Hamlet's Puns and Paradoxes


"A little more than kin, and less than kind" (1.2.65). Hamlet's first words in the play show him playing with words in order to state a paradox: Claudius is twice related to him, as uncle and stepfather, but not really his kin or kind at all. [Scene Summary]
"Not so, my lord, I am too much in the sun" (1.2.67). This is Hamlet's response to the King's question, "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?" He means that the King has called Hamlet "son" once too often. [Scene Summary]
"Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables" (1.2.180-181). Hamlet bitterly jokes that the real reason his mother's remarriage came so soon after her husband's death, was so that she could save money by serving the leftover funeral refreshments to the wedding guests. [Scene Summary]
Hamlet says that the Danish practice of blowing trumpets and shooting off cannon to celebrate their own drinking is "a custom / More honour'd in the breach than the observance" (1.4.15-16). This famous phrase is widely misunderstood. It does not mean that the custom is widely ignored or given only lip-service. Hamlet is saying, "Yes, it is a long-standing custom for we Danes to make a lot of noise when we drink, but the best way we could do honor to that custom would be to drop it." It's like telling someone that he has nice teeth when his mouth is closed. [Scene Summary]
"I'll make a ghost of him that lets me!" (1.4.85). Hamlet says this when his friends, Horatio and Marcellus, try to keep him from following the Ghost. So he's saying, "I'll make a ghost of anyone who keeps me from the Ghost." (By the way, it's interesting that "let," which meant "hinder," now means the exact opposite, "allow.") [Scene Summary]
Excellent well; you are a fishmonger" (2.2.174), says Hamlet, in response to Polonius' question, "Do you know me, my lord?" This is the first of a series of bitter jests that Hamlet directs at the uncomprehending Polonius. The basis of the jests is apparently Hamlet's intuition that Polonius forced Ophelia to dump him. In Hamlet's opinion, Polonius sacrificed his daughter's happiness in order to suck up to the King. Thus, "fishmonger" is often explained as slang for "pimp," despite the fact that there is no evidence that the word was used that way in Shakespeare's time. Hamlet then makes his insult sharper by wishing that Polonius were as honest as a fishmonger, which is to say that Polonius is lower than the lowest of the low. Hamlet goes on to say that "to be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man pick'd out of ten thousand" and then says what Polonius probably thinks is a very crazy thing: "For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion--Have you a daughter?" The comment about the sun and maggots has at least two possible meanings. One meaning is that it's not surprising that Polonius is such a hypocrite, because the life-giving sun can produce all kinds of disgusting things, especially from other disgusting things. The second meaning Hamlet explains, though not so Polonius can understand. When Polonius says that he does have a daughter, Hamlet replies, "Let her not walk i' the sun: conception is a blessing: but not as your daughter may conceive" (2.2.184-185). In other words, if Polonius is going to keep Ophelia away from Hamlet for fear that she'll get knocked up, he better keep her out of the sun, too, because even the sun can produce bastard pregnancies. [Scene Summary]
"Words, words, words" (2.2.192), says Hamlet, in response to Polonius' question, "What do you read, my lord?" Of course, Polonius wants to know the meaning of the words in the book that Hamlet is reading, but Hamlet's answer suggests that they are meaningless. Polonius then follows up with a clarification, "What is the matter, my lord?" By "matter," Polonius means "subject matter," but Hamlet again deliberately misinterprets. He takes "matter" to mean something wrong (as we do when we say "What's the matter with you?") and answers Polonius' question with a question ("Between who?"), as though someone were quarreling with someone else.[Scene Summary]
"Slanders, sir" (2.2.196), replies Hamlet to Polonius' question about what he is reading. He pretends that the author of the book has written that old men have "grey beards," wrinkled faces, and a "plentiful lack of wit." He then says that he believes all of this, but it's not nice ("honest") to write it down, "for yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am, if like a crab you could walk backward." So, if what he pretends to read is true, it's not slander. And although it's not nice to point out to anyone that we all get old, wrinkled and foolish, it's a terrible truth that Polonius doesn't realize about himself. Hamlet puts this last point backwards, saying that Polonius will get younger ("old as I am") if he can go backwards in time. Of course Polonius cannot go backwards in time, but he doesn't understand what Hamlet has just said, thus emphasizing what a dolt he is. [Scene Summary]
"Into my grave" (2.2.207), replies Hamlet to Polonius' question, "Will you walk out of the air, my lord?" Apparently the chamber is drafty, and Polonius is inviting Hamlet to go to a warmer room, but Hamlet implies that he would sooner be dead than go anyplace with Polonius. Moments later, Hamlet makes a comment that sounds similar, but expresses a great weariness with life. Polonius says goodbye with the usual polite words, "My lord, I will take my leave of you," and Hamlet replies "You cannot, sir, take from me any thing that I will willingly part withal: except my life, except my life, except my life" (2.2.215-217). Hamlet means that he is very willing to be free of Polonius, and that he is even more willing to be free of his own life. [Scene Summary]
"Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and outstretched heroes the beggars' shadows" (2.2.263-264). Hamlet says this in reply to Rosencrantz, who is trying to get Hamlet to talk about his ambition by saying that ambition is but "a shadow's shadow." Rosencrantz probably doesn't even understand Hamlet's point, which is that only the beggars are real, and heroes are figments of the beggars' imaginations. Or, in short, a person is only what others think he is. A few moments earlier, Hamlet had said "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" (2.2.249-250). Hamlet seems to be meditating about the elusiveness of certainty, which is appropriate to the situation, since he is talking to two men who he had greeted as friends, but who are spies for the King. [Scene Summary]
"Nay, that follows not" (2.2.414), replies Hamlet, when Polonius says, "If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter that I love passing well." Jephthah was a man who promised the Lord a sacrifice for victory in battle, and wound up sacrificing his daughter's life. Many paradoxes are implied. Jephthah loved his daughter, but killed her. The Lord blessed Jephthah, but took his daughter. Polonius has a daughter, but it "follows not" that he loves her. [Scene Summary]
Hamlet says, "this was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof" (3.1.113-114), as he is making Ophelia's head spin with his comments on how being beautiful can destroy a woman. [Scene Summary]
"Do you think I meant country matters?" (3.2.116), Hamlet asks Ophelia. This is the first of four unpleasant sexual jests that Hamlet directs at Ophelia just before the performance of The Murder of Gonzago. [Scene Summary]
"It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge" (3.2.249), says Hamlet to Ophelia, just after she has told him that he is "keen." She meant that he has a sharp wit, but he turns it to sexual innuendo. [Scene Summary]
"With drink, sir? (3.2.302), Hamlet asks, when Guildenstern tells him that the King is "marvellous distemp'red." Guildenstern means that the King is very upset, and Hamlet makes fun of both Guildenstern and the King. At this place in the play, after the King has gotten spooked at the performance of The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet directs a stream of sarcasm at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The most ingenious joke answers Rosencrantz's desperate protest, "My lord, you once did love me." Hamlet replies, "So I do still, by these pickers and stealers" (3.2.336). The catechism made the faithful promise to keep their hands from "picking and stealing." So Hamlet swears his friendship to his untrustworthy friend, not by the hand of friendship, but by his untrustworthy "pickers and stealers." [Scene Summary]
"You are the queen, your husband's brother's wife" (3.4.15), says Hamlet to his mother, making a paradox out of a fact. [Scene Summary]
"Forgive me this my virtue" (3.4.152)," says Hamlet to his mother, sarcastically apologizing for being good enough to try to do her good. [Scene Summary]
"Indeed this counsellor / Is now most still, most secret and most grave, / Who was in life a foolish prating knave" (3.4.213-215), says Hamlet over the body of Polonius. In life Polonius prated--talked a lot of nonsense--but now he's "grave" and fit only for the grave. Hamlet follows this by saying, "Come, sir, to draw toward an end with you" as he drags Polonius out of the room. He means that he drawing toward the end of his dealings with Polonius, as he is drawing (dragging) him out of the room. [Scene Summary]
"I am glad of it: a knavish speech sleeps in a foolish ear" (4.2.23-24), Hamlet replies after he has insulted Rosencrantz, and Rosencrantz has said "I understand you not, my lord." Hamlet means that Rosencrantz is too stupid to understand that he's been insulted for being stupid. [Scene Summary]
"The body is with the king, but the king is not with the body. The king is a thing--" (4.2.27-28). What Hamlet says to Rosencrantz here is part of legal doctrine. "The body is with the king" means that the king, in his own body, can make laws and enforce them; "but the king is not with the body" means that you can't stop paying the king's taxes when the king's body is dead, because the king is not just a body, but "a thing." Guildenstern bites, saying "A thing, my lord?" Hamlet delivers the punch line, "Of nothing," meaning both that the king is an idea, and that this particular king, Claudius, is a good-for-nothing, and will soon be--if Hamlet has his way--only a dead body. [Scene Summary]
