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Getting it Right: An analysis of Timing and Language in Hamlet and Sure Thing
This essay explores how language is used to reveal the hidden inner thoughts and feelings of characters, and how timing can play a crucial part in the portrayal of dramatic characters to the audience. The work addresses how, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, language portrays the gradual working through of Hamlet’s thoughts, towards his ultimate ambition of revenge, and in contrast, how language is crucial in establishing the initial and critical connection between Bill and Betty in David Ives’ one-Act play, Sure Thing. Sure Thing presents a sequence of dialogues between a young couple getting to know one another in a coffee shop. The ringing of a bell interrupts their successive attempts at the same conversation. Signifying ‘time out’ when one says something unsuccessful, when, in ordinary circumstances, their conversation might have ended:
BILL. This is my first night out alone in a long time. I feel a little bit at sea, to tell you the truth.
BETTY. So you didn’t stop to talk because you’re a Moonie, or because you have some weird political affiliation -?
BILL. Nope. Straight-down-the-ticket Republican. (Bell). Straight-down-the-ticket Democrat. (Bell.) Can I tell you something about politics? (Bell.) I like to think of myself as a citizen of the universe. (Bell.) I’m unaffiliated.
BETTY. That’s a relief. So am I. (Ives, 1994, p.20).
In this play, unlike the tumultuous progress of Hamlet, extremes are no good – it is the middle ground that both characters seek to inhabit, where safe and reliable answers will secure their trust in one another as a potential partner. Ives’ use of language is witty and selective briefly touching on topics that give the audience an idea of the personality and tastes of the characters, while chopping up the pace to keep their attention. In contrast, Hamlet seeks to explore the extremities of human character and the boundaries between sanity and insanity, and morality and immorality. For example, when Hamlet’s world is suddenly turned upon its head after the murder of his father, Shakespeare uses metaphor to express the ominous and unsettled feelings which Hamlet experiences:
I have of late (but whereof I know not) lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and, indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave overhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours! (Hamlet, II. I. Found in Geddes and Grossett, 2006, P.386).
Hamlet’s vision of the world is compared to a structure – the ‘frame’ of the earth, and the ‘canopy’ of the sky. The metaphor is extended into the following lines, where the phenomena of the natural world are ascribed with human characteristics such as ‘brave’ and ‘majestical.’ Shakespeare’s use of landscape as metaphor is crucial here as it emphasizes the turning upside down of Hamlet’s world – the idea that everything he knew and trusted to remain – has suddenly transformed into the worst, most extreme, scenario imaginable.
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For Shakespeare, it is the gradual unfolding of Hamlet’s character, which drives the play forward and causes the audience to question social and personal values. As critic W. Thomas MacCary comments on Hamlet, the development of the plot is determined by the development of Hamlet’s character. Furthermore, Hamlet as a character must ‘reveal what is hidden, [….] so the plot of Hamlet is a gradual revelation of what is rotten in the state of Denmark.’ (MacCary, 1998, p.65):
The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right! (Hamlet, I.v. 188-19. Found in Geddes and Grosset, 2006, p.384).
Hamlet’s infamous delay is necessary for him, and the audience, to have the time to assimilate and make an informed judgement on the events that have passed, before proceeding to the next phase of dramatic intensity. Shakespeare uses soliloquies to portray to the audience what is personal to Hamlet. This technique serves not only to isolate the character, thus focusing attention on him, but also encourages comparisons and reflection on the part of the audience to their own lives, and the country of Denmark. In contrast, the intensity of Ives’ dialogue between Bill and Betty presents a short, sudden insight into the awkwardness and insouciance of a contemporary young couple, meeting for the first time, while providing a witty and thought-provoking social commentary. As this is a play with few props, the attention is focused on the couple; indeed, Bill’s desire to gain Betty’s attention and secure her company is projected onto the waiter, whose imminent arrival at the end of the dialogue signifies the closing of the scene. The fact that the waiter never arrives – and thus fails to interrupt the course of their conversation – isolates the awkwardness and potential irony of contemporary social standards: conversation is often jolted, misplaced, and wrongly timed:
BILL. (Looks around.) Well the waiters here sure seem to be in some different time zone. I can’t seem to locate one anywhere….Waiter! (He looks back.) So what do you – (He sees that she’s gone back to her book.)
BETTY. I beg pardon?
BILL. Nothing. Sorry. (Bell.)
(Ives, 1994, p.17).
This inspires the audience to consider the idea that although two fairly similar people are talking in a public meeting place, with nothing to interrupt them, they still cannot get it right. The characters make references to ‘different schedules,’ ‘missed connections,’ and the term ‘different time zone’ is first mentioned by Bill, and then repeated by Betty. This is suggestive of Ives’ intention to present to the audience the idea that in the 21st century, despite the presence of sophisticated means of communication, the simple act of making oneself known to another remains problematic.
To conclude, this essay has shown that timing is crucial in both the plays, not only in the portrayal of the character to the audience, but also in the continuity of each play as a whole. Selective and witty use of language in both plays helps to remind the audience that they are not just watching an imagined scenario, but a bittersweet parody of the society of which they themselves are a part.
Geddes and Grosset, 2006, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. New Lanark: Geddes and Grosset
Ives, D.1994, All in the Timing: Six One-Act comedies. Dramatists Play Service: New York
Joseph, B., 1953, Conscience and the King: A study of Hamlet. London: Chatto and Windus
MacCary, W.T., 1998, Hamlet: A Guide to the Play. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press
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