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John Barrymore as Hamlet, John S. O'Brien as Polonius, 1922.
Hamlet's Wit
By Stanley Kauffmann








The term "modern," applied as praise to plays of the past, is a dubious compliment. To say, for instance, that Woyzeck is astonishingly modern in some of its dialogue is to imply that poor old Büchner occasionally broke free of the shackles of his era and reached out to our superior age. Yet there are moments in some older works that sound as if they had been written today -- not just because the diction is contemporary but because the mind behind the dialogue seems struck with the thought patterns and emotional sets of our day. This happens from time to time in Hamlet, especially in the prince's lines. Obviously I don't imply that occasionally Shakespeare breaks free of Elizabethan shackles and writes something that sounds fresh. But now and then Hamlet has a line that slices in a contemporary way -- in a key different from the magnificence of the rest of the play.

Recall, first, that much of Hamlet is in prose, whose flexibility lends itself more readily to these verbal stabs. Observe, too, that the touches which may strike us as modern are almost always couched in wit -- not always humorous but always the elixir of a sense of the ridiculous. As often as not, those lines are defensive-aggressive. Mark Van Doren says of Hamlet, "His repartee is pistol-swift, whipped out by one forever abnormally on guard against real or imagined enemies." For all the profundities that Hamlet plumbs, he always has in him this nimble pungency that suddenly whips us out of our loving composure, out of the play's immense arch of the Elizabethan, into a kind of bitter neighborliness.

The point is not that these lines are funny, though a few of them are, but that they would be impossible for a humorless man. Jonathan Bate underscores Hamlet's "very facility in words -- that restless punning apparent from his first utterance." This utterance-- "A little more than kin and less than kind" -- though hardly a joke, is a play on words, an immediate signal, made clearer as the play proceeds, that the speaker sees the very horror of his situation in a prism of cosmic comedy. Harold Bloom notes that "Hamlet's dramaturgy is the employment of great wit as a counter-Machiavel, as a defense against a corrupted world."

The diction of that very first line of the role has an Elizabethan ring. The diction of some other instances of Hamlet's wit bridge the time-span from 1601, when the play was presumably written, to whatever year it happens to be out in the auditorium. To repeat: I hardly suggest that most of the play's language is archaic; I note that from time to time, Shakespeare's language not only embraces his own day but all the world's future days.

A gleaming instance. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive, Hamlet asks them if they have any news.

Rosencrantz: None, my lord, but that the world's grown honest.
Hamlet: Then is doomsday near.

Beckett might have written that line. It would not be out of place in the mouth of Vladimir or Clov.

After the play scene, Hamlet asks Guildenstern if he can play the recorder.

Guildenstern: I know no touch of it, my lord.
Hamlet: It is as easy as lying.

Sharp, skewering, the line is fixed in a mode whose disgust and amusement are a reminder of Wilde and Shaw.

The whole of Scenes Two and Three in Act IV, where Hamlet teases Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about the whereabouts of Polonius's body and then is taken to the king, is impossible for an actor who cannot play comedy. The comedian's range has long been thought necessary for the actor of Hamlet, and that need is no more patent than in these scenes. They have a particularized dark acrimony as Hamlet puts aside his tragic role in his own mind, throws off his "almost blunted purpose," and dallies with these tainted men. Those scenes seem to give him an odd sense of height, achieved through the killing that he has just done, a somewhat manic floating respite from gravity. The apogee of these exchanges comes when the king announces that he is sending him to England. Hamlet, certainly with cognizance, perhaps with a hidden smile, says simply "Good."

King: So is it, if thou knew'st our purposes.
Hamlet: I see a cherub that sees them.

Witty, in an almost chilling way, yet a return to awareness of the maze in which he is caught, this reply seems to lift him out of Elsinore into his large boding destiny.

Who would want to choose the best line in Hamlet? Nonetheless, the line that most overwhelmingly conveys the sense that Hamlet understands the world he is passing through, the drama in which he is performing, comes in the graveyard scene. At Hamlet's request, the gravedigger hands Yorick's skull to him. Hamlet studies it, remembering the jests that he once heard from this mouth, remembering that when he was a boy, he rode on this jester's back a thousand times. Especially because this skull had once been a source of jokes, it presses him with the fact of mortality, and this tug presumably leads to thought of the woman who was present when he killed a man. He says to the skull: "Now, get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come." That line would be sufficient for any ordinary genius, but not for Shakespeare. Hamlet then says. "Make her laugh at that." This additional short line explodes the speech out of beautiful melancholy with an almost blinding flash. We see, cannot help seeing, the vanity of human wishes under the eye of eternity. Those five words, with their bitter wit, helpless yet liberating, bring us closer not only to the prince but to the man who created him. We can feel that we know that man even better because of that line.

The paradox that crowns this whole subject is that the "pistol-swift" lines cited above help to confirm the play's tragic magnitude. Hamlet's inky cloak shadows the play, but it is worth noting -- yet again -- that the greatest drama in the English language is not about a Faust, whose previous years have been spent on the periphery of life, but about a man brimming with all the experience possible at his age, with vital intelligence, with knowledge of human instability, who confronts his fate with everything at his command, including wit. And that wit has a timeless quality that our time and future times can call modern.


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