If you are reading ‘Hamlet’ by William Shakespeare, you may have noticed that sometimes the speakers say one thing, but seem to mean something else. Shakespeare is well-known for puns. Read on to find out what they are and how they come into play in the play.
Listen to this sentence: ”I was trying to figure out how lightning worked, and then it struck me.” Did you pick up on the little joke in this sentence? The word struck is playing on the fact that lightning can strike someone and so can an idea.
These types of jokes that play on words are called puns. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, there are quite a few examples of puns. Let’s take a look.
The Sun and the Son
One example of a pun comes when Hamlet and Claudius are talking. Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle, but he just married Hamlet’s mom. So, now he is Hamlet’s uncle and father (well, step-father).
Like most 30-year-olds, Hamlet is not too happy about this, so when Claudius calls Hamlet his ‘nephew and son,’ Hamlet scoffs and mumbles about how much that bothers him. Claudius notices Hamlet’s discomfort and asks him why he is so gloomy and why ”clouds still hang” around him. Hamlet responds with a pun, saying ”Not so, my lord. I am too much i’ the sun.” In this passage, Hamlet is playing on the words ”son” and ”sun.
What’s the Matter?
Another example of a creative pun is when Polonius and Hamlet are talking. In this scene, Hamlet is pretending to be crazy and lets everyone think it’s because Polonius won’t let him date his daughter, Ophelia. When Polonius sees that Hamlet is reading something, he asks ”What is the matter, my lord?” Polonius is not asking Hamlet what the problem is, but instead he’s asking him what he’s reading, ”I mean, the matter that you read. . .” Hamlet makes it a sarcastic pun by pretending that Polonius meant ”What is the matter?” as in ”What’s wrong?” So, Hamlet responds by saying ”Between who?” This exchange shows how a pun can be played on someone else’s words.
The Indentures of the Skull
One of the most popular scenes from Hamlet, which is often called ”the graveyard scene,” contains another excellent pun. While Hamlet is looking at a skull in a grave, he makes a few jokes to his friend Horatio. In essence, he says that the skull they’re looking at might belong to a lawyer, and he comments how funny it is that all his legal jargon cannot help him now. He also says, ”Will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures?” This sentence puns on the word vouch by mentioning vouchers that people use to purchase things. There is also a pun with the use of the word ”indentures” being used to mean teeth (dentures) as well as a contract to purchase land.
A pun is a joke that plays on words which have more than one meaning.
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, there are a few solid examples of puns. One example of a pun is when Hamlet tells his uncle/father that he is too much in the ”sun.” This is a play on the words son and sun to communicate how much Hamlet detests being Claudius’s son. Another example is when Polonius asks Hamlet ”What’s the matter,” and Hamlet twists the words to mean ”what is the problem.” Finally, in the graveyard, Hamlet makes a few jokes about the skull of the man buried in the grave and comments that his vouchers cannot vouch for him and how small his indentures are.
The words ”indentures” as well as ”vouch” are being punned upon.