Screenwriters should learn from Shakespeare: Language governs the action

There is no doubt that William Shakespeare’s Hamlet continues to be one of the most intriguing and highly analyzed plays ever written, and the protagonist Hamlet is arguably one of the greatest dramatic characters ever created. From the moment this disconsolate prince enters the scene the audience/reader is made acutely aware of his conflicted soul. This tragic hero is a walking dichotomy that provokes every sort of human emotion, and th-2

sets the stage for the revengeful plot to be carried out. Shakespeare uses the power of language to not only control the plot, but also to establish the storyline, reveal Hamlet’s varied complex character flaws, control fate, establish irony, and to govern the action of the play. Shakespeare brilliantly uses this character to hold the weight of the play with his dialogue, and reveal a vivid display of universal conflict within humanity.

Hamlet’s distress over his fathers death, his mother’s new-found marriage, and obvious distrust of the King are revealed with his entrance in Act 1, Scene 2 as he discourses with the Queen, his mother. However, his comment to the King is most insightful, when he reveals his suspicion and distrust. This comment reveals a lot, because Hamlet is not only displeased with his mother’s choice to marry so quickly after his father’s death, but it discloses Hamlet’s fermenting resentment.

King. Take thy fair hour, Laertes; time be thine,

And thy best graces spend it at thy will!

Hamlet. [Aside] A little more than kin, and less than kind. (1.1.62-65)

Perhaps one of the most dramatically revealing moments in Hamlet is with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be.” Shakespeare introduces this during the middle of the play in Act 111, Scene 1. This moving and powerful monologue alerts the audience/reader that something grim is about to happen, as Hamlet uncovers his “sea of troubles.”


Hamlet. 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,
And by opposing end them?—To die,—to sleep,—
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die,—to sleep;—
To sleep: perchance to dream:—ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,—
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns,—puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. (111.1.56-88)

Hamlet moves into a very dark, contemplative state, and exposes the flaws in his thinking, his conflicting views on death and nobility, his possible fate, and the recognition that he will have to do something about his own personal conflicts and the plague that looms over Denmark. This is a perfect example of Shakespeare’s use of language to drive the plot forward, establish conflict, reveal Hamlet’s disposition, and set the tone for the remainder of the play.

The Ghost is also an interesting character whose dialogue has a pivotal affect on Hamlet’s mental and emotional state and the fate of the play. By the Ghost revealing the truth about the circumstances surrounding Hamlet’s father’s death, he motivates Hamlet to commit murder, the ultimate revenge, and lose his soul!

Ghost. My hour is almost come,

When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames

Must render up myself.

Hamlet.   Alas, poor ghost!

          Ghost. Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing

To what I shall unfold.

Hamlet. Speak; I am bound to hear.

Ghost. So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt


Hamlet. What?

Ghost. I am thy father’s spirit;

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confined to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison-house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up they soul, freeze thy young blood,

Make thy two eyes like stars, start from their spheres,

Thy knotted and combined locks to part

And each particular hair to stand an end,

Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:

But this eternal blazon must not be

To ears of flesh and blood. List, list O, list!

If thou didst every thy dear father love—

Hamlet. O God!

     Ghost. Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

     Hamlet. Murder! (1.5.7-26)

Not only does this speech reveal background, and feed Hamlet’s rage, it unlocks a thick unsettling within the plot of this play. Is the Ghost used by Shakespeare to create a diabolical manifestation that lures Hamlet into a fated doom? The dialogue certainly plays an intricate part in plot development and discloses the power of choice existent in every man. Is Hamlet’s madness self-induced? The language in this play is a powerful tool that helps impart Shakespeare’s theme within the play.


15 thoughts on “Screenwriters should learn from Shakespeare: Language governs the action

    • Yes, I quite agree. I have seen all of his plays performed live at one time or another. I also performed myself back in my “younger” days. I was, and still am quite the Shakespeare enthusiast. I have not been to England, but it is on my BIG BUCKET list, and going to the Globe is also on that list. 🙂

      • Good Sir, I do thank thee for thy well-wishes. Indeed, I often perpend the rapture of experiencing London. If only the gods would grant me leave, that I might take flight and journey to London. I would hope to visit the Queen, and pay her respect. Should I be granted such a journey, I would be O’er wrought with rapture — indeed, my heart would soar above the heavens to partake of such luminous activity. Still, I await with eager anticipation!

      • Ah yes, I know the feeling. I became oft familiar with the longing whilst I waited to journey to London a spring prior, and I often find myself wishing to visit again, to fully partake of the many delights of the city. Alas, we must all wait and hope that Fortune looks kindly upon us and gives us leave.

      • While longing makes the moment sweeter, tis’ a most brutal tease of the heart. I so abhor the idea of a wait; a wait that seems razed with improbability. O, that I could cast off this riggish desire, I would inclip any other fascination. Alas, I fear desire is nothing more than a miserable harry.

      • Look upon us. See that we could pen whimsy and spectacle as if we ourselves were dipping out quills in good Sir Will’s own font. Oh, the amazing peculiarity that is admiration, is it not?

  1. Although Hamlet is not my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, I agree with your general idea that he is one of few playwrights who is able to somehow take a cerebral exercise and yet imbue it with an energy that grips most audiences.

    Because of the nature of the beast (stage plays, that is), his words are carefully chosen to paint pictures in the mind and even the smallest of speeches tells a story that stimulates the mind rather than weighting it down with leaden exposition.

    Interestingly, though, unless you were a much proven (e.g., $$$-making) screenwriter, I suspect most readers would hit something like “to be or not to be” and tell you to cut it. “Too long; pulls me out of the story; show, don’t tell”

    Unless I am hitting all the wrong movies (and that’s a possibility), speeches like Fonda’s “I’ll be there” from The Grapes of Wrath ( just don’t seem to be in vogue.

    In any event, thanks for the post and the reminder to aspire for something bigger and bolder.

    • Indeed, RCW, Shakespeare had a unique ability to engage the audience from beginning to end. He was a word master in every sense of the word, and understood how to create compelling characters, driving plots and relevant stories…Stories so relevant that his plays are still one of the most widely-performed and read literary works of all time. He does make us want to write bigger and better–at least that’s always my response to his works. What’s amazing though…even with film modernizations of his work, often times, long speeches, like Hamlet’s soliloquy are left as it was originally written in the production. 🙂 Makes me glad!

      • My lone tattoo is “Julius Caesar V.v.73”, a line of Antony’s funeral oration for Brutus: “His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world ‘This was a man.'” A poignant statement that struck at an important moment in my life. The man resonates.

        Looking forward to future posts.

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