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Canonical Status of Hamlet by William Shakespeare Essay

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Updated: Nov 12th, 2021


Shakespeare’s works have been received with mixed reactions. Not because of the rare quality attributed to his works but due to difficulties in comprehending his original texts. However, Shakespeare continues to influence and inspire each and every generation with his creative artistic mind of playing around with words. Shakespeare applied early modern English in his works, a concept that many current literature readers view as difficult to understand.

The grammar, sentence structure, spelling and word interpretation differs from the current modern English. Studying Shakespeare’s original manuscripts has been heavily criticised. Most of his critics argue that being a canonical author, understanding the play scripts pose a challenge to many readers. This paper will discuss the impact of comprehending the canonical play manuscript and the mode of its reception by the modern reader by reviewing one of Shakespeare’s plays.

The Concept of Literary Canon

The literary canon is archaic works that have been passed from one generation to another. These works continue to make an impact in current modern literature due to their unique artistic nature that captivates a reader’s mind (Vanhoozer 2). In most cases, it becomes hard to understand the deep rich language used in the texts. However, the works are interestingly written and have played an important role to shape the western culture.

Literary canon dates back from the works of Homer, John Milton, Jane Austen, the Bible and the great William Shakespeare amongst others.

The Gutenberg Revolution saw the introduction of this canon culture that appreciated the historical culture at the time. This revolution period, also known as the age of printing, introduced various forms of non-print mass media. The era was established by Johannes Gutenberg in mid 1450. However, canon literature at the time seemed to invite mixed reactions from both its supporters and critics.

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The critics on one hand claimed that the literature created a rift between the high and the low popular culture while the supporters on the other hand argued that its taste and value was ideal for the high-cultural required standards. The canon works gained popularity with thousands of people thronging cinema halls to watch plays written by Shakespeare and other canon play writers such as Charles Dickens (Lyons 23).

Canon is conceptualized as complex and privileged. For a text to qualify as a canon, it should be of high aesthetic quality that gives the reader pleasure after reading it. Literary canon is constantly changing due to the experiences and thoughts of authors and the canon readers. This has been interpreted to mean that literary work is important to describe continuous trends in historical events. It is for this reason that canon literature has not conformed to a specific definition due to its subjectivity (Branagh and Shakespeare 23).

Demystifying Canon Literature: Hamlet By William Shakespeare

It is best if we understood William Shakespeare himself in order to have the ability of reading him canonically. The historic information regarding Shakespeare is sketchy as regards to the exact date of his birth and life. Born to a local alderman, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway who bore him three children.

However, the exact dates remain unknown but he became famous around 1592 when he began his theatre career. Interpreting Shakespeare’s canon literature is very difficult though his works continue to be celebrated from one generation to another due to the richness in their textual quantity that lead to a great storyline (University of Southern Queensland 13).

Hamlet is perhaps one of the longest yet popular plays written by Shakespeare. It has been labelled as a literally canon. Hamlet is a tragedy of a prince, Hamlet, who wants to revenge on the current king of Denmark. The king, who is Hamlet’s uncle, is accused of killing Hamlet’s father and later taking Hamlet’s mother as his wife (Brooks 4). In order to succeed in his set out plan, Hamlet pretends to be insane. However, the story ends tragically when most of the characters including Hamlet are killed.

The play has been praised for its classic artistic texts used in its script. Hamlet’s script was written using a unique technique called functional shift. Shakespeare used this kind of technique in all his works to enable his readers to understand the meaning of a word used in a sentence prior to comprehending its functionality. A good example is his ability of replacing a verb with a noun.

Though this technique seems to cause confusion in the mind of a reader, it causes the brain to react. When Hamlet’s good ally Horatio requests him to call off a duel, he declines by telling him, “If it be now, ‘tis not to come. The readiness is all.” Such play text causes confusion in the mind of a reader and the canonical status of understanding Hamlet by use of manuscripts has been put in question by scholars.

Understanding the Canonical Status Used in Hamlet’s Language

The language used to write the play script has struck most readers as complex and difficult to comprehend. Much of the language used in the play script has been conceptualised as courtly. This form of writing is both amusing and inventive in nature. It is also enriched with rhetorical figures. He makes good use of stichomythia to develop dialogue in the play.

This is a skill of writing dialogue in single lines to which the characters converse alternately. In addition, Shakespeare skilfully applies the use of anaphora and asyndeton in his words to captivate the minds of his audience. This he succeeds by using similar words in the same sentence to create an effect. The words also apply hendiadys as a figure of speech (Marino 34). This is a rare rhetorical device used to express a certain idea by using two words that are linked by a conjunction.

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A good example is during Ophelia’s speech when she says, ‘And I, of ladies most deject and wretched.’ The use of hendiadys throughout the play has caused a reaction among scholars, most of whom find it odd to use this particular form of rhetoric device in most of his texts. However, the technique has been defended by some of the scholars who argue that Shakespeare’s skill is to develop and emphasize the purpose of duality and dislocation in the play.

The language used in Hamlet’s script is unique as the characters have the ability to say several words simultaneously that seem contradictory to the audience. This concept helps the character to appear confused and possessed by disturbed feelings. A sentence like ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ is such an example which showed Hamlet’s confusion about sexuality and purity.

