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Jess Hindes
Storytelling and the limits of language in Macbeth, Hamlet and Titus
Titus Andronicus, Hamlet and Macbeth all have a difficult relationship with language:
Titus’ rhetoric and imagery is often criticised as the rudimentary work of an apprentice
playwright; Macbeth is perceived as incomplete in its brevity; Hamlet, on the contrary, is
unactably long in its conflated form.
This difficulty with the language of the plays
themselves is shared by the characters within their diegeses; heroes and villains alike
struggle with the relationship between language and reality. This is reflected in all three
plays by a concern with storytelling, with the language of ritual, and with the terrible
possibility of existence without speech or communication. For Titus, Macbeth and Lady
Macbeth, this exploration entails an understanding of the limits of language, the
possibility of its inadequacy and the potential for actions to remain sometimes unrealised
or untamed by words. Hamlet, however, is different; he is able to seize control of his
narrative in a fashion that evades the other characters, and he does so, appropriately,
through his understanding of the mechanics of storytelling.
An initial and obvious example of the failure of language in all three plays is
communicative: the abortion or fruitlessness of prayer. Hamlet, Titus and Macbeth all
notably feature ritual gone awry: the ‘bak’d meats’ of Old Hamlet’s funeral ‘Did coldly
furnish forth the marriage tables’ of Claudius and Gertrude (1.2.180-1); the banquet at
which Banquo’s Ghost appears is a perversion of the ‘ceremony’ Lady Macbeth sees as
‘the sauce to meat’ (3.4.36); and no meal could be more corrupt than that in the final
scene of Titus Andronicus, where Chiron and Demetrius are served in ‘two pasties’
(5.2.189) to their unsuspecting mother. Similarly, Hamlet comments on the ‘maimed
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rites’ of Ophelia’s funeral (5.1.212), and Titus’ slaughter of Alarbus is ‘irreligious piety’
(1.1.133) indeed in a culture which ‘prided itself on not allowing human sacrifice’1. Given
such an atmosphere of religious corruption across all three plays, it is perhaps
unsurprising that in all of them we see prayers incomplete or unsuccessful. ‘I could not
say ‘Amen’/ When they did say ‘God bless us’’, says Macbeth of Duncan’s unhappy
grooms; ‘wherefore could not I pronounce ‘Amen’?/ I had most need of blessing, and
‘Amen’/ Stuck in my throat’ (2.2.27-32). Claudius, more self-aware, recognises both his
urgent need for forgiveness and the reason why it is forbidden him: ‘Pray I can not,/
Though inclination be as sharp as will’ (3.3.38); ‘Words without thoughts never to heaven
go’ (3.3.98). Titus, driven to the edge of madness, is least self-aware of all: frustrated by
what is evidently ‘bootless prayer’ (3.1.76), he is reduced to firing messages into the
heavens on the ends of arrows. ‘There’s not a god left unsolicited’, he tells Marcus
(4.3.61): Marcus, made bitter by experience, hopes only to ‘afflict the emperor’ with their
unorthodox missives (4.3.63). In all three plays, then, lines of communication between
men and gods are severed: Macbeth and Titus, however, place an idealistic faith in
language which the more cynical Claudius recognises to be misplaced. ‘Thoughts’ are
of the essence: ‘words’ are all very well but for the gods ‘the action lies/ In his true
nature’ (3.3.61).
Language, then, is shown to be in some ways an inadequate tool of communication:
Ophelia, Lavinia, and Lady Macbeth, however, are deprived even of this. For Ophelia
and Lady Macbeth this deprivation takes the form of madness: Lady Macbeth, her mind
‘infected’ (5.1.70) by guilt, is reduced to disjointed, incoherent prose and Ophelia in the
‘madness’ (4.5.156) of her grief to the sing-song verse of popular ballads. The ‘foul
whisp’rings’ (5.1.69) of the sleepwalking scene are the last that Shakespeare shows us
Jonathan Bate, Titus Andronicus, Arden edn, p 135 n
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of Lady Macbeth; the snatches of sense which so disturb the Doctor and her
Gentlewoman (‘She has spoke what she should not’ (5.1.46)) almost poignant in their
distance from the brave, vicious verse of her earlier appearances. ‘Fie, my lord, fie, a
soldier, and afeard?’ (5.1.34) pales beside ‘When you durst do it, then you were a man;/
And to be more than what you were, you would/ Be so much more the man’ (1.7.49); ‘No
more o’that my lord, no more o’that – you mar with all this starting’ (5.1.42) beside ‘You
do unbend your noble strength to think/ So brain-sickly of things’ (2.2.44). Boorman
summarises the change effectively: ‘she fades out of the play’2. Ophelia, too, fades
away, into cryptic scraps of verse: ‘He is gone, he is gone/ And we cast away moan’
(4.5.194); ‘They bore him bare-fac’d on the bier,/ And in his grave rained many a tear’
(4.5.164). Lavinia’s silence is, however, like so much of Titus Andronicus, both more
literal and more brutal than that of the other plays; ‘I’ll stop your mouth’, says Chiron at
2.2.184, and proceeds to do so with nightmarish determination.
emphasises her silence with a darkly ironic repetition: Marcus, Titus and Lucius each in
turn bid her ‘speak’ (2.3.16; 3.1.66; 3.1.82).
