Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ham"wit"'s Words Full of Thought

One thing we discussed in class very often is the use of words and how words define the characters of our plays.  Not only do words have importance, they are the heart of the play.  After my previous blog posts, I recognized I have focused so much on the women of our plays and although I would like to write about Ophelia and her death in act four, I am going to try and take a different approach. 
There are many scenes thus far that Hamlet's wit emerges through his language, but more specifically Act Four Scene Two is one of the ones I enjoy, simply because the two men he is speaking two are supposed to be his friends but as readers we know they are not.  This makes it even better for readers to enjoy the scene because Hamlet has every right to try and play games with their heads, after all, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not there to look out for  Hamlet’s well-being.  Although he has gone “mad” by this point, the wit he demonstrates with his language is remarkable.  In this very small exchange between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet provides responses that are so well thought out but remain mysterious.  His words are perfectly aligned with his acting skills because only a so-called crazy person can get away with the way he responds.  When asked where the body of Polonius is, Hamlet immediately responds with “Compounded it with dust, whereto’tis kin” (IV.II.5)  Before the men can get a further explanation from Hamlet, he has the ability to change the subject of their conversation.  Hamlet says,
                        Ay, sir, that soaks up the King’s countenance, his rewards, his authorities.  But                              such officers do the King best service in the end.  He keeps them, like an ape an                            apple in the corner of his jaw, first mouthed to be last swallowed.  When he needs                    what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you shall be dry                                     again (IV. II. 14-19).
This quote to me speaks to readers on so many levels.  Not only does it address the personality of the King and how he just uses everyone to his advantage and to get his power stronger, but also addresses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s mere position as a “sponge”.  This clearly addresses how the two men are just instruments that the king uses to clean up a mess.  He provides treasures to these two men, but the second he no longer needs them, they are squeezed dry and useless until the next time.  This comment is just so witty and the symbolic language used within is intriguing.  One could look at the way in which he addresses the men to be the apples that the “ape” will eventually swallow.  It is also ironic that further down in this scene that Hamlet calls Rosencrantz a fool because he does not understand the above response from Hamlet (see footnote number 2 on page 1754).  Hamlet also comes up with what the Norton believes to be a riddle as to where Polonius is truly located, implying the “afterlife” with the King in lines 25-26.  With this riddle, not only are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern confused but Hamlet understands what he is saying (or at least that is the way I perceive it).  I find his use of words and thought to be so mysterious yet powerful and full of so many different meanings.  Although I have focused primarily on Hamlet’s use of language in this blog post, as I was writing one of the bigger pictures of Hamlet came about in my mind.  If Hamlet has the ability to come up with these riddles and speak so abstractly is he actually mad, even if he is talking in “commoner speak” (demonstrated through the lack of couplets to speak)?


Krystal Haight said...


First of all, I want to tell you that I absolutely love the title of this blog post! It made me laugh, and it definitely intrigued me to read your entry. I am so glad that I read it, because you make a very interesting point. Hamlet’s use of language is extremely witty throughout this play. I appreciate your analysis of Hamlet’s speech in Act IV, Scene II, when he talks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. As you note, “Hamlet has every right to try and play games with their heads.” I certainly agree, and I think that is why this speech is so engaging and entertaining for us readers. We know that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are working for the King against Hamlet; thus, they cannot be trusted. As Hamlet confuses them with a game of word play, it is humorous scene for the audience. I think many people find it amusing to watch the “evil” or “sneaky” characters get outsmarted by others!

Jacey Lawler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jacey Lawler said...

Hamlet’s witty comments and creative use of language suggest his intellectual power over Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Claudius. He is one step ahead of them and knows what role each is playing. I doubt that a truly mad person would be able to be so brilliantly clever with words. I particularly enjoyed 4.2 as well. Hamlet’s comparison to his “friends” as sponges is genius, as that really is their current function to the King. I loved how you equated the “ape” to Claudius, as that is most likely how Hamlet views his villainous uncle. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are definitely “first mouthed to be last swallowed” by King Claudius. Although brief, the apple and ape description is an incredibly rich and powerful tool for surreptitiously attributing roles to those in Hamlet’s circle. Ps: Your post title is brilliant.

Cyrus Mulready said...

This is really marvelous analysis of Hamlet's language, Brianna, and I love the particular speech you chose to analyze. As you say here, Hamlet really undoes both the king and these two lackeys with his excellent verbal wit. One possibility to raise, in response to your final question about Hamlet as "common," is that wit was also a marker of class and cultivation in the period. Hamlet's performance might be an example of the italian word "sprezzatura," meaning, roughly, easy wit, the ability to use speech to demonstrate your own intelligence and even solve problems in the court. Hamlet's cutting remarks could be just that, although he is also playing the role of fool a bit, I agree.