A Very Palpable Hit: The Uses of Dialog in Shakespeare's Hamlet

I've always loved the fossil metaphor for reading as a writer: Everything you read is trampled down into your subconscious like Jurassic vegetation, only to surface at some indefinite later moment, transformed into coal or diamonds or some intriguing pattern in a cliff wall. I can only hope that is the case with Hamlet. It's truly a sublime work of literature. I hope parts of it lie fossilized somewhere in the layers of sedimentary life experience and ancestral memory that constitute my subconscious. I may have to read it again, just to make sure.

As Hamlet says,
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will . . .
I have a feeling that the divinity that shaped this great play, if it were even possible to plumb, is better left unexamined.  Still, it is interesting to ponder the operational elements of Shakespeare's writing from a novelist’s perspective. In particular, I was curious about the fact that while Hamlet is among the most vivid characters ever written, nowhere in the play is he physically described.

One might argue that as a playwright, Shakespeare didn’t have the option of using physical description—or didn’t wish to, because he wished to give the players latitude—but as we’ll see, he uses dialog with great skill and economy, to accomplish tasks for which a modern novelist would probably resort to narrative summary.

Hamlet is a play, but it's an interesting exercise to read it as a novel, letting one's imagination paint the scenes and characters rather than relying on set designers and actors to do it. It is my understanding that Shakespeare seldom resorted to stage directions: Most of the spare stage direction was added in the 18th century by theatre producers who wanted everything to be spelled out for their players.  

The fact is, in Hamlet at least, stage directions are not really necessary. Using dialog alone, Shakespeare is able to allow the reader to visualize the basic scene, the main thrust of the characters’ physical actions, and even, at times, their physical appearance.  The rest is embroidery, filled in by the players and the set designer - or, as in my case, by the reader's imagination.
The fact is, Shakespeare is able to get quite a lot across in dialog.  There are descriptions of characters’ physical appearance:
Hamlet: His beard was grizzled, no?
Horatio: It was, as I have seen it in his life, A sable silver’d.
You were sent for; and there is a kind of confession in your looks which your modesties have not craft enough to color.  I know the King and Queen have sent for you.
Polonius: Look! Wh’er he has not turned his color and has tears in his eyes. Prithee, no more.

There are descriptions of weather, setting, and the emotional interplay between the characters’ state of mind and their surroundings:
Hamlet: The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.
Horatio: It is a nipping and an eager air.
I have of late . . . lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises . . . the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.

There is the extensive use of soliloquy to spell out characters’ thoughts, motivations, and physical sensations, and to further the plot:
O most wicked speed, to post With such dexterity to incestuous sheets. It is not, nor it cannot come to, good.— But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old, But bear me stiffly up.
How pregnant sometimes his replies are!  A happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of.  I will leave him and suddenly contrive the means of meeting between him and my daughter. 

And there is action, as in the climactic sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes:
Hamlet: Come on, sir.
Laertes: Come, my lord.
They play.
Hamlet: One.
Laertes:          No.
Hamlet:                Judgment.
Osr.                                           A hit, a very palpable hit.

What I find terrific about this is that the action takes place in the silences between the dialog: Shakespeare felt no need to further describe the action other than to initiate the duel with that economical, “They play.”

So what can modern novelists learn from the Master? Well, Shakespeare shows us that artfully constructed dialog, as well as narrative summary, is perfectly capable of creating setting, character description, action, and plot. Note the words in italics, and take heed: “Expository dialogue” is a common fault of apprentice fiction.  But even if you choose to err on the side of caution when it comes to applying the techniques of the great playwright in your fictional dialog, time spent reading Shakespeare is never wasted.