In Shakespeare's Hamlet, what is the significance of the passage where Osric delivers a message telling Hamlet that Laertes wants a duel? (Why does Hamlet treat Osric as he does?)
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In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet has little time for Osric when he comes to invite Hamlet to engage in "playful" sport with Laertes. A clue to why Hamlet has no respect for Osric is found when Hamlet describes the way he rewrote the orders from Claudius for the King of England. Hamlet says:
...I sat me down,
Devised a new commission, wrote it fair.
I once did hold it, as our statists do,
A baseness to write fair, and labour'd much
How to forget that learning; but, sir, now
It did me yeoman's service. (33-38)
Hamlet explains that he has to mimic the manner of writing in the new orders so they will sound official. He says he tried for years to forget how to write that way—thinking it vulgar. However, in this instance, he is glad he remembered, for rather than being executed as Claudius had wished, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take his place.
Knowing that Hamlet is not a snob, we can understand why he doesn't have time for Osric—for the same reason he had no time for Polonius or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: they all ingratiate themselves to their "betters," in order to advance their positions at court. They engage in foolish behaviors, as Hamlet notes with disgust at the start of the play when he complains about the canon fire. Each time the King takes a drink, a canon is set off—Hamlet thinks this kind of "tradition" makes the Danish look like drunks.
These people are mindless. Hamlet told his schoolmates this same thing earlier in the play when they did whatever Claudius asked—which included spying on Hamlet; and in playing with Osric, we can see what Hamlet means about these type of buffoons. He has no time for people who are dishonest about who they really are. (This is one reason why he admired Fortinbras—he took his responsibilities seriously.) Hamlet plays with Osric to see how silly he will act.
When Osric notes how hot it is, Hamlet begins to toy with him:
I thank your lordship, it is very hot.
No, believe me, 'tis very cold; the wind is northerly.
It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.
But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my
Exceedingly, my lord; it is very sultry, as 'twere—I can-
not tell how. (100-106)
Osric says it's hot, and Hamlet says it is cold. To "endear" himself to Hamlet, Osric changes his mind each time Hamlet does. Osric then begins praising Laertes as a fine gentlemen; Hamlet makes fun of Osric again, speaking as he does but saying nothing.
...in the verity of extolment,
I take him to be a soul of great article, and his
infusion of such dearth and rareness as, to make true
diction of him, his semblable is his mirror, and who
else would trace him, his umbrage, nothing more. (120-124)
Hamlet agrees that Laertes is a fine man, saying that no one but Laertes looking in a mirror could be as fine as Laertes, which really means nothing.
This scene shows Hamlet's disgust for the deceit at court. His attitude ironically echoes Polonius' excellent advice (which he never followed):
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,Thou canst not then be false to any man. (I.iii.78-80)
If one is true to himself, he cannot lie to another...which has been Hamlet's problem with almost everyone in the play who has pretended to be other than what he (or she) is—like Osric.