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Title:’Where be your gibes now?’ Joe Sutcliffe Discusses the Role of Satire in Hamlet

Title:’Where be your gibes now?’ Joe Sutcliffe Discusses the Role of Satire in Hamlet
Author(s):Joe Sutcliffe Source:The English Review. 19.4 (Apr. 2009): p2. From Literature Resource Center.
Document Type:Critical essay Bookmark:Bookmark this Document
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Philip Allan Updates
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Hamlet, ‘reading on a book’, tells Polonius that he is engaged by a ‘satirical rogue’ (II.2.193) who, though he mocks old men for ‘a plentiful lack of wit’, does not seem particularly sharp himself given the coarse, stereotypical nature of the jokes in the book about the physical indignity which accompanies advancing years. Satirical rogues were fashionable around the time Hamlet was first performed. In the 1590s there was a revival of neoclassical verse satire which caused sufficient alarm to the authorities for Church of England bishops to institute a ban on it in 1599, calling for the works of some poets to be burned. The vogue for satire arose in part because of perceptions of Elizabeth’s court as increasingly corrupt. Courtiers jockeyed for position as the queen approached her end, and the Crown increasingly resorted to bribery as it unloaded land and titles and granted monopolies in certain trades to courtiers in order to raise money for the war against Spain, itself a source of corruption through war-profiteering. The historian John Guy links the preoccupation with decay and weariness in Hamlet’s soliloquy ‘To be, or not to be’ to a fin de siecle feeling that there was ‘something rotten’ in the state of dying Tudor England.


As one who ‘lack[s] advancement’ (III.2.308) but who knows how court politics work, Hamlet casts a mocking eye over ambitious, unscrupulous movers in Claudius’s court: the would-be spies, Polonius, and Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, and the time-server, Osric. Polonius, conscious perhaps of an insecure position now that there is a new king, sacrifices Ophelia’s dignity and happiness in the hope that his help will allow Claudius to deal with Hamlet more effectively, a dispossessed prince who will later prove to be a political threat. By protesting too much that he is not attempting to set up a marriage between his daughter and Hamlet which would be politically invaluable, he, in fact, draws attention to how this possibility is influencing his actions (II.2.127-37). Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are told by Gertrude that for inside information on Hamlet they will “receive such thanks/As fits a king’s remembrance’ (II.2.25-6), an ambiguous promise which tantalises with the offer of patronage and financial reward and leads to the cloak-and-dagger subterfuge of the trip to England under the guise of friendship. Osric, obsequious, affected and easily impressed by flashy material goods, is a parasite who survives on pickings off the dying body of Claudius’s court. This is a world where ‘the candied tongue’ prospers (III.2.50-2), and where courtiers who once mocked Claudius are now so servile that they will pay up to 100 ducats for a miniature of him (II.2.360): as the Player King observes in The Murder of Gonzago, ‘The great man down, you mark his favourite flies;/The poor advanc’d makes friends of enemies’ (III.2.360).

Hamlet’s nostalgic, idealised memory of his father seems to blur into an implicit yearning for a more dignified, chivalric world, which, in turn, forms part of his revulsion against the cheap, tawdry Claudius, the embodiment of all that is wrong with ‘the drossy age’ (V.2.166) in which Hamlet finds himself. Claudius, ‘the bloat king’ (III.4.184), represents ‘the fatness of these pursy times’ (III.4.154) in his ostentation (he loves to fire a cannon on public occasions, 1.2.125, V.2.270) and sensual decadence (‘heavy-headed revel’, I.4.10) but, as Polonius’s shockingly ‘obscure’ funeral (IV.6.210) suggests, such largesse might be spread thinly. The critic James Shapiro has pointed out the contrast between the real chivalric duel between Old Hamletand Old Fortinbras and the Claudius-sponsored parody of a chivalric duel between Hamlet and Laertes, which is ‘nothing more than a fencing match, fought with blunted weapons’. Both duels involve wagers but whereas Old Hamlet risks losing his own kingdom, Claudius’s entertainment is concerned with fashionable French rapiers and expensive Barbary horses. Similarly, we could see Hamlet’s memories of Yorick, with their evocation of a hearty medieval banquet, as an implicit contrast with Claudius’s squalid drinking sessions.

