What may the 3 animals mean or represent in this quote. HAMLET        Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?POLONIUS        By the mass, and 'tis like a camel,...

What may the 3 animals mean or represent in this quote.

HAMLET        Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
POLONIUS        By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
HAMLET        Methinks it is like a weasel.
POLONIUS        It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET        Or like a whale?
POLONIUS        Very like a whale

Can you give 3 points for each.

Expert Answers
teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One can understand the meaning of this passage without particularly understanding the symbolic meaning of the animals Hamlet mentions, though all three animals can be seen to symbolize Polonius.

Overall, Hamlet is illustrating what a flatterer or sycophant Polonius is. He is the consummate courtier, who gets ahead by agreeing with whatever those in power say. Hamlet, a prince, likens the shape of a cloud to three animals that don't appear at all alike—a camel, a weasel, and a whale—and each time, comically, Polonius hastens to agree with him. It's clear from this that Polonius will say anything, no matter how untrue he thinks it, to get along with people in power.

But the animals have a deeper meaning. This is a play saturated with Hamlet's Christian concerns. Hamlet wonders the following: will I go to hell if I commit suicide, what is the afterlife, is the ghost of my father a trick of Satan, why would I kill Claudius when he is (Hamlet thinks) in a state of prayer and will go straight to heaven? Given this, it makes sense to look at the biblical context of these animals.

The camel appears famously twice in the words of Jesus. Jesus says it is easier for a camel, even with its big hump, to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven. He also says that people like the Pharisees will swallow a camel and strain a gnat, meaning that they will be completely obsessed with being pure in very tiny matters while committing huge sins without a murmur. Either of these camel metaphors that point to corruption could easily apply to Polonius.

A weasel is a symbol of a spy, which, of course, is what Polonius is, as Hamlet knows. Weasels also survive by preying on animals bigger than themselves, which would symbolize a courtier like Polonius preying on a prince like Hamlet. But the weasel, in Christian symbology, is also a symbol of Christ. It would be very like Shakespeare to pun on the two meanings of weasel here. Polonius is a spy, but Shakespeare may also be foreshadowing how, like Christ, Polonius is soon to die for another's [Claudius's] sins, as will happen when Hamlet thinks he is Claudius hiding behind the tapestry. Polonius's weasel-like spying characteristics in this context merge with his fate of becoming the unwitting substitute sacrifice for Claudius.

Finally, in the Bible, the whale is the leviathan. The word leviathan also means coiled, twisted, and crooked, all characteristics of Polonius.

Polonius fits the symbolism of all three of these seemingly unconnected animals. He also shifts shape (appearance) as readily as a cloud.

danylyshen eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is at this point in the play (3.2.355-64) where the "play-within-the-play" / "the mouse-trap" has convinced Hamlet of his Uncle's guilt and where he has identified his childhood friend Rozencrantz and Guildenstern as nothing more than the new King's cronies. Hamlet declares that they cannot "play upon me" (3.2.351) but proceeds to "play" with Polonius. Polonius, ever the meddling politician, agrees with everything Hamlet says.The animal symbolism is rich:

A camel is a beast of burden and a pack animal. It is a creature that goes for long lengths of time without water. Camels can also be slaughtered for meat or water in times of crisis. Hamlet might have to be the camel that carries a tremendous burden of revenge.

A weasel is traditionally associated with a cunning and sly person. "Weasel words" tend to mislead and confuse. A weasel is a stool pigeon or an informer. Polonius, Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are all trying to "weasel" Hamlet's intentions out of him. 

A whale, of course is perhaps the largest mammal of the sea. Hamlet may be referring to hunting a great sea beast (Claudius) or he might be alluding to the informal use of the term "whale" which means something big or great. His act of revenge might be seen as a "whale" of a task.

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It may be that Shakespeare intended no specific symbolism when he chose these three animals. He may just have chosen them because they are so physically different. When Hamlet says that the same cloud looks like these three creatures, and Polonius agrees with him each time, two things are clear: Hamlet is obviously attempting to toy with Polonius by convincing him that he is mad, and Polonius, on the other hand, is simply going along with him, and, though he seems torn about this elsewhere in the play, is probably persuaded that Hamlet is, in fact, insane.

On the other hand, it could be argued that the weasel in particular is meant to symbolize the treachery of the King, which Hamlet now has confirmed after staging the play. Some scholars have argued that each of the animals even has a sexual connotation that Hamlet is invoking in order to toy with Polonius, who thinks the prince has lost his mind over his unrequited love for Ophelia. But it is very difficult to know or infer what Hamlet means by describing the clouds as these very different creatures.