Hamlet as the Master of Word Play

William Shakespeare

Hamlet as the Master of Word Play

No one can deny that Hamlet is an intelligent man. One doesn’t have to look but into the second scene of the very first act to see Hamelt saying things like he is “too much in the sun” as a mocking reference to his uncle who has just become his “dad.” The “sun” in this case, is of course, a reference to the king. Just as the sun was the center of their universe, the king was the center of their kingdom. If Hamlet is “too much in the sun,” it means he is disgusted by the influence and actions of this new king who took his father’s crown.

Further on in the same scene, Hamlet has some more word-fun with his uncle, saying that he is “a little more than kin, and less than kind.” Hamlet is totally grossed out by his uncle, Claudius, who now has married Hamlet’s mother (Gertrude) and become Hamlet’s “father.” It is an important allusion because scholars point to the play on the words kin and kind. Both important parts to this allusion rely on the double meanings of something being "natural" and then something being "kind" or even "nice." First, Hamlet is asserting that Claudius is most definitely "more than kin." The meaning here is simple: where Claudius used to be an uncle (distant at best), he is now disgustingly considering himself to be the surrogate father to Hamlet due to his hasty marriage to Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. Another cool irony here is that the words “more than kin” usually have a very intimate and even positive connotation. If you are considered “closer than family,” isn’t that usually good? Hamlet, being the master of words that he always is (as well as a master of irony), is being very sarcastic. “More than kin” can also mean that Claudius has crossed the line from the line of “family” over to the line of “enemy.” Now let’s look at the second part of the word play in considering the “Less than kind” words together. The word “kind” (similar to the word “kin”) can also mean “family” because we could also say something like “he is of my own kind.” Hamlet could be saying that Claudius is most certainly “less than kind” because in no way does Hamlet think of Claudius as part of the family, and certainly not as Hamlet’s father or his mother’s husband. To take a more juvenile approach, we could simply take the word “kind” to mean “nice.” Then, Hamlet is literally saying that Claudius was being “less than nice” when he did all of those horrible things.

Of course, another wonderful aspect of word play is Hamlet’s renaming The Murder of Gonzago as The Mousetrap. Claudius is the mouse who will be caught in the trap of the play when he sees the reenactment of Hamlet’s father’s murder played before everyone.

There are also countless bouts of word play between Hamlet and the female characters. First, Gertrude says, “thou hast thy father much offended” and Hamlet counters with the brave, “thou hast my father much offended.” Gertrude is meaning Claudius as the father, while Hamlet means his biological father (who was offended by the marriage of Claudius to Gertrude).

How can we talk about Hamlet’s word play with the ladies if we don’t include dear, confused Ophelia? With Ophelia, Hamlet seems to use his biting wit by voicing words with a dual meaning. Let’s look at the dual meanings of three words: "honest," "fair," and "nunnery." Here is the first example which can be found late in Act 3:

Hamlet. Ha, ha! Are you honest?

Ophelia. My lord?

Hamlet. Are you fair?

Ophelia. What means your lordship?

Hamlet. That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.

The words "honest" and "fair" most definitely have a double meaning here.  Still, we cannot explore the double meaning before evaluating the literal meaning. The literal meaning is, of course, the less vulgar and stressful insinuation. In this regard, Hamlet is simply asking Ophelia if she is being truthful, or in his own words, “honest.” In regards to the second word (“fair”), the less vulgar meaning is asking Ophelia if she is either beautiful or putting equal weight to all of her thoughts. (Both of those things were often used as literal meanings for the word “fair” in Hamlet’s time.) It is, of course, the word play and the double meaning of these words that put Hamlet’s speech to Ophelia into the realm of the vulgar. In asking his dear Ophelia if she is “fair” and/ or “honest,” Hamlet can be seen as asking Ophelia if she is chaste. Hamlet is bluntly asking Ophelia if she is a virgin. Even worse, Hamlet is insinuating that Ophelia is, in fact, not a virgin. Hamlet, then, can be seen to have no obligations to a woman with such a lack of reputation in the community. Poor Ophelia, who is confused and upset by the whole thing, is simply left to her own devices (which don’t serve her well, considering what happens to her in the end). Finally, we have to consider the word “nunnery” if we are going to have any discussion of Hamlet’s word play with Ophelia. Again, here we have to take both the literal and dual meanings into account. In Hamlet’s time, a convent (where nuns reside to live in prayer and peace and silence) could also be called a nunnery. The literal meaning here when Hamlet tells Ophelia to go to “a nunnery” is to become a nun because he won’t have anything to do with her anymore, and certainly will not marry her. There is a more vulgar meaning here, even within the literal word play. At the time this play was written, the really shameful girls were often the ones sent to a convent. By telling Ophelia to go to a convent, Hamlet is insinuating that she is bad. To move the word play even further, because of this truth (that parents would place their less-desirable daughters in convents), the word “nunnery” itself became a synonym for whorehouse.