A distinguishing and frequently mystifying feature of William Shakespeare s tragedy Hamlet is the presence of dark humor: constant wordplay, irony, riddles, clowning, and bawdy repartee. The language of Hamlet is cleverly and specifically designed in the guise of Shakespeare s dark humor. In regards to all uses of comedy and wit, the language of this play is meant to be pleasing to the audience but not to the characters. This concept is essential in understanding what place comedy has in a tragedy such as Hamlet. Hamlet s very use and style of language, especially the use of the pun, the dialogue with the minor character Polonius, and the graveyard scene reveals intentions and plans through the mode of comic relief.
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The exchange of wit often relied heavily on the identity of the actors (Thomson 116). Shakespeare writes the plays for his audience in his time, so the audience would be familiar with the actors. Thus, there may have been some very pointed sarcasm thrown into the dialogue that seems very funny to the 17th century playgoer (depending on the real identity of the speaker), but appears mystifying to the modern viewer. The pun is the most frequent of Shakespeare s comic uses.
Act one introduces the reader to Hamlet, who seems to be showing signs of strong angst towards his elders, but uses biting remarks to defend himself. Hamlet believes that humor (albeit sarcastic humor) suggests a nimble and flexible mind, as well as an imagination. Wittenberg is a pinnacle of wits, which is where, of course, Hamlet wants to return to (Watts 94). A little more than kin, and less than kind (1.2.65). Hamlet s first words in the play show him playing with words in order to state a paradox: Claudius is twice related to him, as uncle and stepfather, but not really his kin or kind at all. Immediately thereafter, the king questions, How is it that the clouds still hang on you? (1.2.66) Hamlet responds with, Not so, my lord, I am too much in the sun (1.2.67). He means that the king has called Hamlet son too often (Fisch 220). Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables (1.2.180-81). Here Hamlet bitterly jokes that the real reason his mother’s remarriage came so soon after her husband’s death was so that she could save money by serving the leftover funeral refreshments to the wedding guests.
In the last scene of act one, the reader meets Hamlet s last family member, his deceased father, and still has problems dealing with his feelings. Hamlet s feigned madness is concocted in his mind in this scene. This reflects the ability of his nimble mind to change characters very easy, which is significant later in the play. Shakespeare s extensive knowledge of differing meanings of the same words (Charney 46) is put to good use here. When Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, his friends try to stop him from following the apparition, and he cries out, Unhand me, gentlemen / I ll make a ghost of him that lets me! (1.4.84-5). In Elizabethan English, lets means allows AND hinders (Charney 51). Now the sentence has two different meanings. Hamlet s instinctive and unconscious punning here foreshadows Polonius death by Hamlet; at the very least, it foreshadows the murder of someone by Hamlet.
Shakespeare also adds societal and theatrical references to Hamlet. Hamlet describes actions that a man might play (1.2.84) when his mother questions his sorrow. Then, when Hamlet meets the ghost of his father, he says to himself, Whiles memory holds a seat / In this distracted globe (1.5.103-4). Hamlet perhaps gestures to his head, symbolizing a globe, but it is interesting to note that Shakespeare s theater was named The Globe (Thomson 19). While memory holds a seat adds to the theatric pun, providing a subtle advertisement pitch.
The comic world is frankly controlled and unified (Weitz 64), whereas the tragic world is one that has many possible routes and directions. Shakespeare often presents a love triangle of daughter, father, and prospective son-in-law (96). This can be a humorous triangle in a comedy (such as the one that results from Egeus, Hermia, and Lysander in A Midsummer Night s Dream), or a tragic one in a tragedy. This is a subplot of Hamlet, and the prince uses biting, often surprisingly humorous, puns when speaking with Polonius, the father of his would-be bride. In comedies, the choosing between father and husband is avoided. In tragedies, it is not (Bamber 112).
The minor character Polonius proves to be a comic character in the way he uses his speech. Polonius over-elaborates the use of rhetoric (Nardo 9), since brevity is the soul of wit (2.2.97), to more matter with less art (2.2.102). Everyone manipulates everyone else with punning and speeches Polonius thinks he, especially, is gifted.
Next, in Hamlet s conversation with Ophelia, he reveals a softer side of himself that makes him seem all the more tragic. He tells her he is ill at these numbers (2.2.120). He is referring to the metrics of his poem, but Shakespeare might be subtly hinting at his growing dislike for aristocracy, reckoning of bills, and sums and money (Boyce 131). Would the groundlings have noticed this?
