‘Affair’ in Hamlet

The word ‘affair’ has a multitude of meanings depending on the context. The most original definition of  ‘affair’ are activities performed by a person. These activities can include items of business, an occupation or a task. It can also mean a situation that has to be dealt with, an issue or a problem. ‘Affair’ also has a place in a business context, or one involving commerce. This is demonstrated in the famous expression ‘to settle one’s affairs’ after one’s passing. ‘Affair’ could also mean a social gathering. For example ‘Make sure to wear your suit, as it is a black tie affair.’

‘Affair’, as we mostly know it, holds a more explicit definition than those offered above. From modern television shows and movie’s we would typically define an ‘affair’ as an illicit relationship. One that, one or both parties are not available for, typically resulting in dramatics for those involved.

‘Affair’ is used in Hamlet when Hamlet asks Horatio “But what is your affair in Elsinore?”(1.2.174) To which Horatio responds “I came to see your father’s funeral.” Hamlet responds to Horatio by saying “I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student; I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.” Hamlet says this in response to his Mother marrying his deceased father’s brother, Claudius. The text contains allusions to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude having had an affair with Claudius prior to Hamlet’s father’s death. However, the word ‘affair’ was never explicitly used to describe such actions.

‘Affair’ was used in the text once again by Guildenstern to Hamlet. Guildenstern says “Good my lord, put your discourse into some frame and start not so wildly from my affair.”(3.2.281-282) Guildenstern comes to Hamlet to tell him that his mother is upset with Hamlet’s play and wants to speak with him. Guildenstern’s ‘affair’ is a duty to relay Gertrude’s message to Hamlet.

While the word ‘affair’ is not entirely significant to Hamlet, it is simply used to define a duty or task. Although there are allusions to Gertrude having an affair with Claudius prior to Hamlet’s father, or Ghost’s death, the term ‘affair’ is never used. This could be attributed to the fact that ‘affair’ did not come to mean a romantic relationship until 1700 with the play The Way of The World by William Congreve, while Hamlet was written almost a century prior.

About d.gorelik

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to ‘Affair’ in Hamlet

  1. Laura Kolb says:

    Great word to choose! The sense of “illicit sexual liaison” doesn’t enter into English til about 1700 (cf. OED, definition 3A)

  2. Love your post! It’s really interesting to see how such a scandalous word used to have such a normal meaning, and to think why and how it evolved to have this definition. I like how you mentioned the possible existence of an affair between Gertrude and Claudius, and the fact that the actual word “affair” was never used.

Comments are closed.