“Eager” in Hamlet

The Oxford English Dictionary has multiple definitions for the word ‘eager’. It is derived from the Old French word aigre, meaning sharp, keen or sour. Aigre in turn is derived from the Latin word acer, which can mean can also mean sharp, as well as pungent, swift and strenuous. Today, the most common use of the adjective is defined as, “full of keen desire or appetite; impatiently longing to do or obtain something”, and is the sixth definition provided. Interestingly, OED claims that this ‘sixth sense of the word seems to be “a specially English development”, first dated in the late 16th century. Indeed, in Hamlet, Shakespeare uses the word just twice. Each time, he employs an older, more French sense of “eager”, one of which he may have pioneered himself.

Both occurrences take place in Act 1. The first is found in the second line of Scene 4, when Horatio, Marcellus and Hamlet are standing on the platform at midnight, waiting for the Ghost of Denmark to appear. Commenting on the weather, Hamlet says, “The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold” (1.4.1). Horatio agrees, and replies, “It is a nipping and eager air” (1.4.2). Though the context of polite pleasantries seem unremarkable, OED believes Horatio’s line is the first time in English literary history that eager is used to refer to ‘cold’, though it is still considered to be obsolete. Indeed, the corresponding footnote defines the word as ‘sharp’, though that seems a dubious word to characterize something as un-solid as air. Hence, either Shakespeare read or heard “eager” used in a similar context, or this instance marks a remarkable step in the evolution and expansion of the meaning of the word.

The more traditional sense of the word is mentioned later on in the first Act, in Scene 5, line 69. It appears in the middle of a long speech by the Ghost of Hamlet’s father explaining how the current King of Denmark, his brother Claudius, poisoned him. While detailing the way the venom arrested his blood flow, the Ghost says, “with a sudden vigor it doth posset/ and curd, like eager droppings into milk, / the thin and wholesome blood” (1.5.68-70). Here, the footnote for eager interprets it as ‘sour’, exactly what the word originally meant in French.

It is interesting to note that both times, the word is not used by Hamlet himself, but rather is spoken to him. Perhaps this is because they occur relatively early in the play, where the sharp, pungent seeds of revenge are only just beginning to take root inside Hamlet’s mind. Indeed, these older definitions of eager work well in tandem with the more colloquial ‘newer’ definition; Hamlet’s eagerness to avenge his father’s death eventually leads to a fierce, bitter ending that takes the lives of practically all of the main characters.

About Michael Bildirici

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2 Responses to “Eager” in Hamlet

  1. Hi Michael!
    Great work. Your post really gave me new insight on the excerpt. When I read the word “eager”, I thought that it meant that Horatio really wanted to meet the ghost and used just an odd word to describe the air. It never appeared to me that the word ‘eager’ could have been used to describe the temperature/weather. Also, I like how you pointed out the change in the meaning of the word ‘eager’ as the act went on. More specifically at how the meaning of the word changed as Hamlet realized he needed to avenge his father, essentially becoming the modern-day meaning of the word ‘eager’.

  2. Prof Kolb says:

    Really great post, Michael–wonderful use of the assignment

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