"Not where he eats, but where he is eaten" (4.3.19), says Hamlet, delivering the punch line of his joke about Polonius being "at supper." This is the beginning of a stream of mockery which Hamlet directs at the King just before the King gets him off to England. He says that "a man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm," to make the point that "a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar" (4.3.30-31). Part of the joke is that a kingly "progress" is a great dignified affair with parades and speeches and such. When the King again asks Hamlet where Polonius is, Hamlet tells him to go to hell by saying, "In heaven; send thither to see: if your messenger find him not there, seek him i' the other place yourself" (4.3.33-35). A little later, just as Hamlet is about to leave for England, he says goodbye to the King with "Farewell, dear mother," and explains, "father and mother is man and wife; man and wife is one flesh; and so, my mother" (4.3.51-52). Here he is making a paradox out of something that tortures him. His mother was "one flesh" with his father, and now she is "one flesh" with his uncle, so which flesh is the "one flesh"? [Scene Summary]
In his fourth soliloquy, Hamlet says of Fortinbras:
Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor's at the stake. (4.4.53-56)
Different editors of Shakespeare suggest different explanations of this statement, because Hamlet seems to have it backwards. If you are truly great you do not "find quarrel in a straw," but fight only for a good cause--a "great argument." If, however, Hamlet is being sarcastic, the statement makes good sense. It means that Fortinbras, "with divine ambition puff'd" (4.4.49), is only a wannabe who is leading his men to death for nothing. The problem with taking the statement as sarcasm is that Hamlet is apparently vowing to be like Fortinbras. He ends the soliloquy by saying, "O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" (4.4.65-66). But perhaps Hamlet doesn't mean everything he says, even when he's talking to himself. [Scene Summary]
In the graveyard, Hamlet speculates that a skull might have been that of a lawyer, and we hear this volley of puns:
Hum! This fellow might be
in's time a great buyer of land, with his statutes,
his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers,
his recoveries: is this the fine of his fines, and
the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine
pate full of fine dirt? will his vouchers vouch him
no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than
the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The
very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in
this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha? (5.1.103-112).
The second part of Hamlet's quadruple pun on "fine," "fine pate full of fine dirt," is easy enough, but "fine of fines" needs a little explanation. "Fine" can also mean "outcome," and it can mean "legal action," so Hamlet is asking if the outcome of all of the lawyer's legal actions is only to have his skull full of dirt.

Hamlet seems to reach a long way for his next pun. "A pair of indentures" are two legal documents that belong together, and are written on the same piece of paper, which is then separated with a serrated cut, so that they can be fitted back together, to prove that they belong together. The Latin root word in "indenture" is "dent," meaning "tooth." Apparently someone, sometime, thought that the serrated cut in an indenture looked like toothmarks. Hamlet's joke is that now the lawyer's only indentures are his own teeth. The last joke in this passage is easy, but a bit puzzling. "Conveyances" are legal documents relating to the transfer of real estate. Lawyers are famous for creating many documents, so it makes sarcastic sense to say that "the very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in this box," that is, the conveyances will hardly fit into the lawyer's coffin. The puzzling part is that there doesn't seem to be a coffin in this grave, only skulls.

After all of this, Hamlet seems to make his major point with a comment on parchment, which would be used for legal documents that were intended to last forever. He asks Horatio if it isn't true that parchment is made of sheep-skin. Horatio says, yes it is, and of calf-skin, too. Hamlet then says, "They are sheep and calves which seek out assurance in that" (5.1.116-117). Of course, he means what we already know, that no legal document can assure us of anything after death. More interestingly, his punning way of putting it shows he thinks that the whole situation is not tragic, but humorous. If we act as if our lives will never end, it's not tragic; it only shows that we are silly sheep. [Scene Summary]


"I think it be thine, indeed; for thou liest in't" (5.1.122), says Hamlet to the gravedigger, after he has asked whose grave it is and gotten the answer "Mine, sir." The other meaning of "lie" is simply to stay somewhere, as in the phrase, "the ship lies in harbor." In the exchange of wit that follows this there's a surprise: Hamlet loses, and it's the gravedigger who gets the last word. [Scene Summary]
Hamlet asks Yorick's skull where his "flashes of merriment" are, then answers the question himself: "Not one now, to mock your own grinning--quite chop-fallen" (5.1.191-192). Your chops are your lower cheeks, your jaw, and if you are "chop-fallen," you have a long face because you're sad. Yorick the jester isn't jesting now. He's chop-fallen. In fact, his chops have fallen completely off. In short, Hamlet has just made a terrible pun at Yorick's expense. [Scene Summary]
Speaking to Horatio, Hamlet describes Osric: "'tis a chough; but, as I say, spacious in the possession of dirt" (5.2.87-88). A "chough" is a bird that has been taught to speak, and Hamlet regards Osric as a kind of talking birdbrain. Osric has come to invite Hamlet to the fencing match with Laertes, and throughout his visit, Hamlet makes relentless fun of Osric's excessive use and misuse of words. [Scene Summary]