Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Hamlet

Comic Moments in “Hamlet” – Jamie Tuohy

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Comic Moments in Hamlet

It would be particularly cruel of the Department of Education to set such a difficult question on this year’s exam. However, in saying that, in every great tragedy, resides the potential for comedy. That is to say, that the chaos, destruction and lack of consequences can at times morph into the carnivalesque – resulting in side splitting laughter. OKAY, maybe not side splitting laughter, and when we use the words ‘comedy’ or ‘funny’ to describe this Shakespearean drama, we’re probably using the words in their loosest definition (unless, like me, you’re a proper nerd and do actually find Hamlet hilarious, at times!).

Here are some notes on “Comic Moments in Hamlet“: (It’s essentially a few paragraphs, or the rough outline of an essay, but I’ve put them into bullet points to make it easier to read). While an essay on comedy might now come up, these points can be made in relation to other topics, especially the character of Hamlet.

  • Hamlet is famous for its deft mingling of comedy and tragedy. From the beginning of the play, the festive and carnivalesque have existed in parallel with the tragic perspective on life.
  • Thus, the celebration of Claudius’ and Gertrude’s wedding acknowledges the death that made it possible. As Hamlet acerbically remarks “the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables”.
  • If Hamlet appears here, to be an enemy of the carnivalesque, exhibiting a particular distaste for excessive eating and drinking, he also brings the worlds of comedy and tragedy together.
  • Describing himself as a “jig-maker” and playing the role of court jester, or “critic” to the king, he punctures men’s pretensions to greatness, by reducing them to the condition of decaying and vermiculated flesh.
  • Polonius becomes no more than a malodorous corpse, whose “guts” must be “lug[ged]” into the other room.
  • The gravediggers who appear in Act 5, expand on Hamlet’s role.
  • As ordinary, labouring men, digging the earth, they represent an expansion of the narrow, claustrophobic world characterized by the Danish court.
  • Moreover, their COMIC DISRESPECT for death; as they toss skulls out of graves is matched by a similar contempt for the distinctions conveyed by class and wealth – “why, there thou sayest; and the more pity that great folk should have countenance in this world to drown and hang themselves more than their even Christian…”.
  • It’s this spectacle that gets Hamlet meditating on the skull, and he too finds comedy in that fact that Yorick, the man who was paid to tell jokes at his father’s court, should have been reduced to such a hideous object.
  • Although this scene is often taken as an image of serious contemplation or as a ‘memento mori’, it’s also a comic epiphany of the absurdity of life and death.
  • The entrance of Ophelia’s funeral procession, with all the assembled court, shifts our attention back to the play’s tragic viewpoint.
  • It may be significant, however, that Shakespeare has not given the gravedigger an exit line, allowing him to remain on stage throughout the scene – an amused spectator of these “great ones” and their tribulations.

These are just some points which I hope will help you tackle the topic of “comedy in Hamlet”. They are more conversation starters than definite points about the play’s comedic value, but the duality of Hamlet’s character and his apparent contempt for corruption and hypocrisy, while hiding behind his “antic disposition” is one of the play’s central comedic plots, if not an expression of the Danish prince’s ingenious comic timing.


THE CHARACTER OF POLONIUS – THE PLAY’S UNINTENTIONAL FUNNYMAN?

Polonius is a character who is described as a “meddling old fool” and his stupidity and lack of moral sense are set up as the antithesis to Hamlet’s cunning and moral sensitivity. Along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius is one of the play’s unintentional central funny men. We don’t laugh with Polonius, but rather at him, as his hypocrisy and ignorance provide the basis for some of the play’s most funny and tragically ironic moments.  If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are hapless “sponges” who will do anything for the king, then Polonius is a feeder to Claudius’ hedonism, treachery and self indulgence. He is the principal counsellor of the state ofDenmark, yet his meddling ways reduce him to the level of an old busy body, with too much time on his hands. The comedy resides in the fact that Polonius views himself as an essential asset to the state, but Claudius sees him as nothing more than a useful functionary. Polonius dies, essentially doing Claudius’ dirty work (don’t say this in your essay), and even after he has died, his death is ridiculed by Hamlet, who teases Claudius by telling him where he can and cannot find the “rash, intruding fool’s” body, as Hamlet says he has “compounded it with dust whereto tis kin”. Even if his death echoes the faint image of martyrdom and Claudius describes him as a man “faithful and honourable”, we see Polonius as an insincere, cynical and corrupt man, whose fall from grace is one of the play’s funniest plots.

This last point is the key to most of the play’s comic moments – the Danish court is full of hypocrisy and false appearances. The characters themselves are filled with false notions of themselves and it’s hard to work out if they really know who they are. The false image of the Danish court is central to the play’s comedic value, as when characters like Claudius and Polonoius fall from grace, we view it as just and humourous. I wonder what Freud would have said about that?!

Summary of the points of Comedy:

  • Hamlet’s duality.
  • Hamlet’s ridiculing of death.
  • The juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy, embodied through the funeral and wedding.
  • The insincerity and grandeur of Polonius. After all, the name of this blog is derived from Gertrude’s wish that Polonius would be more matter of fact with his statements and less convoluted and hyperbolic. 
  • You can also talk about THE CHARACTER OF OSRIC and his acquiescence towards Hamlet.
  • The general hypocrisy and double standards of the court.
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And there you go folks! I have to say, that when you tackle the question like this and break it down, it’s not that hard at all. I made these points from memory, so when I started, I was thinking “urgh, this is going to be tough”, but if I can make those points without having studied the play in nearly a year, you guys will be absolutely fine. This is actually a really interesting essay topic and it just goes to show that when you plan your essays, it makes them ten times easier!

Happy studying, and good luck,

Jamie.

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