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What are some examples of wit and humor in Hamlet?

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Although there are several examples of humor in Hamlet, they mainly occur in the first half of the play. As the plot thickens, Shakespeare uses humor less frequently.

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The primary manifestation of humor throughout Hamlet occurs in Hamlet’s dialogue. His constant wordplay is consistent with his decision to play one huge joke on everyone by pretending to be “mad.” Because the audience is in on the joke, they can enjoy the contrast presented between the image that Hamlet cultivates of being melancholy and the constant jokes and puns he makes. In addition, by presenting Polonius as not very intelligent and Claudius as entirely without humor, William Shakespeare makes Hamlet a more sympathetic character.

Hamlet’s lengthy advice to the players incorporates a good deal of humor. Shakespeare also accentuates the tragic aspect of the play by altering the mood throughout. Every time it seems that things are looking up, and Hamlet starts to relax his guard, an even worse event befalls him or someone he cares about. The worst jokes occur at the most serious times.

As the play draws to a close, quite a few people have already died, and the audience cannot be optimistic that the situation will be resolved without further fatalities. Between the poisonings and the duel, four deaths occur in the last scene. This bloodbath is preceded by the exchange between Hamlet and the gravediggers. This is the only point in the play where Shakespeare introduces working-class characters who make jokes as they work. Probably many of the jokes would have been familiar to the audience.

One example is the First Clown’s claim that Adam was the first man to “bear arms,” implying he was a soldier. The Second Clown’s response uses that meaning “Why, he had none.” In turn, the First Clown uses the literal meaning and calls him a heathen, unfamiliar with the Bible: “The Scripture says 'Adam digged:'/ could he dig without arms?”

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Hamlet’s clever use of words, especially his use of pun, his dialogue and dark and sarcastic repartees with the duplicitous and ridiculous character Polonius, along with the action and dialogues in the graveyard scene reveal feelings and intentions by means of comic relief. Hamlet's puns intensify the action and move it forward, as well.

  • From the beginning of the play, Hamlet is witty. In Act I, Scene 2, for instance, Hamlet plays upon words as he responds to King Claudius's calling Hamlet his cousin and son in an aside: "A little more than kin and less than kind." Again in this same scene, Hamlet uses a pun when he tells Claudius, who asks him why he is so gloomy, "Not so, my lord. I am too much in the sun," playing upon the word sun, subtly expressing his dislike for Claudius's calling him "son." Hamlet's humor becomes humor turns darker later as he jokes to Horatio about his mother's thrifty use of the funeral refreshments for the wedding since they were so close together:

Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats 
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables. (1.2.180-181)

  • With Polonius, Hamlet employs biting puns, and Polonius himself seems but a comic stock character. For, he over-elaborates and uses more words than he needs, yet he tells his son that "brevity is the soul of art." When he gives instructions to his servant Reynaldo to follow Laertes in France, Polonius is so long-winded that he loses track of what he says himself:

And then, sir, does 'a this--'a does--What was I about to say?
By the mass, I was about to say something.
Where did I leave? (2.2.48-50)

When Hamlet encounters Polonius in  this same scene, Polonius asks the prince if he knows him, and Hamlet replies, "Excellent well; you are a fishmonger." This bitter jest attacks Polonius's honesty as he is compared to a lowly profession that involves much hypocrisy to make sales. Further, Hamlet ridicules Polonius for the fool that he believes him. When, for example, Polonius asks Hamlet what he is reading, Hamlet replies, "Words, words, words" (2.2.192).

  • The graveyard scene of Act IV relieves the tension wrought by the death of Polonius, the madness of Ophelia, and the revenge plot of Laertes with Claudius. In this scene, one critic observes,

The jokes themselves, set against the grave and the knowledge that Hamlet will die shortly might be said to lessen the tension but raise the suspense.

The two clowns make light of a serious situation as they jest about death. For instance, the one clown explains that a man is only drowned if he goes willingly to the water and puts himself in it; if, however, the water comes to him, he is not "drowned." Then, they argue the value of the gallows. Then, after Horatio and Hamlet enter, the clown engages in jokes and puns with Hamlet.

HAMLET How long will a man lie i' th' earth ere he rot?'
CLOWN  Faith, if 'a be not rotten before 'a die....'a will last you some eight year or nine year.  A tanner will last you nine year.
HAMLET Why he more than another?
CLOWN  Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade tha 'a will keep out water a great while....

In this scene, also, the gravedigger relates two riddles: one is about gravedigging being the oldest trade in the world, and the other is that gravediggers build more securely than a mason, a shipwright, or a carpenter:

The houses he makes lasts till doomsday. Go, get thee in, and fetch me a stoup of liquor. (5.1.51)

Humor plays a major role in Hamlet.

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