Her condition shocks Marcus into
increasingly inappropriate metaphor: ‘That delightful engine of her thoughts/… is torn
forth from that pretty hollow cage/ Where, like a sweet melodious bird, it sung’ (3.1.8386); in fact, Lavinia is trapped, not freed, by her silence. There is something about
Lavinia, her sense intact but unable to communicate, her small nephew running away in
fear lest ‘some fit or frenzy do possess her’ (4.1.17), which is more frightening than
either ‘pretty Ophelia’ (4.5.56) or Lady Macbeth in their shattered understandings.
Claudius has understood that ‘words without thoughts’ are ineffectual: thoughts without
words to adequately express them are terrifyingly inadequate.
SC Boorman, Human Conflict in Shakespeare, p 223
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The consequent desire to link words and meaning, meaning and words, is reflected by
the immediate reaction to all three women: an attempt to translate their silence into
sense. ‘This nothing’s more than matter’ says Laertes (4.5.171), just as the Doctor
darkly opines that ‘unnatural deeds’ lie behind Lady Macbeth’s words (5.1.69), and Titus
promises Lavinia to ‘wrest an alphabet’ (3.2.44) of her ‘dumb action’ (3.2.40). There is a
sense that to render something in language will make it manageable: all three plays
struggle with that which cannot be described. Macbeth is a ‘bloodier villain than terms
can give… out’ (5.7.38); Hamlet has ‘that within which passeth show’ (1.2.85); Titus,
appallingly, can respond only with laughter to the final blow of Aaron’s vicious betrayal:
‘Ha, ha, ha!’ (3.1.265)
‘Why dost thou laugh?’ demands Marcus: ‘It fits not with this
hour’ (3.1.266). In saying so he misses the vital point which Shakespeare, and Titus,
both understand: there are times at which words can do no more. ‘Look upon her’, Titus
commands Lucius at 3.1.66: the only way to do justice to Lavinia’s injuries is to look at
them with an unblinking eye. It is this same thinking which has often led to the removal,
or at least the heavy cutting, of Marcus’ speech in 2.3. His language, limited to the
rhetorical flourishes and romantic blazons of his culture, is utterly inappropriate to the
situation in which he finds himself:
‘Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirred with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.’
The word ‘blood’ here is gorily incongruous with the ‘bubbling fountain’, ‘rosed lips’ and
‘honey breath’ surrounding it, a series of clichés to which Marcus seems instinctively to
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turn in his description. However this very inappropriateness is vital to the scene’s effect:
the horror of Lavinia’s situation is emphasised by the poor gloss of words with which her
uncle attempts to encompass it.
Many characters in Titus Andronicus cope with their own inability to find an appropriate
verbal response to their situation by quoting the words of others. ‘Terra Astraea reliquit’3
says Titus in despair (4.3.4); the Latin of the Metamorphoses summarising what his own
words cannot; at 4.1.81 he uses Seneca’s Hippolytus to similar effect: ‘Magni dominator
poli/ Tam lentus audis scelera, tam lentus vides?’4 (4.1.81) Here, though, there is a
deliberate and unsettling irony: Demetrius (an enthusiastic wielder of classical
quotations) departs to rape Lavinia with a quotation from the same play: ‘Per Stygia, per
manes vehor’5 (1.1.635). Father and attacker speak the same language, read the same
text; the effect on the audience is a horror akin to Antonio’s indignant reaction to
Shylock: ‘the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’ (Merchant 1.3.93). Seneca is not
quite the Bible; but the classical tragedies were in Shakespeare’s day thought the
pinnacle of literary achievement, and Demetrius is much nearer to a devil than is
Shylock. There is perhaps an opposite effect in the use of Ovid’s text: originally the
inspiration for Demetrius and Chiron’s brutal amputation of Lavinia’s tongue, it becomes
the instrument of their downfall. ‘Worse than Philomel you used my daughter,’ Titus
crows to the surprised brothers, ‘And worse than Progne will I be revenged’ (5.2.194-5):
Progne, in Ovid’s tale, is sister to Philomela and wife of the evil king Tereus; she feeds
him ‘gobbits’6 of his son Itys, ‘the self same flesh that of his bowels bred’7.
