“Play”ing with Hamlet: a concordance view

A while back, I discussed the debate about Hamlet’s madness “so call it” (II.ii.5), and came out fully on the side of non-madness. Well, I’m back. But unlike many of my re-examinations, I don’t find myself in any kind of “walk-back.” Rather, now I’m more convinced than ever that the boy jus’ ain’t cray cray.


Well, you know me, I love a good concordance, an exhaustive listing of the uses of any word within a given body of work. And if you’ve been following along for any length of time (or have just checked out the not-so-digital tools of the trade), I dig the one over at OpenSource Shakespeare. And as we wind down the discussion of a play (especially after our hiatus), I like to take a dive into it. In recent months, I’ve looked at “nothing” in Much Ado, “gulling” in Twelfth Night, “man” and “play” in As You Like It, and “noble” and “honor” (twice) in Julius Caesar.

For Hamlet, let’s revisit the concept of “play.” “Play” and its variants are used in 10 speeches in As You Like It (as I noted back then), but also in 13 speeches for Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear, 11 speeches in both The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, 15 speeches in both Henry IV, Part One and Henry V, 19 speeches in The Merchant of Venice, and a whopping 34 speeches in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I mention these because they are the highest totals for the different genres–tragedy, tragicomedy, history, (the oft-derided term of) “problem play,” and comedy, respectively…

And for comparison: Hamlet uses it in 45 speeches (not counting stage directions), with a total of 60 uses.

Even Midsummer, which also has a play-within-a-play, only has a little more than two-thirds the uses Hamlet has, and it is the second-place play by a fairly wide margin.

In Hamlet, one-fourth of the appearances are of the word “player” which in this usage is defined as “A person who acts a character on the stage; a dramatic performer, an actor” (“player, n.1; 4” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 15 May 2015.). While many critics have called Hamlet a playwright–he does pen lines for “The Mousetrap”–I see him as a player (remember his ease at recalling the lines from a play he’d heard only once). He acts, but often it doesn’t seem as if those actions are his own.

Not surprisingly, another one-fourth of the appearances are nouns defined as “A dramatic or theatrical performance staged before an audience” (“play, n.; I.16.a” OED Online.). Hamlet is a play, but for Hamlet, his life becomes a theatrical performance.

So, half of the uses are tied to the idea of a staged performance, as is Hamlet’s “antic disposition” (I.v.175). And here it’s probably not a bad idea to revisit that phrase. Remember that two of “antic”’s meanings are tied to performance: “A grotesque pageant or theatrical representation” and “A performer who plays a grotesque or ludicrous part” (“antic, adj. and n.; 3.a., and 4.a., respectively” OED Online.). And while disposition can mean “Natural tendency or bent of the mind” (“disposition, n.; II.6.” OED Online.), it could also mean “The due arrangement of the parts of an argument or discussion” (“disposition, n.; I.1.c.” OED Online.)… ah, the “argument”  rabbit hole: remember Claudius’ question during the play, “Have you heard the argument. Is there no offense it in?” (III.ii.228-9).

In the first half of the play, before the play-within-a-play, there is a handful of verb appearances with a mixture of meanings, a kind of offspring of “to be engaged with some activity,” “to perform or practice (a trick, joke, deception),” and “to act, behave, conduct oneself in a specified way” (“play, v.; I.1 and 5, II.17.a, respectively” OED Online.), as well as another handful of verb appearances with the meaning “To engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than for a serious or practical purpose; to amuse or divert oneself” (“play, v.; II.11.a” OED Online.). Hamlet is engaged in a deception, and by his wordplay, he certainly seems to be amusing himself.

After the play-within-a-play, there is a handful of verb instances with the meaning “To perform on a musical instrument” (“play, v.; III.21.a” OED Online.). And, at the end of the play, in the run-up to and duel itself, there is another a handful of verb appearances with the definitions “To take part in a sporting contest” (“play, v.; II.14.a” OED Online.) and “To gamble” (“play, v.; II.14.b” OED Online.).

Thus, nearly the other half of uses also have the connotation of performance (or at least participation in an act).

All these are straightforward. The remaining two stray far from the previous meanings. After Hamlet learns of his father’s ghost, he soliloquizes, “My father’s spirit- in arms? All is not well. // I doubt some foul play” (I.ii.256). Here, the meaning is “An act or proceeding, esp. of a treacherous, crafty, or underhand kind” (“play, n.; II.10.a.” OED Online.). His own act may be grotesque or ludicrous, but it is only to right the treacherous wrong of Claudius. Then, in Act Three, Scene Two, after the play has ended, a triumphant Hamlet sings to Horatio, “Why, let the strucken deer go weep, // The hart ungalled play” (III.ii.xx). Here, the meaning is “to spring, fly, or dart to and fro” (“play, v.; I.2.a.” OED Online.). The deer’s play is natural, purely physical, instinctual, less than human. Hamlet is beyond this: his is thoughtful, thoroughly human play.


Or as Polonius says, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (II.ii.204-5).

If Hamlet was truly mad, why are we given all these references–more than any other play in the Canon–of performance, of artifice?

And why, more importantly, are we given Ophelia’s crazed scene once Hamlet has left the world of the play? The juxtaposition is telling. When Hamlet returns in Act Five, all pretense of his madness is erased. It is not only no longer needed, but it would ring false: after seeing Ophelia, we as an audience could never accept Hamlet’s “play” as real again.

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