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Hamlet's Humor: The Wit of Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark

From Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear by Alexander W. Crawford. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916.

One of the most outstanding characteristics of Hamlet is his subtle and persistent humor. It crops out at every turn, and indicates the essential soundness of his mind. Madness does not lie this way. Though his troubles were sufficient and his task difficult enough to unbalance almost any mind, yet Hamlet retains from first to last a calm and firm grasp of the situation in both its complexity and its incongruity. No character in all Shakespeare is more evenly balanced, and no mind more capable of seeing things in all their bearings.

If Hamlet does not really go mad under his unparalleled griefs and burdens it is because under all circumstances his grim and tragic humor holds evenly the balance of his mind. In some of the most tragic moments of his career he has the sanity to play with his tormentors and with the sad conditions of his life. As Sir Herbert Tree has recently said: "But for humor he should go mad. Sanity is humor." 1

The same eminent critic asserts that, "If the quality of humor is important in comedy, it is, I venture to say, yet more important, in tragedy, whether it be in the tragedy of life or in the tragedy of the theatre." 2 With reference to this element of humor in the play of Hamlet Sir Herbert Tree says: "In Hamlet, for instance, the firmament of tragedy is made blacker by the jewels of humor with which it is bestarred. The first words Hamlet sighs forth are in the nature of a pun:

"A little more than kin, and less than kind."
The king proceeds: 'How is it that the clouds still hang on you?' 'Not so, my lord; I am too much in the sun,' says Hamlet, toying with grief. Again, after the ghost leaves, Hamlet in a tornado of passionate verbiage, gives way to humor. Then he proceeds to think too precisely on the event. But for his humor Hamlet would have killed the king in the first act." 3

In nearly all his references to the condition of affairs in Denmark, Hamlet indulges in a grim, satirical humor. His first meeting with Horatio furnishes opportunity. Directly after the warm greetings between the friends the following conversation takes place:

Hamlet. But what is your affair in Elsinore? ...
Horatio. My lord, I came to see your father's funeral.
Hamlet. I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student;
I think it was to see my mother's wedding.
Horatio. Indeed, my lord, it follow'd hard upon.
Hamlet. Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked-meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
(I. ii. 174-180.)
Again, when Hamlet is swearing his friends to secrecy concerning the ghost, they hear the voice of the ghost beneath, saying, "Swear," and Hamlet remarks:
"Ah, ha, boy! say'st thou so? art there, true-penny—
Come on; you hear this fellow in the cellarage;
Consent to swear."
When, after shifting their ground, the ghost's voice is again heard, saying, "Swear," Hamlet says:
"Well said, old mole! canst work i' the earth so fast? A worthy pioner!"
(I. V. 148-163)
After his play, The Mouse-trap, Hamlet feels so elated at the turn of events and his success in getting evidence of the king's guilt that he playfully suggests to Horatio that if all else failed him he might make a success of playing and get a share in a company:
Hamlet. Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers, — if the
rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me, — with two Provincial
roses on my razed shoes, get me a fellowship in a cry of players,
Horatio. Half a share.
Hamlet. A whole one, I.
For thou dost know, O Damon dear.
This realm dismantled was
Of Jove himself; and now reigns here
A very, very — pajock.
Horatio. You might have rhymed.
(III. ii. 263-373).
Even in his conversation with Ophelia there is a touch of Hamlet's ironical humor. He slanders himself, saying: "I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me." Then, after Ophelia's false declaration that her father is "at home, my lord," he falls to railing on women and marriage, and says to her:
"I heard of your paintings, too, well enough; God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another; you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nickname God's creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I'll no more marriages; those that are married already, all but one, shall live; the rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go."
(III. i. 142-9.)
In talking with the various spies that the king sends to catch him, Hamlet indulges in much humor and banter. He seems to take particular delight in plaguing old Polonius with his sarcasm and nonsense. When Polonius comes to him, asking, "Do you know me, my lord?" Hamlet quickly retorts: "Excellent well; you are a fishmonger." Then, after further satirical banter of the same sort, in reply to Polonius's inquiry what he is reading, he answers: "Slanders, sir; for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled . . . and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams. . . ." (II. ii. 173-199).

Again, on the occasion when Polonius comes to summon him to the queen's presence, Hamlet pokes fun at the old fellow, making him say that "yonder cloud," first, is "like a camel," then, "like a weasel," and, finally, "like a whale." (III. ii. 359-365.) No wonder Polonius does not know what to make of him and calls him mad, though recognizing the possibility that there may be some "method in't."

Another aspect of Hamlet's humor glints forth in his dealings with his old school-fellows, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. When these unconscionable spies come to him to inquire what he had done with the dead body of Polonius, he first answers: "Compounded it with dust, whereto 't is kin." Then he suggests that Rosencrantz is only "a sponge . . . that soaks up the king's countenance, his rewards, his authorities. . . . When he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you shall be dry again."

With Osric he gives way to a bantering and jeering humor very similar to that with Polonius. He first calls him a "water-fly," then "a chough . . . spacious in the possession of dirt." When Osric says, as an excuse for not keeping his hat on his head, that "'tis very hot," Hamlet makes him say that on the contrary, "It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed," and the next moment again that "it is very sultry and hot." (V. ii. 83-99.)

In the graveyard scene with the clowns Hamlet indulges freely in a grim and melancholy humor. On the first skull he says: "It might be the pate of a politician . . . one that would circumvent God, might it not?" On the next he reflects: "There's another; why may this not be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddits now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? Why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery?" Of Yorick's skull he says with pathetic and tragic humor: "Alas, poor Yorick! — I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy." Then to the skull he says: "Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your grinning? quite chop-fallen?" (V. i.)

"Even in dying," as Sir Herbert Tree says, "he breaks into a sweet irony of humor, in meeting the 'fell serjeant death.' 'The rest is silence.' Hamlet ends as he began, in humor's minor key. Here is the humor of tragedy with a vengeance. Poor Hamlet, too much humor had'st thou for this harsh world!" 4

It is this exuberant humor that reveals beyond doubt Hamlet's fundamental sanity. Shakespeare was too good a judge of character and of human nature to mingle such humor with madness. He has given Hamlet nearly all varieties of humor, from the playful to the sardonic. Speaking of the king, Hamlet's humor is caustic and satirical. To Polonius and the other spies he is playful and contemptuous. In the graveyard over the skulls he is sardonic and pathetic, and over Yorick's he is melancholy. In all alike he is sane and thoughtful. This unfailing humor that toys with life's comedies and tragedies alike does not come from madness, but from sanity and self-possession. This should make certain the real soundness as well as the great fertility of Hamlet's mind. Humor and madness do not travel the same road.


FOOTNOTE 1: Humor in Tragedy, by Sir Herbert Tree. Article in The English Review, November, 1916. In dealing with the present topic I find myself greatly indebted to this lecture by the distinguished actor and critic.

FOOTNOTE 2: 'Ibid., p. 352.

FOOTNOTE 3: 'Ibid., p. 366.

FOOTNOTE 4: 'Ibid., p. 367.

How to cite this article:

Crawford, Alexander W. Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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Sources for Hamlet
 Quotations from Hamlet (with commentary)
 Hamlet Study Quiz (with detailed answers)
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