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“Poison in jest”: Comedy, Politics and Theatre in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

January 29, 2011

This is an essay written at university in an attempt to answer the quesstion ‘Why is Hamlet so funny?’ inspired partly by a Stratford production with Sam West which ended with a gag. I think it still contains a few interesting ideas.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Hamlet.

Hamlet, it might appear, is a play so obsessed with death and devoid of humour that the designated clown, or fool, Yorick, serves only as a memento mori to the tragic hero. Studies of Hamlet have tended to concentrate on the Prince’s melancholy and the play’s treatment of sex and death, yet Shakespeare explicitly draws attention to the absence of the court jester. Hamlet himself points out that the skull could belong to “a politician…a lawyer…[or] a great buyer of land” (V, i, 72, 91, 95). The fool’s role in the court was as an entertainer to the King. He was granted considerable licence and answered only to his master. On the Renaissance stage, particularly in the plays of Shakespeare, he served, paradoxically, as the voice of reason and his function was, Enid Welsford claims in The Fool, “to bear perpetual witness to the vanity of all human pretensions” (p249). Touchstone, Feste, and the nameless Fool in King Lear all serve this purpose. The absence of a fool creates a vacuum within the court, and within the play, which must be filled and we can see that several characters are offered as sources of comedy throughout Hamlet.

Much of the comedy in the first half of the play comes from Polonius. His position within the court is similar to that of the fool in that he is answerable only to the King. His status is made clear when Claudius tells Laertes, “The head is not more native to the heart /…Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father” (I, ii, 47-9). Unlike the fool Polonius has real political power and we suspect, from the comment above, that he may have aided Claudius in taking the throne. Polonius is, in fact, an inverted fool. Where the fool appears to speak nonsense but is in fact wise, Polonius appears to speak wisdom but is in fact foolish. Hamlet refers to him as a “fool” or “foolish” on several occasions (II, ii, 215; III, i, 133; III, iv, 30) and warns the Players to “mock him not” (II, ii, 521). Polonius’ verbosity is obvious and causes such annoyance that Gertrude attempts to shorten his speeches with her curt instruction, “More matter with less art” (II, ii, 96). The humour comes because Polonius, having taken eight lines to say that he will be brief, replies to the Queen, “I swear I use no art at all” (II, ii, 97). More importantly Polonius is almost always wrong. He mistakes Hamlet’s madness for love sickness and is taken up on his assurance, “Take this from this if this be otherwise” (II, ii, 157), although Hamlet rather than Claudius takes his life. He is also wrong to assume, with Laertes, that Ophelia and Hamlet could not marry. In a moment of great pathos Gertrude reveals her hope for this match: “I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife” (V, i, 228). This is one of a number of terrible ironies around which the narrative of the play works out. Polonius also appears mistaken when advising his son. Disguised as wisdom his speech is simply a string of self-evident platitudes but his last, and most important, advice is patently untrue: “to thine own self be true, / And it must follow…/ Thou canst not then be false to any man” (I, iii, 78-80). The great leap in logic contained in this statement is clearly ridiculous as Shakespeare was well aware. In King Lear Edmund determines to be false to all men because in doing so he shall be true to his nature (I, ii, 1-22). Similarly, in Richard III, the eponymous anti-hero decides to “prove a villain” (I, i, 30) so as to remain true to a temperament that has “no delight to pass away the time” (I, i, 25) during a period of peace. Claudius, it could be argued, played Old Hamlet false by remaining true to his own ambition. Polonius, then, can be seen as a real fool in contrast to the wisdom of a stage fool like that in King Lear. This folly is not simply amusing, however. It takes on a sinister edge when we consider the influence Polonius has with Claudius and the power he has over Ophelia.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also serve a comic purpose in the play. They function as a comic double act on which Hamlet can display his wit. They are both true fools who do not hide any wisdom. Their foolish exterior is supposed to hide their treachery but they are not even capable of that and Hamlet sees through them almost immediately, “there is a kind of confession in your looks which your modesties have not craft enough to colour” (II, ii, 272-3). Their own attempts at humour are feeble and anger Hamlet: “Why did you laugh, then, when I said ‘Man delights not me’?” (II, ii, 302-3). Once Hamlet realises that his school friends are simply serving Claudius he treats them with barely veiled contempt.
Guild: Good, my lord, vouchsafe me a word with you.
Hamlet: Sir, a whole history.
Guild: The King, sir-
Hamlet: Ay, sir, what of him?
Guild: Is in his retirement marvellous distempered.
Hamlet: With drink, sir? (III, ii, 272-7)

Hamlet’s initial reply seems courteous (although it may be played with sarcasm it seems to follow the jubilant tone of the preceding conversation with Horatio) but, on the mention of the King, he becomes defensive and interrupts Guildenstern. The use of “sir” begins to appear excessive and sarcastic. The third reply, as it becomes clear that Guildenstern is on the King’s side, deliberately mistakes the meaning of “distempered” for ‘drunk’ rather than ‘angry’. Claudius’ drinking is a vice which Hamlet often complains of. The change in tone is clear and Hamlet will never again speak as openly with the two spies as he had in II, ii. Hamlet remarks on the pair’s slow-wittedness: “A knavish speech sleeps in a foolish ear” (IV, ii, 21-2), and their idiocy only increases our sympathy for the hero. His school friends not only betray him but are incapable of being witty in the process. They completely fail to fulfil the role of stage fools and are of so little consequence that Hamlet can claim, after he has sent them to their deaths, “They are not near my conscience” (V, i, 59).

Osric’s brief appearance serves, similarly, as a foil for Hamlet’s wit. Commonly played as ostentatious and foppish his is a strange appearance in the final act of a tragedy, minutes before the final massacre. He symbolises the vices of the court which Hamlet despises. The Prince characterises him as “a chuff, but…spacious in the possession of dirt” (V, ii, 88-9). His appearance allows us to see Hamlet in a relaxed and witty mood one more time before his death and continues the pattern of the play which swings between comedy and tragedy. Osric is more akin to Polonius than to a court fool. Genuinely brainless he is granted a social position purely because he owns land and can affect, “the tune of the time” (V, ii, 142). He is offensive to Hamlet’s intelligence and so an object of ridicule for him and the audience.

The Gravediggers are designated as ‘Clowns’ in the Dramatis Personae and belong to the same stock of ‘rude mechanicals’ as the Porter in Macbeth or Lancelot in The Merchant of Venice. It is rare, however, for the tragic hero to treat the lower class characters as equals or to admire their wit. Hamlet starts the quibbling conversation with the gravedigger and, rather than becoming impatient, continues and seems to enjoy the string of puns. The encounter prompts Hamlet to remark, “The age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier he galls his kibe” (V, i, 128-30). In fact the Gravedigger is far wittier than any other members of the court encountered by Hamlet. The only heel likely to be galled by the Gravedigger is Hamlet’s own. The repartee in this scene has offended many critics and Voltaire seemed unable to understand why “Hamlet responds to [the Gravedigger’s] nasty vulgarities in silliness no less disgusting” (Jump, p23). The scene is important, however, for two reasons. Firstly, the humour increases the pathos of Ophelia’s funeral. We realise, when the Gravedigger reveals that the grave is for “One that was a woman” (V, i, 126), whom it is to hold but Hamlet continues to jest, unaware of the fate of his mistress. Secondly, the scene typifies a play which, like the Gravedigger “sings at grave-making” (V, i, 60), finding humour in the face of death and suggesting that laughter is the only response to the realisation of our own mortality.

The discovery of Yorick’s skull is the central, and most famous part of this scene. The famous image of Hamlet staring into the empty eye-sockets of the dead jester suggests that the skull is Hamlet’s reflection. This is true not only in the sense that it reflects Hamlet’s mortality but also his function in the play. Hamlet, it seems is as much the heir to Yorick as he is the son of Old Hamlet. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor point out that in the original legend the story of Hamlet (or Amleth) was that of “the clever son whose name means ‘stupid’” (Hamlet, p9), allying him to the stage fool himself whose name similarly contradicts his character and function. From his very first line, “A little more than kin and less than kind” (I, ii, 65), Hamlet signals to us his interest in wordplay. The pun satirises the incestuous marriage of Claudius and Gertrude, making Claudius both uncle and father to Hamlet, “more than kin” but also signals the prince’s wish to distance himself from Claudius, “less than kind”, i.e. not actually father and son, while the secondary meaning of “kind” shows the antagonism between Hamlet and Claudius. In To Be and Not To Be James L. Calderwood comments that wordplay “enables Hamlet to purge words of their pretence to meaning …and invest them with meanings of his own” (p81). Thus, the Prince uses humour to distance himself from the vanity and pretension of the court. Hamlet’s position is established in this highly economic manner and these nine words seem to drive him through the play. It is important to notice that the ‘melancholy’ prince is introduced with a bitter joke. This strain of sarcastic humour accompanies Hamlet throughout the play, often directly contrasted with his true feelings. He declares that the reason for his mother’s wedding coming so soon after his father’s funeral was, “Thrift…The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” The defensive sarcasm is directly followed by an open admission of his true feelings: “Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven / Ere I had ever seen that day, Horatio” (I, ii, 179-83). The humour makes the emotion of the second part seem more genuine and shows us that Hamlet is allowing Horatio to see beneath his ironic exterior.

It is after Hamlet assumes his “antic disposition” (I, v, 172) that he really begins to play the role of the fool. He seems to have taken note of Erasmus’ opinion, expressed in his Praise of Folly, that “nothing is so foolish as mistimed wisdom, and nothing less sensible than misplaced sense” (p105). The wisdom Hamlet has learnt from his father would certainly be misplaced in the suspicious world of Elsinore. Like the court jester Hamlet has no political power but is in a protected position, both because he has “the voice of the King himself” (III, ii, 312-3) and because of the “great love the general gender bear him” (IV, vii, 18). Claudius finds that it takes all his cunning to rid himself of the troublesome prince. Hamlet’s position and feigned madness allow him to satirise the court and its inhabitants. Erasmus asserts that fools can “speak the truth and even open insults and be heard with positive pleasure; indeed the words which would cost a wise man his life are surprisingly enjoyable when uttered by a clown” (p119). Hamlet seems to be exercising this privilege even though his humour is not usually received with pleasure. He is cruellest of all to Polonius, mocking his “plentiful lack of wit” (II, ii, 199) and his sycophancy:
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Pol: By th’mass, and ’tis: like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Pol: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale.
Pol: Very like a whale.
Hamlet: Then will I come to my mother by and by. (III, ii, 345-52)

The unlikely animals to which Hamlet compares the cloud clearly make the exchange surreally comic, especially when one remembers that both are indoors at the time, but Hamlet is ridiculing Polonius’ willingness to sycophantically agree with everything he says (this scene finds an echo in the exchange between Hamlet and Osric concerning the weather [V, ii, 92-99]). The satire has a more profound moral implication, however. Polonius is prepared to agree with and serve Claudius with no regard for right and wrong, just as he will agree with Hamlet without regard for common sense. The King, of course, rewards Polonius for his service and, in the apparent non sequitur with which Hamlet concludes the conversation the Prince rewards Polonius, ironically, for his agreement.

Hamlet’s satire of Claudius must, because of the King’s power, be more oblique and his resentment is expressed primarily in soliloquies and asides. After the murder of Polonius, however, and his banishment to England, Hamlet feels more able to mock Claudius. His insolent attitude over Polonius’ body in an exchange which ends with Hamlet implying Claudius’ damnation, “seek him i’th’other place yourself” (IV, iii, 34), shows the prince in a position where his only weapon is humour. He is powerless against the King and, guarded as he is, cannot offer violence towards him. Hamlet’s anger must be expressed through humour. In his final speech he justifies calling Claudius ‘mother’: “Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh, and so my mother” (IV, iii, 53-4), using the kind of logic favoured by a fool such as Feste who proves that Olivia, his mistress, is in fact the fool (Twelfth Night, I, v, 56-62). Through humour Hamlet is able to repay in kind the insult Claudius had given to his manhood at the beginning of the play: “’tis unmanly grief” (I, ii, 94). In performance, to emphasise the point, Hamlet often concludes the speech by kissing Claudius on the mouth.

As the fool, Hamlet shows his ability to mix with people of all classes. Yorick himself carried the young Hamlet “on his back a thousand times” (V, i, 172-3), but was also able to jest with the Gravediggers: “a poured a flagon of Rhenish on my head once” (V, i, 165-6). Hamlet’s speech moves easily from the verse he uses to address the Queen to the quibbling prose he uses in conversation with the Gravedigger. Most striking is Hamlet’s relationship with the Players. Like Hamlet, whose rightful place has been usurped by Claudius, they have lost their place in the city due to the popularity of the child actors and must wander the country in search of employment. In feigning madness Hamlet is himself acting and seems to have a long-standing interest in theatre. He even considers himself something of an expert. In describing the speech he wishes to hear performed he says, “’Twas caviare to the general. But it was – as I received it, and others whose judgements in such matters cried in the top of mine – an excellent play” (II, ii, 418-20). Hamlet’s modesty hides his knowledge of theatre which he consequently shows by reciting thirteen lines of a speech that he had apparently only heard once. Polonius compliments his “good accent and good discretion” (II, ii, 446-8), although his opinion may not be very reliable given his tendency to flatter Hamlet. He certainly shows, in Hamlet’s eyes, a lack of judgement when he complains that the Player’s speech is “too long” (II, ii, 478). Hamlet’s cutting response shows a contempt for those who do not appreciate what he considers great theatre.

Hamlet, of course, uses the Players in his attempt to “catch the conscience of the King” (II, ii, 582). Like the court fool Hamlet undertakes to entertain the King and court at the same time as revealing a certain truth. The staging of The Murder of Gonzago is a more extravagant version of the songs sung by the Fool in King Lear, and is treated with the same condescending amusement by both monarchs. Of course Hamlet’s play has a much more sinister purpose than the songs of the Fool and this is where Hamlet’s similarity to the court fool ends. The Fool in King Lear is a detached observer of human folly whose songs attempt to satirise his master’s failings and perhaps help him to see a solution to his problems. Hamlet, rather than detached, is personally involved with everything that takes place around him. Instead of looking on dispassionately he is “Th’observed of all observers” (III, i, 153). His play is intended to reveal the truth but in order that he might kill the King rather than help him.

Hamlet is a play greatly interested in theatre and theatrical representation. The narrative itself subverts the ‘revenge’ genre to which the play apparently belongs by making its hero unwilling to take his revenge, and the play-within-the-play is made central to the plot. Added to this are Hamlet’s own interest in theatre and the fact that Shakespeare by making his tragic hero a fool is examining one of the stock theatrical characters in an unusual position. The play’s interest is not just in theatre in the abstract sense but theatre in relation to politics. Hamlet is also a play about power. Hamlet lacks any real power and must find alternative means to achieve his ends. One of these means is the staging of the play. With the performance of the play Hamlet is able to turn the tables on Claudius and he exults in this brief moment of power, continually interrupting and interpreting the play: “You are as good as a chorus,” (III, ii, 224) comments Ophelia. Thus, the theatre becomes a political tool. The play exposes Claudius before the whole court and gives Hamlet the proof he needs of the King’s guilt: “I’ll take the Ghost’s word for a thousand pound” (III, ii, 263-4). It is important to note, however, that the performance of this tragedy is censored; the philistine, Polonius, gives the order to “Give o’er the play” (III, ii, 246). Although no mention is made of the fate of the Players it is not unreasonable to suggest that they, like Hamlet, may have been sent to their deaths for staging a politically unacceptable play. Shakespeare may be showing the limits of political theatre, or, at least, of political tragedy.

Hamlet was written and first performed towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign at a time when the future of the English throne was in doubt. There are a remarkable number of parallels between James I, successor to Elizabeth I, and Hamlet. James’ father was, like Old Hamlet, murdered in an orchard and his mother married the suspected murderer. There are further parallels between Fortinbras and the Earl of Essex who attempted a military rebellion in 1601 (see Robin Headlam Wells, Shakespeare on Masculinity, p61-4). Given this political context one can see that a performance of Hamlet before James I might have caused similar problems to the performance of The Murder of Gonzago before Claudius. Aware of the implications Shakespeare must have attempted to deflect political disapproval of his play, much like Hamlet himself attempts to deflect the enquiries of those who would “pluck out the heart of [his] mystery” (II, ii, 336). Both Shakespeare and Hamlet do this through humour. Hamlet’s assumption of the role of the fool confuses the King and allows him to satirise and insult the court. By making Hamlet more comic than any of his other major tragedies and by putting a fool at the centre of the action Shakespeare is able to examine pertinent political issues while disingenuously maintaining, with Hamlet, that the players “do but jest” (III, ii, 214).

The failure of political tragedy within the play suggests that an alternative must be found. The association of Hamlet with the Players and with acting, most famously shown in his instructions to them before the play (III, ii, 1-40), means that he could be seen as a representative or symbol of theatre itself. His interest in poetry, philosophy and classical mythology are all interests shared by the Elizabethan theatre. He is capable of many different modes of speech, as we have seen, and has a profound interest in words and wordplay. His position at Elsinore is accepted but he is not trusted: he has no power and is excluded from the King’s inner circle. The Elizabethan theatre was similarly excluded from the city of London, powerless and, though accepted was subject to strict censorship and criticism, particularly from the Puritans. If Hamlet is viewed thus then the play seems to suggest that theatre’s role is to play the fool to the rulers of the day. Hamlet’s opinion that the “purpose of playing…is to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (III, ii, 18-22) is not far from the function of the fool. Hamlet the fool is eventually silenced, however, and his name lives on as a soldier and a prince. He is borne, “like a soldier”, to the stage and Fortinbras considers that he was likely “To have proved most royally” (V, ii, 340-2). His wit as a satirist counts for nothing after his death and achieved little during the play. Political satire in the theatre may provide a useful outlet for anger and dissension but its effectiveness is severely limited. Only tragedy can affect political life but is too obvious and so censored. The mask of satire, which makes evasion easier, is ultimately self-defeating. This is the pessimistic opinion expressed in Hamlet.


Boyce, Charles, ed. Dictionary of Shakespeare. Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1996.

Bradbrook, M.C., Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935.

Calderwood, James L., To Be And Not To Be. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Cantor, Paul, Hamlet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Dobson, Michael, with Stanley Wells, ed., The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Erasmus, Desiderius, Praise of Folly. Trans. Betty Radice. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1971.

Greenblatt, Stephen, ed., The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997.

Jump, John, ed., Hamlet. London: Macmillan Press, 1968.

Thompson, Ann and Neil Taylor, Hamlet. Plymouth: Northcote House, 1996.

Thompson, Ann, “Infinite Jest: The Comedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” Kings College London Inaugural Lecture, delivered 11th February, 2002.

Wells, Robin Headlam, Shakespeare on Masculinity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Welsford, Enid, The Fool. London Faber and Faber, 1968 (first published 1935).

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