In act two, Hamlet thrusts a number of bitter jests at Polonius. Excellent well; you are a fishmonger (2.2.174), says Hamlet in response to Polonius question, Do you know me, my lord? The basis of Hamlet s jests is apparently his intuition that Polonius forced Ophelia to stop seeing him. In Hamlet s opinion, Polonius sacrificed his daughter s happiness in order to impress the king. This, fishmonger is often explained as slang for pimp (Bamber 198), despite the fact that there is no evidence that the word was used that way before Shakespeare wrote this play. Hamlet then makes him insult sharper by wishing that Polonius were as honest as a fishmonger, which is to say that Polonius is lower than the lowest of the low.
Hamlet goes on to belittle Polonius some more. He says that to be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man pick d out of ten thousand (2.2.194), and then says what Polonius probably thinks is a very crazy thing: For if the sun breeds maggots in a dead / dog, being a god kissing carrion Have you a daughter? (2.2.197-99) The comment about the sun and the maggots has at least two possible meanings. One meaning is that it is not surprising Polonius is such a hypocrite, because the life-giving sun can produce all kinds of disgusting things, especially from other disgusting things (Watts 256). The second meaning Hamlet explains, though not so Polonius can understand. When Polonius says that he does have a daughter, Hamlet replies, Let her not walk i the sun: conception is a blessing: but not as your daughter may conceive (2.2.184-85). In other words, if Polonius is going to keep Ophelia away from Hamlet for fear that she ll get pregnant, he better keep her out of the sun, too, because even the sun can produce bastard pregnancies (260).
Words, words, words (2.2.192), says Hamlet, in response to Polonius question, What do you read, my lord? Of course, Polonius wants to know the meaning of the words in the book that Hamlet is reading, but Hamlet s answer suggests that they are meaningless. Polonius then follows up with a clarification: What is the matter, my lord? By matter he means subject matter, but Hamlet again deliberately misinterprets. He takes matter to mean something wrong and answers Polonius question with a question ( Between who? ), as though someone were quarreling with someone else.
Slanders, sir (2.2.196), replies Hamlet to Polonius question about what he is reading. He pretends that the author of the book has written that old men have grey beards, wrinkled faces, and a plentiful lack of wit. He then says that he believes all of this, but it is not nice to write it down, for yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am, if like a crab you could walk backward. Therefore, if what he pretends to read is true, it is not slander. Moreover, although it is not nice to point out anyone that everyone gets old and foolish, it is a terrible truth that Polonius does not realize about himself (Charney 164). Hamlet puts this last point backwards, saying that Polonius will get younger ( old as I am ) if he can go backwards in time. Of course, Polonius cannot go backwards in time, but he does not understand what Hamlet has just said, thus emphasizing what a comical fool he is.
Hamlet comments on death when Polonius asks him some innocent questions in the same scene. Into my grave (2.2.207), replies Hamlet to Polonius question, Will you walk out of the air, my lord? Apparently, the room is drafty, and Polonius is inviting Hamlet to go to a warmer room, but Hamlet implies that he would sooner be dead than go any place with Polonius (Fisch 301). Moments later, Hamlet makes a comment that sounds similar, but expresses a great weariness with life. Polonius says goodbye with the usual polite words: My lords, I will take my leave of you, and Hamlet replies, You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will willingly part withal: except my life (2.2.215-17). Hamlet means that he is very willing to be free of Polonius, and that he is even more willing to be free of his own life.
Hamlet uses his pretended madness to gain the license of the fool; now he can freely goad the king and queen. He warns Horatio in act three that They are coming to the play: I must be idle (3.2.92). Idle means foolish, absurd, and thoughtless. The title of Hamlet s play-within-a-play is The Mousetrap. The title of The Mousetrap is meant tropically (3.2.243), or figuratively. However, the spelling in Quarto I is trapically (Bamber 65). Thus, Hamlet will catch the conscience of the king through Hamlet s own cunning intelligence. Shakespeare also incorporates bawdry, country matters (3.2.119), which the groundlings see as good comedy. The aristocracy, however, sees them as inexplicable dumb shows and noise (3.2.12-13). Shakespeare is well aware of the caste systems of Elizabethan society.
