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2021, www-oed-com.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/view/Entry/203173?rskey=xtVgJG&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Edited by Robert S. Miola. W.W Norton and Company, Inc. 2019
This essay has been published with the express permission of the author, Caterina Korhammer 2021