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Passion Turned to Prettiness: Rhyme or Reason in Hamlet


This essay links the changeable nature of rhyme in Hamlet to a sixteenth-century critical debate in England about the moral, cultural, and intellectual value of rhymed poetry. It demonstrates that Shakespeare was especially aware of and invested in the controversy over rhyme’s relationship to reason. Highlighting his ambivalence toward rhyme, the discussion explores his ironic attraction to the Platonic idea of furor poeticus, his sense of rhyme’s complicity in poetic “madness,” and his tendency to both belittle and exalt rhyme in the plays and sonnets. The essay argues further that this ambivalence was something Shakespeare shared with Sir Philip Sidney, George Puttenham, and other early modern literary critics who wavered uncomfortably between disparaging and defending rhyme. Considering how Shakespeare and his contemporaries convey the generic and social slipperiness of rhyme, equally at home in a king’s couplet and a minstrel’s ballad, the essay contributes to the current authorship debate in Shakespeare studies by positioning rhyme at the intersection of literacy and orality, poetics and performance, and page and stage. Segueing into Hamlet, the essay reads the prince’s couplets and ballad fragments, the play within the play, and Ophelia’s songs as moments that collectively evince the passion or madness of rhyme. The analysis then turns to the gravedigger, whose song signals a change in the status of rhyme. The essay concludes by arguing that rhyme and reason approach one another as the play approaches its end; it is only when Hamlet reconciles himself to his fate that rhyme and reason are finally reconciled.

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