In the last scene of Hamlet, how does Hamlet use "antic disposition" to create humour?

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shakespeareguru eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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It is important to note, before answering your question, that "antic disposition" is a term that Hamlet uses in Act I to describe the way he intends to behave (crazy) while he prepares to revenge his father's death.  When he returns from England in Act V, there is really no more sign that he is acting crazy, yet he does find humor in some of the situations in the final scene of the play.

The final scene of Hamlet, Act V, scene ii, actually involves a few different, "scenes," if we think of a scene as a unit of action that begins when characters enter and ends when they exit.  Not all of these mini "scenes" necessarily contain humor.

First is the interaction between Hamlet and Horatio, where Hamlet describes how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were substituted for him, and went to their death in his place.  Though Hamlet always has opportunity to be played as a witty, intelligent man, there is no overt sign of humor in this portion of the scene.

Upon Osric's entrance we have a "new" unit of action.  Osric is as much a clown as the Gravedigger, a foppish courtier with whom Hamlet has a bit of fun.  This interaction could be seen as Hamlet putting on an "antic disposition," but his behaviour is not so much "mad" as it is satirical.  He is making fun of all the protocol and pomp and circumstance of behaviour required at court.  Most of the humor revolves around Osric's hat and whether he should wear it or not.  Hamlet insists that he wear the hat, but Osric protests, yet cannot (because Hamlet is the Prince) actually contradict him.

When Osric exits, the tone of the scene changes again, as Horatio says he is sure that Hamlet "will lose" in the bout with Laertes.  Hamlet grows quite philosophical and speaks about "the readiness" being "all."  No discernable humor here, either.

Finally, the scene culminates in the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes.  Many actors (including Mel Gibson in the Franco Zeffirelli movie of the play) bring a sense of the "antic" to this part of the scene, though there is nothing in the lines to indicate that it should (or should not) be played this way.

So, apart from the overt humor in the interaction with the foppish courtier Osric, the playing of the tone of the scene is really a decision for the actor playing Hamlet.  There are as many takes on Hamlet's disposition as there are actors to play the role.

For more on humor in Act V, scene ii, please follow the links below.

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