The Winter’s Tale: Hamlet and fardels and bears, oh my

As I’m re-reading The Winter’s Tale (while in my final days in Ashland, watching some really good Shakespeare, and while attempting to write a paper on King Lear with a medical diagnosis of narcissism–the former successfully and happily; the latter…not so much), I’m noticing some words coming up with more frequency than I expected: “fardel” and “bear.”

Oh, my.

So I do a little dance (make a little love…sorry, I’m still in Merry Wives mode) around the concord… and just what the heck do I mean by that? you ask. As longtime readers of the blog know, I love a good deep dive into the ol’ concordance (now you see what I did at the beginning of this paragraph). A concordance (as review for you non-longtime first-timers) is a reference that contains and counts word usage for any given collection of texts; I like to take a look at words that tend to pop up seemingly frequently in my reading [and as per usual: like all our discussions for concordances, we owe a great debt to OpenSource Shakespeare].

And I looked up both “fardel” and “bear.”

Guess what? “Bear” was pretty inconclusive: Yes, The Winter’s Tale has more use of the word than any other play in the Canon (25), but it’s tied with Coriolanus, and just a barely (heh heh) ahead of Antony and Cleopatra (23), as well as Henry VI, Part Three and Julius Caesar (with 22 apiece). So it’s not real obvious. And the lead evaporates completely, if you take into account other variations of the word (bears, bear’s…after which Julius Caesar takes the lead). Of course, as the singular has over 500 instances in the Canon, I haven’t broken it down to see how many were verbs and how many were nouns (you know, the ones that can pursue characters offstage).

But this is where it gets interesting. “Fardel(s)” is used only seven times in the whole Canon: six times–all singular–in The Winter’s Tale, and one time plural in Hamlet. And in that tragedy, it appears in Hamlet’s big “to be or not to be” speech… right next to the world…wait for it…you got it: “bear” as in “Who would these fardels bear?”

Of course, the two plays’ fardels are different:

  • In The Winter’s Tale, it’s most likely “a bundle [or] parcel” (“fardel, n.1.1a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017.)
  • In Hamlet, “a burden or load of sin, sorrow, etc. (“fardel, n.1.3” OED Online.)

Maybe it’s all the post-structural deconstructionism I’ve been studying in my Master’s program, but I almost see these usages in The Winter’s Tale as some kind of intertextual allusion to Hamlet. But why? What for? I mean, that’s crazy, right?