How might one comment on the language (particularly the imagery) used by Hamlet in the following extract from William Shakespeare's Hamlet?
"Ay, sir, that soaks up the king's countenance, his rewards, his authorities.But such an officers do the king best service in the end: he keeps them, like an ape, in the corner of his jaw- first mouthed, to be last swallowd. When he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you and, sponge, you shall be dry again." Act 4, Scene 2 Lines 14-19
In Act 4, scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the title character describes Rosencrantz, to the latter’s face, as a “sponge.” When Rosencrantz seems surprised by this description, Hamlet responds,
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, in the corner of his jaw; first mouth'd, to be last swallowed. When he needs what you have glean'd, it is but squeezing you and, sponge, you shall be dry again.
Hamlet’s phrasing is intriguing for a number of reasons, including the following:
- A sponge has no independent intelligence of its own, at least not in the way, say, that a dog has. A sponge is merely an inert, thoughtless creature; it does not think for itself; it merely exists.
- A sponge is in some ways even more useful when it is dead than when it is alive.
- A sponge is merely a tool and is valued simply as a tool, not for any other or higher qualities.
- A sponge, when it has reached the limit of its usefulness, can simply be tossed away.
- Sponges are plentiful and inexpensive; if Rosencranzt were unwilling or unable to be Claudius’s sponge, Claudius could easily find someone else to perform the service.
- A sponge is often used to do dirty jobs and becomes soiled itself in the process.
- The words “like an ape, in the corner of his jaw,” makes more sense if the first Quarto edition’s reading is substituted: “like an ape doth nuts.” However, most editions do not include this clearer phrasing. In any case, it is hard to imagine an age keep a sponge in the corner of its jaw.
- The final reference – to being “dry again” – implies that whatever benefits the sponge has received may be ultimately taken away.
All in all, Hamlet’s description of Rosencrantz as a sponge implies that Rosencrantz is a temporarily useful tool who will be dispensed with in the end but who will be stained by the process of being used.
Ironically, it will later be Hamlet himself who will casually dispense with Rosencrantz when it serves his purposes to do so.