Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright, or a
Ay, tell me that, and unyoke.
Marry, now I can tell.
Mass, I cannot tell.
First Clown:Hamlet Act 5, scene 1, 50–59
Cudgel thy brains no more about it, for your dull ass will
not mend his pace with beating, and when you are ask'd this
question next, say "a gravemaker": the houses he makes lasts till
As they prepare a grave for Hamlet's erstwhile girlfriend Ophelia, two "clowns"—that is, rustic fellows—lighten their work with riddles. The riddle quoted here needs no explanation; what's interesting is the first clown's humorous put-down of his perplexed assistant. As it happens, Shakespeare was the first to use "cudgel" as a verb (the noun had been around, in its archaic forms, since at least the ninth century). In the earlier play Henry the Fourth, Part 1, Mistress Quickly reports to Prince Hal that Falstaff had "call'd you Jack, and said he would cudgel you" (Act 3, scene 3). As companion to this literal use—meaning, of course, to beat with a club—Shakespeare introduces here the first figurative use of the verb. The first clown likens the second clown's brain to a dull ass, a sluggish beast of burden, which cannot move any faster ("mend its pace") even if it's clubbed.
Themes: insults and slander