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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Hamlet/Dictionary Post

The word probation is derived from the French probacion meaning proof/test/trial. In a religious context, circa 1350, it meant a demonstration. In 1363, it began to be recognized as a period of trial for an academic fellow. In 1478 it was considered to be part of the novitiate (period where you have entered religious order, but have yet to take vows) in a religious institute, but by 1549 is was also defined as the time preceding the novitiate.

All definitions of probation have always revolved around the examination or testing of a person or thing, the action or process of putting something to test, investigation, experiment. Today, we consider it more as a restricted time period, whereas the meaning in dated context implies it was used with the understanding of probation as a solitary event. Probation was more of an event than a period. Basically, in 1645 you were probed or put to probation, but in 2016 you are placed on probation.

The word “probation” is only used once in the text. I was not lost by it’s novel use, but I did notice the subtle difference. Horatio says “This present object made probation.” (1.1.171)

In this scene, the ghost has disappeared. Horatio makes a comment that he heard the crow of a rooster and the emergence of day sends ghosts scurrying off, and that the event they witnessed proved it true. This is important because it sets the stage for interaction with the ghost to take place at night. This is important for the setting because the night always seems to hold more mystery and possibility than the day does.

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“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.

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‘Dearest’ in Hamlet

Definitions of Dearest:

a. Glorious, noble, honourable, worthy. Obs.

b. Regarded with personal feelings of high estimation and affection; held in deep and tender esteem; beloved, loved.

c. The attribute is sometimes transferred to the subject of the feeling: Affectionate, loving, fond

d. The preceding passed gradually into a sense in which personal affection or attachment became the predominant notion. Precious in one’s regard, of which one is fond, to which one is greatly attached.





This unprevailing woe and think of us

As of a father; for let the world take note,

You are the most immediate to our throne,

And with no less nobility of love

Than that which dearest father bears his son

Do I impart toward you. For your intent

In going back to school in Wittenberg,

It is most retrograde to our desire,

And we beseech you, bend you to remain

Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye,

Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.


1.2. 180-184


Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked-meats

Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.

Would I have met my dearest foe in heaven

Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!

My father! – methinks I see my father.


With the help of the OED, we realize that the definition of ‘dearest’ hasn’t strayed at all from the original meaning. With this knowledge, we can better understand Shakespeare’s writing style and thus understand the messages he tries to portray in Hamlet.

While Shakespeare uses ‘dearest’ in it’s normal definition in the first passage, he strays far from it and even means the exact opposite in the second passage. The footnote states the the line means “bitterest foe”. This shows an instance where Shakespeare uses sarcasm to emphasize a point. For me personally, this would have been completely overlooked if it hadn’t been for the footnote drawing my attention to the word. By understanding that Shakespeare uses techniques like sarcasm in his writing, we get a better grasp of his “voice” and what he hoped to invoke to his readers.

At the same time, we understand Hamlet’s character a bit more. Through his use of sarcasm and even irony, Hamlet is commenting on how fast his mother got married to his uncle, making him the king.

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Sometime/ Sometimes

Act I Scene I


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


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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OED Post: “Worm”

Definitions of Worm:
1. Any animal that creeps or crawls; a reptile; an insect. Obs. In Middle English often wild worm. Cf. blind-worm n., slow-worm n.(a lizard); also galleyworm, glow-worm
2. The larva of an insect; a maggot, grub, or caterpillar, esp. one that feeds on and destroys flesh, fruit, leaves, cereals, textile fabrics, and the like. Also collect. the worm, as a destructive pest.

1. Act 1 Scene 5 Lines 81-98
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched,
Cut off, even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,
No reck’ning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
O horrible, O horrible, most horrible!
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damnèd incest.
But, howsomever thou pursues this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once.
The glowworm shows the matin to be near
And ’gins to pale his uneffectual fire.
Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me.

2. Act 4 Scene 3 Lines 22-32
Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A
certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at
him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We
fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves
for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is
but variable service—two dishes but to one table.
That’s the end.
lines from the Second Quarto not found in the Folio
Alas, alas!
A man may fish with the worm that hath eat
of a king and eat of the fish that hath fed of that

Most definitions of the word worm say they they are insects, but there was one that stood out because of its description, which is a “destructive pest.” The first time ‘worm’ is used is in the first act when the Ghost speaks with his son Hamlet and calls his brother Claudius a worm/insect for what he did to obtain the crown. Later, Hamlet uses the word in describing Polonious to get under Claudius’ skin. However, Hamlet does out call Claudius this but his right hand man, Polonious. Hamlet describes Polonious as a worm to illustrate a food chain in which the king, Claudius basically ends up as a lowly figure and is basically called excrement. Hamlet imitates his father in using the word worm. However, Hamlet does not alter the meaning but uses the power of the word in another way in still denouncing the actions of Claudius.

