The Final Scene

Brown, John Russell. “Connotations of Hamlet’s Final Silence.” Connotations 2 (1992): 275-86.


This article responds to the criticism leveled at John Russell Brown’s “Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet,” particularly the charge of failure “to show how the wide range of meanings in the single last sentence was related to the whole of the play in performance” (275). This article insists that the Hamlet actor’s presence on stage and enactment of events provides the audience with a physical knowledge of Hamlet, void of the psychological dimension that ambiguous language camouflages. Hamlet’s wordplay is “an essential quality of his nature,” which remains intact during the process of his dying (275). While the original article’s dismissal of the “O, o, o, o” addition (present in the Folio after Hamlet’s last words) received negative responses from Dieter Mehl and Maurice Charney, this article argues that doubts of authenticity, authority, and dramatic effectiveness justify this decision. The physical death on stage and the verbal descriptions of Hamlet’s body also negate the need for a last-minute groan. Ultimately, the “stage reality” co-exists with words yet seems “beyond the reach of words”; hence, in Hamlet, Shakespeare created “a character who seems to carry within himself something unspoken and unexpressed . . . right up until the moment Hamlet dies” (285).

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Brown, John Russell. “Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet.” Connotations 2 (1992): 16-33.


Given that a tragedy excites an audience’s interest in the hero’s private consciousness, this article asks, “Has Shakespeare provided the means, in words or action, whereby this hero [Hamlet] comes, at last, to be ‘denoted truly’?” (18). Throughout Hamlet, the protagonist speaks ambiguously. His linguistic trickery only heightens the audience’s anticipation of resolution (and revelation of Hamlet’s inner thoughts). Yet the last line of the dying Prince—“the rest is silence” (5.2.363)—proves particularly problematic, with a minimum of five possible readings. For example, Shakespeare perhaps speaks through Hamlet, “telling the audience and the actor that he, the dramatist, would not, or could not, go a word further in the presentation of this, his most verbally brilliant and baffling hero” (27); the last lines of Troilus and Cressida, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and Love’s Labor’s Lost suggest a pattern of this authorial style. While all five readings are plausible, they are also valuable, allowing audience and actor to choose an interpretation. This final act of multiplicity seems fitting for a protagonist “whose mind is unconfined by any single issue” (31).

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