revenge is indeed ‘worse’: there are two sons on Tamora’s menu; but his plan is almost
‘Astraea [goddess of Justice] has left the earth’ – ibid, p 230 n
‘Ruler of the great heavens, are you so slow to hear crimes, so slow to see?’ – ibid, p 216 n
‘I am carried through the Stygian regions, through the realm of shades’ – ibid, p 166 n
Golding’s Metamorphoses, Book VI.815
Ibid, Book VI.825
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a copy of Progne’s, and it seems doubtful that the bluff, narrow-minded soldier would
have concocted such a plan without Ovid’s inspiration.
Words, then, are shown in Titus Andronicus to be malleable, their meaning fixed neither
for good nor evil. This is a realisation to which Macbeth is slowly brought in his overreliance on the witches’ cryptic promises, ‘things that sound… fair’ (1.3.52) but lead him
to do what is foul. As the play develops he becomes fixed on their words: at 3.1 their
‘prophet-like’ pronouncements (3.1.58) are the irritation that prevents his feeling ‘safely’
(3.1.27) ensconced in Duncan’s place, and by 4.1 he is desperate ‘to know/ By the worst
means the worst’ (3.4.136), interrupting unnecessarily in his eagerness to hear more:
‘Hear his speech, but say thou naught’, the First Witch tells him (4.1.85). Banquo is not
quite accurate in his suggestion that they are ‘instruments of darkness’ who seek to win
Macbeth with ‘honest trifles’ before deceiving him ‘in deepest consequence’ (1.2.125-7)
– the Weird Sisters always speak the truth - but he is almost there. In the final act,
Macbeth’s clinging to the slender hope of the witches’ predictions becomes pathetic, as
their ambiguity betrays him again and again: ‘Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinan/ I
cannot taint with fear’, he declares (5.3.33); his bravado dented by the Messenger’s
revelation of ‘a moving grove’ (5.5.38), he begins ‘to doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend/
That lies like truth’ (5.5.43). The realisation comes too late, however, and the revelation
that ’Macduff was from his mother’s womb/ Untimely ripped’ (5.7.45) has about it the ring
of finality. Like Demetrius and Chiron, Macbeth takes from language what he wants to
understand, and no more; like them, he is betrayed by it to his death.
Hamlet, in contrast, displays an awareness of the possibilities of language from the
outset; his immediate response to the Ghost’s words is to reify them in writing: ‘Meet is it
I set it down’ (1.5.107). Unlike Titus and Macbeth, who respect their texts of choice
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rather than meddling with them, Hamlet adapts narrative for his own ends, using the
‘The Murder of Gonzago’ (2.2.532) for a ‘Mousetrap’ (3.2.232) with which to take
Claudius: ‘the play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king’ (2.2.600). In
doing so he inserts ‘a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines’ of his own devising
(2.2.535), so becoming the only character in the plays explicitly to take on the role of
storyteller. He is able to do so through a mastery of language which neither Titus nor
Macbeth displays: Titus’ dreadful puns on ‘hands’ in 3.2 contrast starkly with Hamlet’s
easy manipulation of words.
‘O, handle not the theme, to talk of hands/ Lest we
remember still that we have none…/ As if we should forget we had no hands/ If Marcus
did not name the word of hands’ (3.2.29-33). The passage is reminiscent of 3.2 of The
Winter’s Tale, where Paulina vows silence about Mamillus and Hermione, proceeding to
reiterate that very topic she has sworn to avoid: ‘I’ll speak of her no more, nor of your
children/ I’ll not remember you of my own lord/ (Who is lost too)’ (3.2.229). There,
however, her slip is deliberate; Titus’ are very much against his will. He is not master
enough of himself or of his tongue to find alternatives to the one word he is most trying
to avoid. Hamlet’s puns are bitter (‘A little more than kin, and less than kind’ (1.2.65)),
jesting (‘Thou dost lie in’t, to be in’t and say tis thine’ (5.1.122)) and occasionally bawdy
(‘Do you think I meant country matters?’ (3.2.115)); but they are never involuntary.
Macbeth, like Titus, is unable to control his imagination: but where Titus is constricted by
his limited language and lack of creativity, Macbeth seems hedged in by the very
profuseness of his thoughts. ‘Full of scorpions is my mind’, he tells Lady Macbeth at
3.2.39; the image is apt: Macbeth’s imagination is teeming with horrors. He is ‘like one
who is literally possessed by a poetic demon… his imagination is not under his control:
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he is its creature’8. The blood of Duncan’s murdered body flows and multiplies into
rivers and seas of gore: ‘This my hand will…/ The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/
Making the green one red’ (2.2.60); ‘I am in blood/ Stepped in so far, that should I wade
no more,/ Returning were as tedious as go o’er’ (3.4.137).
