Hamlet’s Wordplay as Dissociative Defense Mechanism

William Shakespeare’s tremendously popular and ubiquitous tragedy Hamlet: Prince of Denmark encompass so many aspects worthy of writing about that countless books, articles and web sites are devoted to the multitudinous potential of just one element at work in the play. One of the most popular aspects of Hamlet has always been Shakespeare’s clever use of language and language games. One way to interpret the multiple puns, jokes, and puzzles that make up much of Hamlet’s dialogue is from the psychological perspective of language games as a dissociative defense mechanism intended to immunize himself from what he views as a kind of viral plague that has spread throughout Elsinore.

This plague can also be viewed in a more profoundly symbolic way as tracing back to the serpent who slithered into his Garden of Eden and, by slipping its poison into the ear of his beloved father, facilitated the tragic fall of Denmark from its lofty idealism under Hamlet the Elder to its current state more akin to Sodom or Gomorrah under the reign of his uncle/stepfather Claudius. The ghostly apparition of Hamlet’s dead father asserts that while he slept in the garden there did enter a serpent who stung him. The explicit comparison is made that all of Denmark has been the victim of the evil that arose in its midst. Under King Claudius, Denmark has, at least in young Hamlet’s eyes, devolved into a disgusting unweeded garden. The difference is even more starkly implied by the comparison Hamlet makes of Claudius to a satyr and his father to a Titan.

Little doubt exists that Hamlet’s view is probably corrupted by love and admiration, but the importance of his language is that his already distancing himself from the impurity of Claudius and his minions. Hamlet’s alienation begins as it does for many other rebellious youths, through the differentiation accomplished by physical appearance. Hamlet stubbornly insists on remaining in his mourning clothes, but goes even further by desiring that he no longer had a physical presence at all. Failing that impossible dream, Hamlet makes his estrangement complete in the best way possible, by dissociation from the rottenness that is stinking up Denmark through the power of words.

Despite what those who run around with tattoos, pierced body parts, and outrageous clothing think, the secret key to rebellion from authority has always been located in language. From common slang to secret codes, language is the primary means by which sub-groups have distanced themselves from prevailing power structures. Hamlet engages in this covert practice by concealing his real meaning within extravagant puns and riddles and double-entendres. In this way, he makes it irritatingly impossible for anyone else around him to easily interpret his meaning. Nothing that Hamlet says is entirely comprehensible on its surface level and the confusion his clever word play engenders makes it impossible for anyone else in Elsinore to totally accept him.

Acceptance, after all, is the last thing that Hamlet desires. Instead, it is Hamlet’s fervent wish to remain a mystery, all the better to allow him to formulate his plan for vengeance. In order to accomplish this, Hamlet must distance himself from all others who have accepted, and by definition become complicit in, the central life all of their lives: how his father died. And the how that exists within that lie looms larger because it is the origin of Denmark’s decay. Hamlet ponder the possibility of permanent escape from that decay, but is unable to follow through. Failing his attempt to distance himself bodily from the evil that persists around him, Hamlet chooses the next best thing by adopting language games as the surest route toward dissociating himself from those who have fallen from grace, while he alone inhabit the idyllic Eden of the mind to which he attributes Denmark before its fall.