Comic identities in Hamlet
This student owes a great deal of intellectual debt to Louise Cowans thanks in great part to the theoretical criticism the author expressed in her introduction to The Comic Terrain. An example of the brilliance of her critical theory is found in an extended quotation from the work’s introduction:
“infernal comedy is a state in which grace
is utterly absent and where selfishness and
malice prevail. The community has accepted
its fallen condition and cynically
attributes its corruption to the ‘way of
the world’. Love cannot dwell in such a
society; everyone is fundamentally alone,
though hypocrisy and self-serving may give
the appearance of friendship” (para 23).
Specifically, the “infernal” referenced in the statement alludes to Dante’s three landscapes: hell, purgatory, and heaven. Based on these landscapes Cowans postulates a classification of what is a comedy based on the dramatic “terrain” in which it occurs.
How is such a typology relevant to such a dark tragedy such as Hamlet? This essay answers such a question by underscoring it in the form of the following thesis statement: Hamlet is, like Professor Peter Saccio of Dartmouth opined, Shakespeare’s works taken as a whole are so “abundant” (Lecture 1) that it is capable of sustaining two worlds (the major tragic and the minor comic) within itself and that the latter serves to illuminate the former.
The central thesis then holds this notion within the comedic portion of the play’s space. Additionally, the comic identities of the various characters are explained by the fact that that space is “infernal” under Cowan’s definition.
In regards to this, Erich Auerbach states, “In most of the [Shakespeare’s] plays which have a generally tragic tenor there is an extremely close interweaving of the tragic and comic, the sublime and the low” (315). In truth, Hamlet is permeated with aspects of comedy. This is obvious when one examined the various humorous undertones present throughout the work. It is a simple fact that many of the play’s characters are funny and the way in which they are funny is important with respect to the preeminence of the character’s role in the play is in relation to the narrative structure. From Polonius’ bombastic speech to the departing Laertes (I:iii;52-81) to the exit of Osric in the scene where he presents the summons to a fencing match to Hamlet (V:ii;180); there is a great deal of humor with Hamlet himself often playing a humorous role. This is particularly so with emphasis on the “method” to his “madness”.
In fact, there is so much comedic material to the Hamlet role that it can present a potential hindrance to an actor who does not completely aware of the humorous undertones. Richard Burton’s Hamlet, directed by John Gielgud, is often criticised that it is “too funny”. If one were to watch the DVD of the play with the ability to hear only the audience, not the words the actors mouth, one might well get the impression that the work was a pure comedy because much of the audience’s response is laughter. This is problematic and a great deal of the problem centers on the fact that Hume Cronyn as Polonius is simply too droll and that Burton alternates between bombastic excess in the tragic parts and a kind of sly, low-comic voice and demeanor in the funny parts. Similarly, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet also seems too jovial and self-consciously witty. Gielgud’s own Hamlet, (currently available as an archived audio recording of a performance from decades ago) did not succumb to this tendency; nor did Laurence Oliver’s famous performance.
Of the wit present in the play, much of it is laced with irony. Even poor Ophelia’s part can be played in such a way to include a touch of irony. Lalla Ward, who played the part in the BBC production of Hamlet starring Derek Jacoby, uttered these lines of counter-admonition to her brother, Laertes, after he had advised her to guard her “chaste treasure” against Hamlet’s attempts: “Do not as some ungracious pastors do, Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, Whiles like a puff’d and reckless libertine, Himself the path of dalliance treads, And recks not his own rede” (I:iii;48-51). These lines were delivered by Ms. Ward with a somewhat mocking, ironic smile, but the humor of the play is by no means confined to the realm of irony. Polonius’ part is loaded with low farce. For example, Osric’s pompous diction also partakes of that trait. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are “low” characters (in the spiritual sense) with comic overtones where they indulge themselves in bawdy humor, i.e. Guildenstern’s “Faith, her [Fortune’s] privates [private parts] we” (II:ii;233).
The comic interweavings in Hamlet, it could be argued, create a “space” of its own in the play by serving many functions. This space is substantial even if it is surrounded by the greater, tragic space within which it resides; and this comedic space fits clearly into Cowan’s conception of an “infernal” comedic terrain. Certainly it is a space where there is no “grace” (theological grace) and in this space “selfishness and malice prevail” (Hamlet’s coarse jesting with Ophelia in the run-up to the play- within-a-play fits this characterization). Furthermore, the community of Elsinore has accepted its own fallen state as Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern certainly are examples of that. “Love cannot dwell in such a society,” as it is shown through Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia, a rejection which Harold Jenkins, in his introduction to the play in the Arden Shakespeare, is a rejection of the marriage bed itself (149-150).
The “infernality” determines the comic identities of the characters that are in the space. We can see that this is so when comparing one with comedic character another that exists in another Shakespearean comedic work. This alternate comedic character is Sir John Falstaff. There is no one, singular character in Hamlet that is remotely like Sir John who describes himself (correctly) in 2 Henry IV with the following words: “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men” (I:ii;8-9). Sir John’s expansive, stage-filling, exuberant jesting, and delightful nimbleness in lying, would be wholly out of place in Hamlet. While the eccentricities of this character would be a fine fit in the comedic terrain of the two Henry IV plays and Merry Wives, Sit John would be woefully out of place in Hamlet as he is too big and boisterous for such an “infernal,” subterranean space, and too sunny as well. Different comedic spaces require and impose different identities.
