Full-length novel written using the 483 words spoken by Ophelia in "Hamlet"

Thanks to this LitHub article, I just learned about Paul Griffiths' 2014 novel let me tell you, a 144-page book that is solely comprised of the 426 words spoken by the character of Ophelia in Hamlet. While I haven't personally read the book yet, I was intrigued by the creative devising process laid out in the aforementioned interview:

I began with the idea of taking all the words spoken in Hamlet and rearranging them into a new text. However, it didn't take me very long to realize that while initially I could say almost anything with this stock of words, unless I took huge care in monitoring what I was using, I could easily end up with a highly resistant residue of archaisms and prepositions.

I therefore decided to use not all the words in the play, once each, but all the words spoken by one character, with no restriction as to number of uses. Now, if you choose Hamlet as your character, his vocabulary is so vast there's virtually no constraint—and I needed an active constraint to make the book work. If you choose Francisco, there's the opposite problem, of being able to say only a very little. Ophelia has enough words to express herself on all sorts of matters, but also few enough that she is constantly bumping up against the unsayable.

The 483 figure counts "o" and "o'" as different words. But it strikes me now that "words" isn't the right word, because I use these things as what one might call "letter strings," whose possible other meanings are available—including meanings in other languages. For example, Ophelia uses "staff" to mean a stick or pole, but the same letter string (not, strictly, the same word) can also mean a group of people working for the same concern, or an element of musical notation. These are all, to use a term from linguistics, homographs. There isn't a term for letter string, so I'm going to invent one: "grypheme." A grapheme (existing term) notates a phoneme; a grypheme is a string of graphemes. There are 478 gryphemes in Ophelian, because the vocabulary includes five pairs of homographs ("o"/"o'" is one). The gryphemes may be combined in ways that their punctuation allows; for example, the very useful "'s" is in the play, and can therefore be applied to any word. But the gryphemes cannot be pushed together and so lose their integrity—otherwise, since Ophelia has several isolated letters (a, b, I, o, s, t), I could introduce all kinds of gryphemes not present in the original: "biotas," for example. (I did this once; it's very easy to spot.)

This is a pretty cool testament to the power of creativity through formalistic constraints. And it clearly paid off in some way: as seen in the video above, the novel was later adapted into an operetta that even played at the famed Boston Symphony.

I love a good formalist experiment, so the book is definitely added to my to-read list!

let me tell you by Paul Griffiths

Writing a Novel Limited to the 483 Words Spoken by Ophelia [Veronica Esposito / LitHub]

Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons