When the subject of Hamlet is broached in conversation (assumedly by tweed-wearing types), often does the topic sway towards humor, as humor is used very often yet always very strategically in this play about the Dane and the fall of his house. The comedy found in Hamlet varies from the chuckles garnered by the long-winded Polonius droning on and on reminiscent to a grinding stone as it makes its solitary orbit of the mill. Heard by all yet listened to by none, juxtaposed with the over logical grave digger with his wordplay and banter allowing the audience a much-needed reprieve before the emotional actions and words of Ophelia’s funeral.
You may ask why the Bard added comedy at all? Why in this play that ends with the entirety of two families dead and the future of a nation handed to someone who had up until recently been seen as a potential threat. Why not crush the audience like waves on a beach with sorrow, tragedy, and death? Why not twist the knife as it were after the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia skipping the graveyard and leading straight into the duel? The short answer is he knew better, but the longer more complex answer has to do with how the human mind works, and how vital hope is to everyone. And how Shakespeare uses that desire for hope so he can drive the audience to feel more profoundly than they would under the crushing sadness of tragedy alone. In the article ‘Shakespeare’s Use of Comedy in Tragedy’ published in The Sewanee Review in 1906 by Arthur Huntington Nason. Nason describes three separate ways that Shakespeare uses comedy in his plays.
- Comic passages that are in effect comic;
- Comic passages that, through contrast with their tragic settings are, in effect, tragic or pathetic; and
- Comic passages that, by relieving the tension, contribute to the tragic effect of the passages that follow. (Nason 30)
It is in this third class of comedic scenes that Hamlet shines. Shakespeare’s love and experience of writing comedy had given him insight into the most efficient ways to provide the audience with a momentary relief from sadness just long enough to imply hope and then hit them again and make it feel fresh even at the end of the play. This insight is one of the best lessons that can be of use in the media of today, which has a tendency of layering the same emotion over and over with little variation numbing the audience and loosing the desired effect.
When discussing Shakespeare’s use of humor in Hamlet, Polonius is the first character to show us that humor, not just wit, will tickle your sides during the performance. His longwinded meandering advice to his son earlier in the play is a catch all of stern fatherly wisdom with a bit of dad joke thrown in, but this overprotective and extremely longwinded fathers’ interaction with his children is an exaggerated yet relatable experience that grounds the audience in a play that has supernatural elements. Yet shortly after the interaction with Laertes Polonius sets Reynaldo onto his son verifying in ways that may harm his Laertes’ reputation in France.
You shall do marvellous wisely, good Reynaldo,
Before you visit him, to make inquire
Of his behavior.
My lord, I did intend it.
Marry, well said; very well said. Look you, sir,
Inquire me first what Danskers are in Paris;
And how, and who, what means, and where they keep,
What company, at what expense; and finding
By this encompassment and drift of question
That they do know my son, come you more nearer
Than your particular demands will touch it:
Take you, as ’twere, some distant knowledge of him;
As thus, ‘I know his father and his friends,
And in part him: ‘ do you mark this, Reynaldo?
Ay, very well, my lord.
‘And in part him; but’ you may say ‘not well:
But, if’t be he I mean, he’s very wild;
Addicted so and so:’ and there put on him
What forgeries you please; marry, none so rank
As may dishonour him; take heed of that;
But, sir, such wanton, wild and usual slips
As are companions noted and most known
To youth and liberty. (Hamlet 2.1 1)
This simple act of asking a servant to deliver money and notes to his son makes a sharp yet longwinded turn towards not only spying on the son of his master but making inquiries into Laertes’ lifestyle in such a way that there is a possibly of damaging Laertes’ reputation in order to protect the status of the one Polonius loves the most Polonius. These contrasting conversations show Polonius for what he is conniving and duplicitous. Which sets the stage for the confrontation between Hamlet and Polonius. An encounter that if we did not already see the older man in a less than flattering light, we might take pity on him when Hamlet unleashes his bile while feigning madness does the Bards’ use of humor truly begin to take shape.
Do you know me, my lord?
Excellent well; you are a fishmonger.
Not I, my lord.
Then I would you were so honest a man.
Honest, my lord!
Ay, sir; to be honest, as this world goes, is to be
one man picked out of ten thousand.
That’s very true, my lord.
For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a
god kissing carrion,–Have you a daughter?
I have, my lord.
Let her not walk i’ the sun: conception is a
blessing: but not as your daughter may conceive.
Friend, look to ‘t. (Hamlet 2.2 189)
This scene which takes place during the beginning of the genuine intrigue part of the play. As Hamlet is using his madness as a disguise and is about to set his ‘mousetrap’ using the players. This brief but memorable mocking of Polonius both gives the audience a chuckle and offers a disguise as to the actual depth of tragedy that is about to unfold. This camouflage relaxes the audience as stated in ‘Shakespeare’s Use of Comedy’ in Tragedy is firmly a Class 3 scene as it combined with the humor of the opening scenes with the players will make you forget that you are watching one of the tragedies.
Yet why does Hamlet single out Polonius for his ire? Hamlet makes it clear throughout all his interactions with the apparently esteemed man that he has no love for him. According to ‘The Comedy of ‘Hamlet’ by Manfred Draudt printed in 2002 in Atlantis
The discrepancy between Polonius’s benign appearance and his real nature as a hypocrite, opportunist, and flatterer – indirectly suggested by his trite and hollow sententiousness – is relentlessly exposed by Hamlet. In his first private encounter, he immediately questions Polonius’s honesty; ‘I would you were so honest a man [ as a fishmonger].’ (2.2.174-77). There is good reason to assume that Polonius has already served Hamlet Senior as lord chamberlain, yet he eagerly supports the new King –or whoever is in power. In his remarks to Laertes, Claudius leaves no doubt that he is heavily indebted to his trusted counsellor, whos age and experience may well have contributed to authorizing his clam to the throne:’ (Draudt 74)
Polonius’ abetting the rise of King Claudius, whether out of knowledge of the crime committed against King Hamlet or as a sycophant attempting to retain the power he had worked hard to obtain, does not seem to matter to Hamlet. Nor does the fact that the woman he (may) love(s) is the daughter of this man. Polonius is one of the pillars that support Claudius as King. For that reason, Hamlet unleashes the power of his sardonic wit against the aging councilor to the enjoyment of the audience and the benefit of the tragedies to come. Polonius for his part still sees this interaction as further proof of Hamlet’s madness.
The scene that most embodies the true craft of Shakespeare’s comedic ability within a tragic story is the scene between Hamlet and the gravedigger. Before his knowledge that Ophelia has died, Hamlet and Horatio have a run-in with the man digging her grave. The Gravedigger is a man surrounded by death on a daily basis. His gallows humor would be very common to the original audience of Shakespeare’s time even though today’s audiences may have slightly more ick factor and an underlying anxiousness regarding the digging up of the decayed and removing their bones to make room for a new tenant. But in the past and still in some cultures today the very same process is followed. This scene comes after the plotting between King Claudius and Laertes in the poisoning of Hamlet, and the revelation that Ophelia has killed herself. Prior to Hamlet’s introduction in the scene the two gravediggers or Clowns as some versions of the play name them have a humorous yet fully logical discussion on the standing of one’s soul in the afterlife if one appears to have committed the sin of suicide. And while this conversation is held between two of the lowest educated characters in the play due to their station. The conversation itself is quite intellectually robust even if the vernacular is more akin to that of a commoner (It must also be stated that the part of the Grave Digger was played beautifully by Billy Crystal in the 1996 adaptation of Hamlet. Shakespeare would have been proud.)
… Whose grave’s this, sirrah?
I think it be thine, indeed; for thou liest in’t.
You lie out on’t, sir, and therefore it is not
yours: for my part, I do not lie in’t, and yet it is mine.
‘Thou dost lie in’t, to be in’t and say it is thine:
’tis for the dead, not for the quick; therefore thou liest.
‘Tis a quick lie, sir; ’twill away gain, from me to
What man dost thou dig it for?
For no man, sir.
What woman, then?
For none, neither.
Who is to be buried in’t?
One that was a woman, sir; but, rest her soul, she’s dead.
Even though the subject is morbid, the banter is first class. This scene could almost be taken as a predecessor to ‘Who’s on First?” by Abbott and Costello. The purposeful misunderstandings are building on each other to a crescendo of laughter. As again stated in “Shakespeare’s Use of Comedy in Tragedy” “ without (the comedy) which the audience, already over-wrought by the tragedy of Ophelia’s burial, would be less sensitive to the full tragic import of the catastrophe that follows – strengthens the tragic effect indirectly by controlling relief (Class 3)” (Nason 30) This effect of controlling relief to enhance the tragedy of the work is a hallmark of Hamlet.
Like madness and genius, comedy and tragedy are separated by a hair’s breadth. Sometimes it is just the extremity of an injury obtained that separates the two as in slapstick. Or the difference of a few well-placed timing beats can make a joke a threat, or vice versa. In the 1955 journal article entitled “Notes on Comedy and Tragedy” from the Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Jerome Stolnitz said
Although comedy and tragedy are frequently considered antithetical in substance and treatment, one can hardly reflect for very long about these forms without being brought to an awareness of the bewildering similarities between them. Their significance is not sufficiently realized, however, until one considers certain conceptual formulations of the differentia of comedy and tragedy. For these attempts reveal, by inadvertence, how readily a characterization of the one can serve as an adequate characterization of the other. (Sloinitz 45)
This link in the human psyche between elation and misery is what allows those writers that achieve greatness like Shakespeare to marionette their audiences and readers through experiences that contain the extremes of the human condition and accurately curate scenes that elicit the proper emotion at the appropriate time like notes played on a pipe organ. This idea is echoed in the article from 1964 entitled “Shakespeare’s Comedies and the Critics” published in Shakespeare Quarterly penned by Milton Crane
Through all these denominations of the drama, Shakespeare’s mode of composition is the same; an interchange of seriousness and merriment, by which the mind is softened at one time, and exhilarated at another. But whatever be his purpose, whatever to gladden or depress, or to conduct the story, without vehemence or emotion, through tracts of easy and familiar dialogue, he never fails to attain his purpose; as he commands us we laugh or mourn or sit silent with the quiet expectations, in tranquility without indifference. (Crane 68)
Shakespeare was a man of many linguistic talents. His impact on both literature and the world beyond is incalculable. And while that contribution may never be fully cataloged and accounted for, it is safe to say that a tradition of using all forms of humor from satire to slapstick as an oasis of reprieve in a desert of calamity that has continued to this day. In the 1960 Article entitled “Comedy” by Christopher Fry in The Tulane Drama Review
Comedy is an escape, not from truth but from despair: a narrow escape into faith. It believes in a universal cause for delight, even though knowledge of the cause is twitched away from under us, which leaves us to rest on our own buoyancy. In tragedy, every moment is eternity; in comedy, eternity is a moment. In tragedy, we suffer pain; in comedy, pain is a fool, suffered gladly. (Fry 1)
Fry’s point of “In tragedy, we suffer pain; in comedy, pain is a fool, suffered gladly” may be the key to Shakespeare’s use of comedy within his tragedies. When there is something, we want we tend to hold it close to us as the audience does in these comedic oases. Yet, we are still holding close when the other shoe drops, and comedy switches to tragedy, and the cool refreshing chuckle on our lips morphs into a striking serpent of sadness. This metamorphosis of emotion is all the more impactful as it is we who are holding it so close, as well as the shift from one extreme to another with little intervening shift, causes almost a startling to the emotional centers of the brain. This more complete than others’ understanding of what made his audience tick is what has separated Shakespeare from the lesser writers for over four hundred years. It allows Shakespeare to hold a place that will not be usurped any time soon.