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‘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.

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Hamlet is Pregnant – Post #13

The word “pregnant,” of Latin and French origins, conventionally means to have a “bun in the oven,” to be “expecting.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this seemingly mono-defined and biologically-centered word can entail something completely different; “Destined to produce a great many results or consequences, full of significance, momentous,” or “Of a person or the mind: full of ideas; imaginative, inventive; resourceful.” The word was coined in the 14th century, being used as a rich descriptive term with the latter of the above definitions.

“Pregnant” shows up a total of three times in the play:

“Polonius: Indeed, that’s out of the air. How pregnant sometimes his replies are! A happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of.”

“Yet I, A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing—no, not for a king
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damned defeat was made. Am I a coward?”

“No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning. Dost thou hear?”

Interestingly enough, the first instance (and most significant of the inclusions) of the word closely follows the famous line in Hamlet, “Words, words, words,” as Polonius converses with Hamlet. He questions what the prince had been reading just moments before, and Hamlet, as per, responds with a word heavy and drawn out response. Polonius, by introducing “pregnant” as an adjective for Hamlet’s novel-worthy statements, perfectly describes his complex diction and pondering personality as a whole. Throughout the play, the prince is the character whose wit, intelligence, and knack for contemplation outshines all other characters’ (debatably). Hamlet is also ever-changing; He changes his mind constantly and he always makes sure to analyze every possible outcomes of a situation, giving intense thought to each all in real-time. The prince is essentially a textbook example of the original meaning of “pregnant”, that which has a multitude of outcomes or possibilities. He is filled to the brim with blooming and branching thoughts, “mad” hypotheses and explanations of the unknown, and a plethora of notions in general. The introduction of the word acts as a point where the viewer or reader of the play can come to fruition of the developed and whirlwind nature of the character Hamlet.

Also, the fact that someone takes the time to directly point out that Hamlet’s mind embodies this “pregnancy” is almost ironic, because Hamlet would never make such a blunt assertion.

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Witches, Fairies and Spirits, Oh My!

A planet is not just a major celestial body. While Mars, Mercury and Venus are some of the more common examples when we think about the noun “planet,” there are three other definitions to it as well.

Continue reading

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Blog Post #13: Vocabulary

beetle (v): “probably used by Shakespeare with some reference to eyebrows;” to hang/ project threateningly, whose etymology originates from beetle (adj), which describes something as projecting from a brow or ridge of a mountain. According to the (adj) definition, Shakespeare derived one of the (v) definitions.

secondary (v) definitions: to beat something with a beetle to flatten/crush it; “to emboss fabrics by pressure from figured rollers;” to go/fly off (like a beetle).

Horatio   What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,

Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff

That beetles o’er his base into the sea,

And there assume some other horrible form,

Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason

And draw you into madness? think of it:

The very place puts toys of desperation,

Without more motive, into every brain

That looks so many fathoms to the sea

And hears it roar beneath. (Act 1 Scene 4, Lines 70-79)

In this passage, Horatio warns Hamlet about following the Ghost because it might lead Hamlet astray and make him go mad. The definition to hang/project threateningly is being used in this passage; the cliff is not just a piece of land projecting out into the sea, but it is projecting in a manner that is threatening. Horatio describes the cliff as a place that corrupts the mind of whomever visits there, making them hopelessly desperate. This evokes an image of people committing suicide when they are truly desperate of their condition on earth, which is a common theme in a lot of Shakespeare’s tragedies. In this case, Horatio is trying to prevent Hamlet from possibly being misled by the Ghost to the cliff, where he can jump off and drown himself in the sea. This partially foreshadows the death of Ophelia in Act 4 Scene 7, where she drowns herself in the stream because of the death of her father: Polonius. She became desperate and mad, which is evident by all the singing she does throughout Act 4 Scene 5, so she drowns herself. Beetle does not have much significance to the poem as a whole, but it offers context to a passage that has a significance to the overall poem. The word helps with the imagery of the poem to illustrate one of the common themes of Shakespearean tragedies: suicide as a result of helplessness and desperation.

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