Ben Diroll

What’s in a Word?

            The origins of the word hypocrite are Greek, from the word ύποκριτής for an actor.  Translated into Latin letters hypocrite entered the romance tongues.  The word hypocrite was introduced into English from medieval French in the years after the Norman invasion.  The first recorded usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is in the year 1225, and major authors of Middle English including Chaucer and Wyclif as well as early moderns like More used the word.  Spelling standardization followed that of the French, evolving from a word beginning with “i” or “y” and adding the “h” (un-aspirated in French) (OED 2nd ed. s.v. “hypocrite”).

            The origin of the word, an actor on a stage, changed even in Greek to the negative connotation it carries today.  In the book of Mark, hypocrite is the word Jesus uses to describe those who trumpet their faith and, he implied by the use of “hypocrite,” acted.  Without recognition of this context, his comment “They have their reward” (Mark 6:5) is confusing; there reward is applause, recognition from others of their holiness.  Jesus’ condemnation of hypocrites rests on the idea that they seek earthly, and not divine, standing.  With the growth of Christianity—fully instantiated in England by the 13th century first use of “ipocrite”—“hypocrite” became the word it remains: “One who falsely professes to be virtuously or religiously inclined; one who pretends to have feelings of beliefs of a higher order than his real ones; hence, generally, a dissembler, pretender” (OED 2nd ed. s.v “hypocrite”). 

            How much are Shakespeare’s two uses of “hypocrite” in Hamlet informed by these definitions?  Arguably, Hamlet’s first use of “hypocrite,” has much to do with acting and the normal rhetorical connotation.  (The distinction here is that often hypocrisy is noted as saying one thing and doing another whereas the older criticism outlined by Mark’s Jesus is of seeming one way and being another, that is, acting.)  Hamlet says: “I will speak daggers to her, but use none; / In this my tongue and soul be hypocrites” (Hamlet 3.2.396-7).  The second incident in which Shakespeare uses the word “hypocrite” are those very “daggers”: “Such an act, / That blurs the grace and blush of modesty, / Calls virtue hypocrite…” (Hamlet 3.4.40-2).  The first use is descriptive, the second critical.  In some sense the separate incidents represent vacillation between meanings.  Hamlet plays quite often with the notion of acting—Hamlet’s madness is the most significant example—and Hamlet’s rhetorical “daggers” highlight the disparity between Hamlet’s deeds and mind.  Indeed, the daggers have phantom blades.  The greater context of the play adds another level to interpreting “hypocrisy.”  Comparable with no other character (Claudius comes close.), soliloquy gives Hamlet transparency to the audience to the point where his “hypocrisy” is really of singular purpose.  Who is the real hypocrite?  Hamlet? His words? Burbage?

            Answering this perhaps requires an escape from the hypocrisy’s root as a word, weighing of the relative degree of planning of each character and at some point, ultimately, passing moral judgment on the characters.  That is, a preponderance of facts about Hamlet’s actions will decide if he is just acting the “hypocrite,” or if his daggers do really offend virtue.  Driving Ophelia to madness, his mother to despair, and Polonius to the grave have little to do with the system of justice Hamlet upholds or his father’s wishes.  But to return to the word itself, Hamlet’s transformation of use from the sedentary and descriptive situation to the active and critical one—perhaps all too hasty transformation—highlights the disparate realms of Hamlet’s title character.