Polysemic Language, Democratization, and the Empowerment of the Body Politic in Shakespeare's Hamlet

By Hayley E. Tartell
2015, Vol. 7 No. 06 | pg. 1/2 |


In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s polysemic raises the theme of empowerment of the body politic and, ultimately, the notion of . Through an analysis of Hamlet’s speech, particularly in response to King Claudius, this paper suggests that a democratizing percept is intrinsically rooted in this work and further elucidated upon careful consideration of Ranciere’s The Emancipated Spectator. By exploring Ranciere’s notion of active engagement with the “third thing,” this paper highlights the democratic politics that encompass Shakespeare’s text.

In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s polysemic rhetoric empowers the body politic and endorses notions of democratization. As a result, Hamlet appears to jettison the institution of monarchy in favor of . In effect, Hamlet’s language encompasses the realm of political thought because, through his words, citizens are elevated to equal footing footing in relation to the king. Through polysemy, the body politic, reader, and spectator are exhorted to “play” with the “third thing,” or this interpretable, exterior medium. By grappling with their respective intermediary bodies, namely law as well as death, text, and theatrical performance, those who “play” can uncover meaning and appropriate a sense of order in their own particular contexts.

William Shakespeare's Hamlet

This spectacle emphasizes the experience of the third thing with respect to the recipient, as the goal is not to penetrate through the language to one specific interpretation promoted by the author or king, but, rather, to excogitate upon the linguistic nature of the object and its multivalence and expansive potentiality. Furthermore, Hamlet’s polysemic language ultimately facilitates interpretations of equality and empowerment through the evocation of death, thereby implicitly championing democratic politics.

In Act 4, Scene 2, of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s rhetoric oozes with polysemy, as his words can be interpreted as having a multiplicity of meanings. In particular, such a polysemic phrase is evident when he paradoxically affirms,

“The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body. The King is a thing – […] Of nothing” (, 292).

The togetherness of the body and the king may imply that the king can exercise his authority and enforce legal doctrine in his own body and right. This interpretation seems to buttress the notion that the implementation of the law is inherently tied to a tangible thing – in this case, the king’s body. However, the latter portion of the quotation reflects a sense of detachment between the offices of the king and his own body, connoting that the king’s dictates can persist irrespective of his existence.

Accordingly, once the king dies, law and order can continue to regulate citizens’ lives. Ironically, the king himself, thus, appears to be relatively unimportant in ensuring the maintenance of order in society. Consequently, the king can be perceived as being somewhat passive in his role as executor of , with the body of laws functioning as this external “third thing” situated somewhere between the king and his subjects.

In addition, just as a reader grapples with the text or “third thing” that the author has labored to produce and offer to his readership, the body politic can grapple with the body of law as this “third thing,” or an imperishable medium through which they can derive meaning and stability in their lives. The king’s ultimate passivity mirrors the ultimately passive nature of the author, whereas the body politic’s active role in interpreting laws aligns with the reader’s dynamic role in parsing and analyzing the text.

Once the author translates his thoughts into words on the page, he surrenders any control that he may possess over enforcing its meaning. Similarly, though the king has the power to implement the body of law, once codified, he, too, capitulates to the vagaries of polysemy, which enables and ennobles the body politic to interpret legal doctrine as they will. The king no longer has exclusive power over legal doctrine, as that power is transferred from the ruler to the “third thing,” or the body of law itself. The body of law derives its power from the very fact that it is open to various interpretations, and the body politic can interpret and translate those percepts into a system of morality for themselves that is peculiar to their social context.

The power of interpretation, essentially polysemy, allows the body politic to specifically tailor and apply the word of the law to their particular situation in order to foster order and abide by the law within their sphere of influence. Thus, given that body politic retains the capacity to subsume the law into their own morality through interpretation in order to perpetuate justice and order in society, the sovereign or king assumes a relatively limited, functional role – that is, he ostensibly becomes unnecessary.

