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Hamlet's Ear

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Philippa Berry, King's College, Cambridge

An alienation from the hypocrisy of a courtly style or decorum in language afflicts Hamlet from his first appearance in the play. The courtly airs or 'songs', the 'words of so sweet breath', the 'music vows', with which he wooed Ophelia are no longer part of his idiom, although he will briefly redeploy them to disguise his true state of mind. In Act 1 scene 2, we meet a Hamlet whose abrupt retreat from social intercourse is not only signalled by his mourning dress, but is also articulated through an intensely satiric relationship to language. This scathing view of the world is articulated in all of Hamlet's language, in his soliloquies and monologues as well as in his dialogues with others; it finds its most effective form of expression, however, in his use of wordplay. Indeed, before the final tragic catastrophe Hamlet's role as malcontent and revenger succeeds not so much by action as by his disordering, through punning, of social constructions of identity. The centrality of the pun to the view of earthly mutability and death which Hamlet gradually elaborates in the course of the play is aptly illustrated by the fact that he puns not only on his own death ('The rest is silence'), but also as he finally accomplishes his task of revenge and kills Claudius, asking 'Is thy union here?' as he forces him to drink the wine that Claudius has poisoned with a pearl or 'union'. Yet the chief interest of Hamlet's quibbling lies not in his semantic puns, which play upon words with two or more meanings, like 'rest' or 'union', but in his richly suggestive use of homophonic resemblances between words, in order to expand their significance. Through these linguistic acts of expansion, Hamlet comments upon particular elements of the tragic narrative, augmenting their apparent meaning by interweaving ostensibly disparate themes and motifs into a complex unity.

In contrast to the use of wordplay as the supreme instance of a dialogic courtly wit which celebrates the shared values of an aristocratic group, it is through an ironic use of iteration, and of the pun in particular, that Hamlet's echoic or quibbling discourse is able to enunciate, albeit obliquely, those hidden meanings which are concealed within the polite language of the Danish court. Hamlet condemns and rejects that courtly playing upon him as a phallic pipe or recorder of which he accuses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.


In contrast to this courtly attempt to play upon or 'sound' him, Hamlet's resonant unsettling of courtly language follows a different tune. For his quibbles remind us constantly of Hamlet's familial displacement, as a son and heir whose place in a masculine genealogy of kings is no longer certain. In these puns, as well as in the tropes which are applied to him by others, we find a curious refiguring of Denmark's 'heir'—a word which, significantly, is only evoked through homophony in this play—in relationship to 'th'incorporal air' (3.4.109).

In his magisterial study of Shakespeare 's Pronunciation, where he aimed to recover many Elizabethan homonyms which are no longer pronounced alike, Helge Kökeritz concluded that hair-heir-here-hare were four words often pronounced similarly in early modern English; in particular, he noted the likely pun on air-heir in Hamlet, together with related puns on hair-heir and heir-here from other Shakespearian plays.1 Through a common interlingual pun, whereby mollis aer (Lat.: soft air) was equated with mulier, the Latin for woman, the attributes of air were frequently associated with the female sex in...

(The entire section is 4,875 words.)