In act three, Hamlet again encounters his mother, presenting an audible movement of the plot. In the bedroom scene, Hamlet refers to two pictures in his mother s room as counterfeit presentments (3.4.64). He is referring to the portraits of his mother s husbands, one of the late Hamlet, one of Claudius. In Elizabethan times, counterfeit meant portrait, but Shakespeare knew that counterfeit also meant an imitation of the real thing (Weitz 111).
Prince Hamlet s mode of revealing the truth is through the pun (Bloom 68). In act four, Hamlet banters with Claudius at length over the death of Polonius and where his remains lie. Hamlet says to Claudius, [Polonius is] in heaven. Send thither to thee. If you find him not there, seek him in the other place yourself (4.3.37-9). Hamlet has just told the king to go to hell.
The only character who is allowed to insult is the jester, who is deemed as mad. Hamlet speaks in prose when in conversation with Claudius, assuming the role of the lunatic to confuse the king; it is the lunatic that is often the most truthful (Boyce 304). Hamlet knows this, and falls into the habit of punning mercilessly. Author Morris Weitz says that,
They [puns] are right because they imitate situations in real life where punning is the natural expression of a particular emotion Puns are justifiable because they intensify the passion and thereby move the action of the drama (185-86).
The passion is intensified by puns precisely because puns happen in day-to-day situations. Real people use puns when they are confused, irritated, or scared. Hamlet takes on the appearance of a real person, thus increasing the passion of the play. Punning is a reflex since English words have so many multiple meanings, it is unavoidable.
Another unconscious pun is made by Claudius, implicating his further guilt. He mentions Offense s gilded hand (3.5.58). When something is gilded, it is not solid gold, only surface gold. Gilt here is punned with guilt, and bears a distant phonetic resemblance to the name Guildenstern (Fisch 130).
In Shakespearean tragedy, there is always a moment in which the tragic hero realizes he cannot fight his destiny, and this moment occurs in scene one of act five in Hamlet. The gravediggers assist here in altering the mood of the play. The main comic character, Polonius, is murdered, and things are getting tense. In act four, Laertes and Claudius plots, along with Ophelia s madness and death, beg for relief of tension (Fisch 77).
In act five, Hamlet regrets death, but can come to terms with it, perhaps by using humor to distance himself from consider[ing] too curiously its attractions. Shakespeare seems intent on distancing the audience from emotional implications of Ophelia s death and Hamlet s impending doom (Bamber 167). He is trying to save the emotional release until the final catastrophe. The primary function of this scene is not to advance the plot; rather, it is to delay development (Watts 287), providing the needed comic relief in the face of the rapidly approaching climax.
The most obvious way that suspense is built but tension is relieved is through a visual cue and through verbal jokes. There is an open grave on the stage. It is Ophelia s, but Hamlet, despite his best efforts, does not know this. The suspense of the scene (on account of this dramatic irony) rises from the point at which Hamlet attempts to discover the identity of the deceased at line 99, to the point at which he finds out at line 209. The open grave is also a sign of death, which awaits all the major characters at the end of the play. The story has come from the plotting of Hamlet s death in act four, scene seven, to Hamlet jesting unknowingly beside an open grave (Nardo 219). The jokes themselves, set against the grave and the knowledge that Hamlet will die shortly might be said to lessen the tension but raise the suspense.
Two men are digging Ophelia s grave. One asks whether someone who tries to go to heaven by the short route (suicide) can be given Christian burial. In Shakespeare s time (as Hamlet already mentioned in act one, scene two), suicide was considered a sin, and sometimes even unforgivable. Suicides would ordinarily be buried in unconsecrated ground without a Christian service. Sometimes they d be buried at a crossroads (because of the cross symbol created by the roads and as a warning to others not to do the same), and sometimes with a stake through the heart to prevent them from rising as the undead (Florescu et al 119-20).
The gravedigger tells two riddles: one concerns the claim that digging is the oldest trade in the world; the second asserts that gravediggers build more securely than a mason, a shipwright, or a carpenter (5.1.51). The song seems to begin as a love song but rapidly turns into a reflection upon life s brevity, supposedly sung by a corpse.
What these two have in common, of course, is that insistence upon death s power and inevitability. The gravedigger is not simply flaunting his skills, but rather, assists in altering the mood of the play (Nardo 99). Things have been getting more serious since the death of Polonius.