Consider Polonius: Polonius is, of course, a courtier and a fool who is unbelievably prolix and obtuse. There is no hint of rebellion in him with respect to the status quo though he is close enough to the throne to realize that his new master, Claudius, is as–to reverse the order of Hamlet’s words–a “Satyr to Hyperion” (I:ii;140). We are not meant to find Polonius “cute” nor overly sympathetic and this remains the central flaw in Hume Cronyn’s portrayal of the role in Burton’s Hamlet. Hamlet’s utter lack of concern for his corpse which is “now most still, most secret, most grave, Who was in life a foolish prating knave, Come sir, to draw toward an end with you” (II:iv;214-217).
Holland points out that there is irony in these lines and also that Polonius, in seeking to find out the secrets of others, is ultimately destroyed by Hamlet’s sword thrusting blindly through the arras where Polonius has concealed himself (179). In a way, this is poetic justice as Polonius remained a minister of a corrupt king; he shows no trace in the play of any doubt respecting his high position. His comedic identity is established by his pretensions of a “low” type occupying a “high” position and his position has seduced him into thinking of himself as a “wise” and “grave” man of affairs.
Conversely, Polonius’ comic identity also serves a function. At Elsinore, Hamlet states: “The time is out of joint” (I:v;196) and the fact that the first minister of the state, and confidant of the king and his wife, is a conniving worm who speaks in lofty tones, but lacks the scruples to fawn on royalty, spy on Hamlet, etc. indicates a bland acceptance of evil.
Indeed, Elsinore is filled with such people. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are quintessential ciphers, wholly amoral in their posing as Hamlet’s friends while prepared to cause his death. As Jenkins has pointed out with respect to Hamlet’s line to Horatio justifying the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “Why, man, they did make love to this employment” (V:ii;57), there is no evidence in the text that they knew of their commission to assist in Hamlet’s death. However, Hamlet assumes the worst in them and that we should do so also (n. 57). Their “hail fellow, well met” pretensions of camaraderie with Hamlet are wholly false. They are amoral Renaissance courtiers with no ethical compass and this lowness has the unexpected effect of making them into comedic characters. The character of Osric, for example, is just such a creature as might be found at this court. He adds a flash of coloring to the play as an exemplar of the kind of aide de camp a monarch like Claudius might employ.
Also, the Grave Digger scene serves several thematic and ideological functions. One such function is to present a view of human mortality from a dark comic perspective that emphasizes certainty. The Grave Digger’s literalness in saying that it is not a woman, but one who was once a woman, who is to be buried in the grave he digs, which Hamlet characterizes as “absolute” (V:I;132) is a piece of dark humor which emphasizes, in the midst of scenes of death and burial, the distinction between living and dead and the inevitability of the passage from one existential realm to another.
Finally, there is the portion of time that Hamlet himself spends in the comic space of the tragedy. Volumes could be written on this subject, but it would be accurate to simply characterize his dominant brand of comedic expression as bitterly ironic and numerous functions are served by his use of irony, one of which is to illustrate his intelligence. The line, “A little more than kin, and a little less than kind” (I:ii;65) is an example of how a mixture of irony and word play demonstrate the nimbleness of mind. This type of word play would have been more familiar to (and more enjoyed by) people of the Renaissance than it is by modern audiences, but the ability of Hamlet to seem mad while sending barbed shafts into his auditors is also serves his use of irony.
In conclusion, there is much comedy in the tragedy of Hamlet and the nature of this comedy is conditioned by the particular comedic terrain. In this particular play, that terrain is what Cowans calls an “infernal” terrain. The comic identity of those characters who either live in, or are sometimes to be found in, that terrain is both environmentally conditioned and reflects such conditioning It is that latter process that giving us the information we need to comntemplate what kind of place Elsinore exists within. The blending of the comic and tragic genres in Hamlet vastly enriches it and does so in complex ways, ways that go well beyond the notion of mere “comic relief”.
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Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.
Cowan, Louise. “Introduction.” The Comic Terrain. Electronic reprint. Downloaded 2 March
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Saccio, Peter. William Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories,and Tragedies. DVD Lectures.
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Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. London: Methuen, 1997. Arden
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 Note that Auerbach equates “low” with comedy and “high” with tragedy. This is a distinction that goes all the way back to Aristotle and which became connected to a general tendency in western literature to match “style” with “matter,” a “high” tale of heroism, courage, etc. to be represented in a “high” rhetorical style and a “low” matter of buffoonery or cowardice, etc. to be represented in a “low” rhetorical style. Auerbach notes that Shakespearean tragedy is socially stratified, tragic or sublime characters tending to be noble (314). Of course the fact that tragic characters are of high rank does not imply the converse, that men and women of high rank always have tragic stature. Certainly, that is not the case in Hamlet.
 But note that within the play, but outside the comedic space within it, there can be love. Horatio certainly loves Hamlet, e.g. “Goodnight sweet price,/ And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (V:ii; 364-365).
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