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Hamlet’s clever use of words, especially his use of pun, his dialogue and dark and sarcastic repartees with the duplicitous and ridiculous character Polonius, along with the action and dialogues in the graveyard scene reveal feelings and intentions by means of comic relief. Hamlet's puns intensify the action and move it forward, as well.
- From the beginning of the play, Hamlet is witty. In Act I, Scene 2, for instance, Hamlet plays upon words as he responds to King Claudius's calling Hamlet his cousin and son in an aside: "A little more than kin and less than kind." Again in this same scene, Hamlet uses a pun when he tells Claudius, who asks him why he is so gloomy, "Not so, my lord. I am too much in the sun," playing upon the word sun, subtly expressing his dislike for Claudius's calling him "son." Hamlet's humor becomes humor turns darker later as he jokes to Horatio about his mother's thrifty use of the funeral refreshments for the wedding since they were so close together:
Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables. (1.2.180-181)
- With Polonius, Hamlet employs biting puns, and Polonius himself seems but a comic stock character. For, he over-elaborates and uses more words than he needs, yet he tells his son that "brevity is the soul of art." When he gives instructions to his servant Reynaldo to follow Laertes in France, Polonius is so long-winded that he loses track of what he says himself:
And then, sir, does 'a this--'a does--What was I about to say?
By the mass, I was about to say something.
Where did I leave? (2.2.48-50)
When Hamlet encounters Polonius in this same scene, Polonius asks the prince if he knows him, and Hamlet replies, "Excellent well; you are a fishmonger." This bitter jest attacks Polonius's honesty as he is compared to a lowly profession that involves much hypocrisy to make sales. Further, Hamlet ridicules Polonius for the fool that he believes him. When, for example, Polonius asks Hamlet what he is reading, Hamlet replies, "Words, words, words" (2.2.192).
- The graveyard scene of Act IV relieves the tension wrought by the death of Polonius, the madness of Ophelia, and the revenge plot of Laertes with Claudius. In this scene, one critic observes,
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.
The two clowns make light of a serious situation as they jest about death. For instance, the one clown explains that a man is only drowned if he goes willingly to the water and puts himself in it; if, however, the water comes to him, he is not "drowned." Then, they argue the value of the gallows. Then, after Horatio and Hamlet enter, the clown engages in jokes and puns with Hamlet.
HAMLET How long will a man lie i' th' earth ere he rot?'
CLOWN Faith, if 'a be not rotten before 'a die....'a will last you some eight year or nine year. A tanner will last you nine year.
HAMLET Why he more than another?
CLOWN Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade tha 'a will keep out water a great while....
In this scene, also, the gravedigger relates two riddles: one is about gravedigging being the oldest trade in the world, and the other is that gravediggers build more securely than a mason, a shipwright, or a carpenter:
The houses he makes lasts till doomsday. Go, get thee in, and fetch me a stoup of liquor. (5.1.51)
Humor plays a major role in Hamlet.
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