The men joke about how politics has influenced the coroner s decision to allow Christian burial (5.1.5). They parody lawyer talk ( Maybe the water jumped on her, instead of her jumping into the water. Or maybe she drowned herself in her own defense. ) They say what a sham it is that, in the corrupt world, rich people have more of a right to commit suicide than do poor people.
Paradoxically, though, at the same time as darkening the mood, this section is also funny. This is not mere comic relief, however. Why would Shakespeare want to decrease the suspense at this point? One may find humor in Polonius murder, and even the fencing match, with its farcical switching of swords and drinks, has a comic element. The purposes and effects of humor in Hamlet are varied. In the graveyard scene, though, Shakespeare seems intent on distancing the audience from the emotional implications of Ophelia s death and Hamlet s impending doom (Bamber 167). Perhaps this is with the intention of saving emotional release until the very end.
Furthermore, humor in the graveyard scene does not solely come from the gravediggers. Hamlet jests about the owner of the skull that is thrown up out of the grave. This is the essence of the humor in this section of the play. The mixture of wit and skulls helps to emphasize the differences in Hamlet s reactions (Boyce 303). He is coming to terms with his morality and his morbidity. Previous reflections about death, such as the To be or not to be soliloquy (3.1), have focused upon its finality, terrors, and twisted desirability. Here, Hamlet regrets death and is able to use humor to distance himself from considering too curiously its attractions.
Hamlet and Horatio walk in. The gravedigger sings a contemporary song about having been in love and making love, and thinking it was great. He tosses up a skull. Hamlet (in disguise) asks who is to be buried. The men exchange wisecracks about death and Hamlet s insanity. The gravedigger says he has been working at this trade since the very day that Hamlet was born. Thus, the gravedigger comes to stand for Hamlet s very mortality (Charney 201). Hamlet asks about dead bodies, makes a four-way pun on the word fine, and jokes about chop-fallen (in living people it means frowning, but the skull has lost its chop, or jawbone). The gravedigger tells him which skull belonged to the court jester, Yorick. Hamlet also remembers Yorick s jokes and his kindness. However, there is more.
In the medieval world, it was the special privilege of the court jester to tell the truth. In Shakespeare s plays (notably King Lear), the jester s role as truth-teller is central. Hamlet has dealt with the themes of honesty, dishonesty, and truth telling. In this most famous scene of all, Yorick tells the truth without saying a word. Everyone ends up in the same place, dead.
Another reason that Hamlet shares light-hearted humor with the gravedigger is precisely to lessen this burdensome knowledge that death comes to all, whether it is Caesar or Yorick. Hamlet cannot escape the wickedly punning reminder of this same skull, that all skulls look frightfully the same (Nardo 113).
The gravediggers serve as a pseudo-chorus (such as those seen in Oedipus Rex or Antigone) that comments on the main thoughts of the character or the main action of the scene. The gravediggers note especially the Ophelia s suicide and the mannerisms and laws of the aristocrats (Boyce 225). The gravedigger also has the song that he sings. The final touch that the gravedigger adds to the scene comes when the gravedigger speaks of Hamlet s voyage to England, saying, There the men are as mad as he (5.1.159-60). One can imagine the gravedigger winking to the English groundlings here. Finally, in this scene, the funeral priest allows only virgin crants (5.1.240), meaning virgin garland, to decorate a virgin s grave. Crants is an unusual German word (Nardo 110). Shakespeare chose this word deliberately, as it bears an odd phonetic resemblance to Rosencrantz. Like the king s pun on gilt/guilt and Guildenstern, Shakespeare connects some minor characters with the main action of the play.
Elizabethan playgoers were more sensitive to wordplay and placed a much higher value on it as an expression of wit (Charney 288). For this reason, Shakespeare provides comic relief. He does this to satisfy the audience, but he also uses comic relief to pause the emotional rollercoaster. However, Shakespeare is making certain assumptions. He assumes that the audience is familiar with the play and thus engages their knowledge of what is to come. Another reason for the use of humor in Hamlet is because Elizabethan dram is full of interplay between the stage and the pit (Bloom 44). The groundlings would not be satisfied watching high-class drama. They need to be entertained, and Shakespeare understands that he must appease all viewers. Hamlet s very use and style of language, especially the use of the pun, the dialogue with the minor character Polonius, and the graveyard scene reveals intentions and plans through the mode of comic relief.