Sometime/ Sometimes

Act I Scene I

HORATIO

What art thou that usurp’st this time of night,

Together with that fair and warlike form

In which the majesty of buried Denmark

Did sometimes march? by heaven I charge thee, speak!

 

Act I Scene II

KING CLAUDIUS

Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,

The imperial jointress to this warlike state,

Have we, as ’twere with a defeated joy,–

With an auspicious and a dropping eye,

With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,

In equal scale weighing delight and dole,–

Taken to wife: nor have we herein barr’d

Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone

With this affair along.

 

“Sometime” and “sometimes” are words that we use every day. OED’s first definition of the word, “at one time or another, with the possibility of recurrence or repetition; now and then; occasionally,” is almost always what we mean in everyday conversations.

When I came across the first passage, “In which the majesty of buried Denmark/ Did sometimes march?” then, I assumed that Horatio meant the old King Hamlet occasionally marched in “that fair and warlike form.” I did, however, find it odd that Shakespeare used “sometimes” there, since it might mean that Hamlet did not march dignified at times, or that only during wartime was Hamlet shown as “fair.” I kept that thought in mind as I continued to read the play.

I then noticed the word “sometime” used again in the second passage, where King Claudius allude to Gertrude as “our sometime sister, now our queen.” In this instance, the “occasional” definition does not stand at all, as there would be no point to refer Gertrude as an “occasional” sister, and then compare to her status now as queen. Therefore, I searched for the word, as simple and as mundane as it can be, on the OED, to find the definition of “at one time; in former times, formerly.” This definition fit well with both of the passages. Instead of “occasional,” “formerly” takes away the potential negative connotation in Horatio’s tone, and he was simply acknowledging the fact that the Old King Hamlet is king no more.

This definition of “sometime”, according to the OED, was first seen around 1330, by English chronicler Robert Mannyng. Interestingly, his work was written in Middle English: “Whylom [v.r. som tyme] Bretons landes wonnen;..Now ar þey nought so mykel of myght.” Which resembles German (the verb “wonnen”) than English to me. Though Shakespeare has been cited using other definitions of the word “sometime” on the OED, none were for this definition.

The words “sometime” and “sometimes” shows up another four times after these two passages in Hamlet, but none fit this definition of the word; understanding this specific definition helped me see the passages in question in a clear way.

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3 Responses to Sometime/ Sometimes

  1. v.vizcaino says:

    You didn’t blatantly state it, but I think this was important to raise because it affects how we understand the relationship between our characters. I’d say today we’re more inclined to assume any negative tone is intentional as we see/use a lot of sarcasm. But, in the instance with Horatio referring to the Queen as you pointed out, that is not intended. He is not subtly taking a shot at her performance as a Queen. That’s interesting considering how she affects the outcome of the play.

  2. Prof Kolb says:

    Fantastic work here, Chao.

  3. s.husain says:

    Hey Chao
    I also wondered the usage of “sometime” while I was reading the play and discerned its different uses. But I just took it for granted and just read the play thinking the conventional definition we use in our present discourse was applicable but now I see how it was really used.

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