Lady Macbeth, in the
aftermath of Duncan’s death, provides a blunt contrast to her husband’s panicked
excess: ‘a little water clears us of this deed’, she brusquely tells her husband (2.2.66);
‘the sleeping, and the dead,/ Are but as pictures’ (2.2.52). Similarly, she is quick with an
explanation of Macbeth’s strange behaviour at the banquet: ‘My lord is often thus…/ The
fit is momentary’ (3.4.53-55). As the play continues, however, ‘the season of all natures,
sleep’ (3.4.142) itself evades her: ‘she is troubled with thick-coming fancies/ That keep
her from her rest’ (5.3.37). The strain transforms her to a sleepwalking shadow, no
better than the powerless Ophelia; like Macbeth, she is haunted by the grisly ghosts of
the past: ‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.’
Hamlet, guilty of more killings than Lady Macbeth, is able to dismiss his deeds as she is
not. Having accidentally murdered Polonius, who is guilty at worst of nosiness, Hamlet’s
epitaph is little better than cursory: ‘A bloody deed. Almost as bad, good mother/ As kill
a king and marry with his brother’ (3.4.28).
Passing over his own act, he reverts
instantly back to what he perceives as his mother’s guilt; the ‘rank sweat’ of Claudius’
and Gertrude’s ‘enseamed bed’ (3.4.92) disturbs him far more than the blood of the
‘foolish prating knave’ Polonius (3.4.217). There is a similar nonchalance in his cheery
despatch of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to meet their death in England: ‘They are not
near my conscience, their defeat/ Does by their own insinuation grow’ (5.2.58). Hamlet
is never faced with the horrors that Titus, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth all confront:
Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice, p 218-9
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Ophelia goes mad and dies whilst he is out of court; it is left to an anonymous English
executioner to despatch Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; even Polonius is stabbed
through an arras, and it is perhaps this absence of the bitter, brutal reality of bloodshed
that allows Hamlet so easily to dismiss the deaths for which he is responsible. In fact,
however, his contempt for those he has killed seems to run deeper than this: ‘Why, what
a king is this!’ cries Horatio, learning of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s fate (5.2.62); the
title links Hamlet uneasily with Claudius, unnamed throughout Hamlet’s lengthy dialogue,
almost the emblem of a king. ‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes/ Between
the pass and fell incensed points/ Of mighty opposites’ says Hamlet solemnly (5.2.60);
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, socially and intellectually inferior, deserve their fate for
daring to interfere in the doings of nobler men. This is a kingly attitude indeed: the same
disconcerting abandonment of former friends demonstrated by Henry V in his rejection of
Falstaff, and the worse for being deliberately fatal.
Hamlet is kingly, too, in his concern for his own reputation: dying, he is able to think of
little else. ‘Report me and my cause’, he demands of Horatio (5.2.344); ‘tell my story’
(5.2.354); ‘tell him, with th’ occurents more and less’ (5.2.362). Bertrand Evans, smitten
as so many before him with Hamlet’s linguistic brilliance, sees this as a manifestation of
Hamlet’s ‘unsullied honour’: had he acted before this crucial point ‘his deed would have
appeared to the world as a mere bloody assassination’9. This is certainly possible: even
in this final scene, Claudius is able to appeal to the courtiers with ‘defend me, friends’
(5.2.329). However, I would certainly dispute whether the preservation of Hamlet’s good
name untarnished justifies the murder of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, not to
mention the death of Ophelia, the recipient of Hamlet’s ‘worst behaviour’10 and the play’s
Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice, p 114
William Empson, Essays on Shakespeare, p 102
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most innocent victim. Hamlet glosses over his selfish, arrogant behaviour by ignoring
the consequences of his own actions. ‘Give me pardon, sir. I have done you wrong;/
But pardon’t as you are a gentleman’ (5.2.222): this is the nearest he comes to making
an apology to Laertes, whose father he has murdered and whose sister he has driven to
madness. Even here, Hamlet has not the courage to take the blame for his actions upon
himself: ‘Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet./ …Who does it then? His
madness.’ (5.2.229-233). More than any other character, Hamlet is able to use his
linguistic force to manipulate and create the stories on which ‘th’ unknowing world’
(5.2.384) will base their understanding: Horatio’s story, one suspects, will have little of
Polonius in it, less still of poor Ophelia, and rather a lot of a certain Danish prince.