Therefore, interpretation of the law can be deemed fluid and grounded in the body politic. Ultimately, the members of the body politic are the de facto guardians of the law, not the king. Accordingly, the king is rendered relatively impotent, in a virtual figurehead role. Prince Hamlet’s aggressive polysemy, in effect, degrades the role of kingship in general, as he intimates that a degree of order can endure in society even absent a supreme sovereign. Essentially, order can exist without the sovereign, and, to be clear, Hamlet echoes this notion of monarchical superfluity when, as above, he specifically says, “[…] the King is not with the body. The King is a thing – […] Of nothing” (Shakespeare, 292). The assertion that the king is “of nothing” connotes that his reign is not crucial for the perpetuation of order in society.

If Hamlet had described the king as being “of something” or “of the body,” only then could it be argued that his role in relation to the body politic were not trivial but, rather, quite important in contributing to societal harmony and the common good of the body politic. However, given his deliberate diction, Hamlet, instead, appears to sanction the model of democracy, as one can purport that an entrenched ruler or lawgiver is unnecessary to ensure that the citizens take ownership of the law. Thus, Hamlet appears to be overturning the very institution of monarchy, supplanting it with a liberating system of democracy that emphasizes the active role of the body politic.

The quotation’s aforementioned addendum, namely “of nothing,” effectively intimates that the king ultimately possesses no authority over the observance of the law, as that translation is the province of the minds of the subjects. In effect, he is not king or ruler over the interpretation of legal doctrine. Thus, he is tacitly king of “nothing,” given his lack of prehensile control over citizens’ impressions: his sway is attenuated by the subjects’ interpretational experience in and of itself, which is a function of their relationship to this “third thing.” Holistically, Hamlet’s polysemy evinces the supreme importance of the body politic, thereby underscoring the school of politically democratic thought.

Ranciere’s notion of the “equality of intelligence” redounds to this paradigm of democratic empowerment, as he suggests that neither the author schoolmaster nor the reader or pupil possesses a superior knowledge of the “third thing” or intermediate. Specifically, Ranciere states that the schoolmaster does not impart a form of knowledge to his pupil but, conversely, encourages his pupil to traverse the vast expanse of knowing and seeing, essentially to actively push beyond his own intellectual bounds. In Ranciere’s aforementioned example, rather than bestowing exterior, interpretable knowledge upon the pupil through the medium of language, or “third thing,” the pupil can survey the world around him for himself, fashioning it into the framework of his own particular story.

In this sense, Ranciere wholeheartedly eschews the idea of an unequal, hierarchical relationship and replaces it with a thoroughly democratic and empowering sensibility. Ranciere’s views can be systematically transposed onto those of Hamlet in the realm of political ideology, as subjects, similar to pupils, can readily take the “third thing,” or the law, into their own hands and apply it to their unique contexts. In essence, the body politic should dare to think and possess the courage to employ their own reason. Hamlet endorses the model of galvanized citizens, encouraging the idea of the body politic actively exercising their capacity to play with the “third thing” to resonate widely throughout society.

Playing with this “third thing,” otherwise known as the laws, inevitably enables translation, thereby permitting the body politic to freely express their tendencies, personalities and interests, which may not align with those of the king. Thus, Prince Hamlet’s polysemic rhetoric entreats not only readers but also the body politic to muster the courage to think critically for themselves by wrestling with this “third thing” rather than blindly submitting to the author or king, respectively. This vein of democratic thought invites a torrent of expressive voices that speak truth to power and bolsters the significance of the body politic in relation to the king within society.

The body politic can efficaciously “play” with the law and adhere to it by adapting reason to their application of this “third thing,” essentially conforming this legal doctrine to their realm of existence. This view seems to reflect Hamlet’s notion of empowerment of the body politic – a considerably democratic idea – as freedom and happiness appear to be viscerally grounded by interpretation, subject to the body politic’s capacity to think and reason. Thus, one can reasonably construe that kingship and authorship are transcended by the active role of the body politic and reader, respectively, within their social constructs. The active nature of both the reader and the body politic reduce the author and king, respectively, to passive forms that are neither linked to the “third thing” nor its interpretation. Accordingly, Hamlet’s rhetoric veritably suggests the supremacy of democracy over the institution of monarchy.

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