Hamlet’s soliloquies have also been criticised by most scholars who argue that the dialogue is based on Shakespeare’s beliefs. This claim has however been rejected by Hamlet’s supporters who argue that the use of this technique is to emphasize the character’s process of thinking (Jardine 13).

Analysing the Ideal Mode of Reception of Understanding Canonical Works

It has been discussed above on the complexity of studying the original works of Shakespeare in play script form due to its complicated nature. The play Hamlet in particular causes more confusion not only to its audience but also to students trying to analyse the play. Most scholars have come to a conclusion that this mode of reception is boring to students and should be interpreted and edited as printed matter.

However, some scholars seem to be in disagreement with this theory by arguing that Shakespeare’s works should not be interpreted as suggested by literature critics. They base their arguments on the fact that stage performance is reflective of the intended real issue, a concept that is largely ignored when the play text is presented in printed form. In response to the need of editing Hamlet’s text due to its immoral nature, they argue that Shakespeare intention was to reflect his life as it was and should not be subjected to any changes.

Various versions of the play Hamlet have been analysed and most of them contain numerous mistakes derived from the printing process. This changes the original meaning of the play. This has been attributed to the fact that most editors are unable to give accurate translations to the original text as applied in the play script hence altering the meaning of words in their final draft.

Textual scholarship argues that the primary text by Shakespeare is actually indefinable due to the fact that none of his original manuscripts has survived. The attempt by numerous editors to interpret the works in their own way has caused a stir among literature tutors and scholars alike.

The question that arises is whether print form is the ideal mode of reception and how it influences the understanding of the canonical status in Shakespeare’s works. It has been suggested that Shakespeare’s future editors should take into account the textual instability that has been characterised with textual authority during the printing process. Based on the fact that the current generation is inclined towards digital media, the mode of understanding canonical works in primary mode poses a challenge.

The issue that therefore need to be discussed is whether the play should be performed or studied in its textual content. Whilst most people have supported the former, others seem to favour the art of performing Shakespeare’s play to enhance the level of understanding. However, understanding the play using print form mode of reception has been favoured by many scholars (Benchimol and Maley 45).

What then is the impact of studying Shakespeare’s work in print form? As earlier discussed, canonical texts are not easy to read and watching a stage performance becomes even more difficult. The printing process offers an interpretation that eases the reader’s mind hence offering some form of pleasure.

Use of manuscripts to study the works of Shakespeare limits the understanding of the reader as opposed to the printed form. This therefore limits the level of literacy circulation among the readers. However, most people could possibly argue that the future of canon literature is likely to be affected by interpreting the play text in print form.

On the contrary, with so much advancement in technology, it is highly unlikely to wipe out the culture of canon literature. On the other hand, technology will help to filter some of the technical words used in the manuscript without necessarily changing the intended meaning. It has been argued that the ideal mode of understanding a play is by reading it in text form rather than through stage performance.

This does not entirely mean that the historical stage performance should be disregarded. As a matter of fact, a play script that guides the stage performance serves as a guide towards any play text transformed in print form. However, reading Shakespeare in print form makes understanding his works a lot easier hence enhancing its popularity especially to the current generation.

Most critics argue that transition to print form will not only change the entire meaning of the play but that it will lose the purpose and theme of the play (Mclver and Stevenson 22). It should be noted that Shakespeare himself seems to encourage authorship in Hamlet by using a play within a play. Most of the protagonists in Hamlet are learned, a concept that emphasizes the authorial role very well (Howard and O’Connor 45).


Stage performance of a canonical play elicits some form of excitement in the audience but it should be noted that only few people understand the concept of the play. Most Shakespeare lovers admit that they did not understand his canonical words during performance and prefer reading them in print form.

Transition from manuscripts to print form in Shakespeare does not only make the brain to function but also engages the reader in comprehending the canonical works as intended by the author. However, care should be taken by the editors not to misinterpret the canonical words as they appear in the original manuscripts. This is possible by the editors taking into consideration the previous works by the canonical writer and interpreting the words as they are.

Works Cited

Benchimol, Alex and Maley, Willy. Spheres of Influence: Intellectual and cultural publics from Shakespeare to Harbemas. Germany: European Academic Publishers, 2007. Print.

Branagh, Kenneth and Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. London: W.W Norton & Co., 1996. Print.

Brooks, Jean. Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Denmark: Macmillan Education, 1986. Print.

Howard, Jean and O’Connor, Marion. Shakespeare Reproduced: The text in History and Ideology. Britain: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Jardine, Lisa. Reading Shakespeare Historically. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1996. Print.

Lyons, William. Canon and Exegesis: canonical praxis and the Sodom narrative. London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002. Print.

Marino, James. Owning William Shakespeare: The King’s Men and their intellectual property. USA: University of Pennysylvania Press, 2011. Print.

Mclver, Bruce and Stevenson, Ruth. Teaching with Shakespeare: critics in the classroom. London: W.W Norton & Co., 1995. Print.

University of Southern Queensland. The Literary canon: how to read great books. Australia: University of Southern Queensland, 2011. Print.

Vanhoozer, Kevin. The drama of doctrine: a canonical-linguistic approach to Christian theology. Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005. Print.

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