Hamlet – “Clown”

The word clown has a different meaning in the context of Hamlet than it often does today, although the word clown has a logical evolution from its origin to its current use. We typically associate clown with one who is a professional clown who acts in a comical fashion and is dressed outrageously with multi-colored hair, face paint, and a red clown nose; or, we use clown as a verb to mean “fooling around,” for lack of a better term. The first two definitions from OED dating to the mid-1500’s describe the word clown as “a rustic, or peasant…without refinement or culture; an ignorant, rude…ill-bred man.” However, the third definition dating to the turn of the seventeenth-century during the time Hamlet was written describes the word clown as “a fool or jester, as a stage-character.” This is where the modern meaning of the word originates, as modern clowns are stage characters who act as fools for entertainment.

The word clown appears in Scene II of Act III when Hamlet commands his Players to : “…let those that play your clowns/ speak no more than is set down for them” (Line 31-32). He says this so that the humor of the clowns does not distract the audience from the true meaning of the play.

In Hamlet, the Clowns who dig Ophelia’s grave in Scene 1 of Act V possess the characteristics of both OED definitions—both rude, ignorant peasants but also characters created with the intention of injecting comic relief after the tragic death of Ophelia. They rudely act without reverence for the dead, throwing up skulls as they dig to make room for Ophelia’s corpse. They further their rudeness by singing and telling riddle-type jokes as they dig Ophelia’s grave. Hamlet encounters this and is shocked, asking Horatio: “Has this fellow no feeling of his business that he sings at grave-making?” Line 59). Horatio explains that the clowns’ long tenure as gravediggers has made them indifferent to nature of their work.

Another important aspect is how the clowns demonstrate the theme of class status. Although the clowns are unrefined and uncultured, the First Clown uses his unexpected logic to determine that Ophelia’s death must have been a suicide: It must be “self-defense; it cannot be else. For here/lies the point: if I drown myself wittingly, it argues an act: and an/ act hath three branches; it is, to act, to do, to perform: therefore, she/drowned herself wittingly” (9-12). He
continues: “Here lies the water; good: here stands/the man; good: if the man go to this  water and drown himself, it is,/will he, nill he, he goes; mark you that; but if the water  come to/him and drown him, he drowns not himself” (13-16).

The Second Clown observes that the wealthy nobles are able to get away with more than the commoners, as such is the case when Ophelia receives a Christian burial despite her suicide: If this had not been a /gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’ Christian burial” (19-20). In Scene V, it is ironic the commoners who Shakespeare names Clowns exhibit more reason than the nobles do. In contrast to Hamlet’s play for Claudius, the clowns in Hamlet do not distract us from the meaning of the play, but help illuminate the themes of class and corruption.

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One Response to Hamlet – “Clown”

  1. Hi,

    I like how you decided to use the word clown since the scene with the gravediggers (or clowns) is such a key scene in the play. When I first saw that the gravediggers were also called clowns I was bit confused until I realized that Shakespeare used them as a form of comedic relief in this seemly tragic play.

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