A dissolute, gaudy king, with his nouveau riche duel, presides over a shallow, grasping, materialistic culture where feudal patterns are quickly unravelling: ‘the age is grown so picked [refined] that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he galls his kibe [rubs his chilblain]’ (V.1.118). In the graveyard scene of Act V, the aristocratic prince sounds like a stand-up comedian as he dissects the vanity and ignorance of the socially ambitious such as the ‘great buyer of land’ (V.1.87), perhaps drawing on the stereotype of the brash middle-class man on-the-make who had benefited from the selling of monastic land under Henry VIII and the Crown’s willingness to sell titles for cash. Hamlet’s remembering the chivalric world of his father–Yorick, the ‘courteous action’ of the Ghost as it beckons him to follow (I.4.60)–seems partly a conservative vision of a more ordered and honourable world in the midst of dissolving certainties, and partly a touching nostalgia for the simple assurances of childhood.


Such satirical aspects of Hamlet are close to the tragic aspects of the play: Polonius-like as to the question of genre, we could call the play ‘satirical-tragical’. This works in at least three ways: in Hamlet’s uncertainty concerning the moral and cultural values which should reassuringly underpin his mockery of folly and dishonesty; his sense of the futility of existence generally in a world where injustice triumphs and heroic achievement appears shrouded in moral complexity, which connects to the play’s new and experimental dramatisation of depression; and his satirical view of himself as an absurd figure of hapless failure (which also links to the study of depression).

Hamlet wants, I think, to set up chivalry as the ideal opposite to the modern, Machiavellian approach of the Danish court with its trickery, sophistry and subterfuge, a formulation which exists most obviously in the explicit and extreme contrast he elaborates between his father and Claudius. This opposition, he discovers, is not quite as simple as it seems, as the glamorous mask of chivalry slips on occasions to reveal a disquieting brutality. Pyrrhus, for example, in the Player’s recitation, is accruing chivalric honour by revenging his father’s death and fighting patriotically for his country, but the sign of this triumph, the ‘heraldry more dismal’ and his being ‘Head to foot …/ total gules’, in reality is the blood of innocents such as ‘mothers, daughters, sons’ (II.2.414-6). Elsewhere, what, precisely, are the Ghost’s ‘foul crimes done in my days of nature’ (I.5.12)? (Although a complex area of discussion, I am assuming that the Ghost is the ghost of Hamlet’s father.) And how does old Hamlet’s ghost leading him into private conversation with ‘courteous action’, the hallmark of a chivalric disposition, square with the decidedly ungenerous pressure placed on Hamlet to commit an act of revenge which will damn him? Further, the style of chivalry, as it appears in the play, seems to border on swagger, a mode of self-dramatising machismo in the field of warfare which correlates to the histrionic shows Hamlet mocks in the grieving process (I.2.76-86, V.1.220-351) and in acting on the stage (III.2.14-29). In the conflict between Old Fortinbras and Old Hamlet, ’emulate pride’ and bloody ‘heraldry’ dictate that kingdoms are won and lost on the outcome of individual combat; in his ambiguous evaluation of Fortinbras’s motives as he attacks Poland, Hamlet observes how ‘twenty thousand men’ will perish ‘for a fantasy and trick of fame’. (IV.4.60-2).

The danger of seeing through things–the essential impulse of satire–is, for Hamlet, that everything can appear unreal in its emptiness. Existence is defined by a form of nothingness: ‘it appeareth no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours … And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’ (II.2.290; my italics). Such indifference transmutes into a bitter; amused sense of the pointlessness of all heroic actions, which includes his own stop-start plan to revenge his father’s murder: ‘Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,/Might stop a hole, to keep the wind away’ (V.1.180). This strange, haunting, half joke would have had an extra charge at the time given that Caesar was symbolic of perfect human achievement since he combined the role of the man-of-action and the scholar, as author of The Gallic Wars: he is held up as a role-model in Plutarch’s popular Lives (drawn on by Shakespeare in his Roman plays) and in Roger Ascham’s influential The Schoolmaster (1570). Since the noble course of action is rarely clear, since what one intends is often turned on its head (III.2.191-196), since the wicked seem to prosper unchecked, why attempt to do anything? ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’ (III.1.56).


Hamlet’s satirical vision of a Danish court which fails to meet the necessary standards of honourable public life is complicated by his vision of himself as one who also fails to live tip to his own and his father’s expectation that he will sweep to revenge. By having Hamlet mock himself as a ‘John-a-dreams’ character (II.2.520), seemingly a popular comic stereotype of a young intellectual who has no firm grip on reality and the very opposite of a bloody revenger, Shakespeare achieves two apparently contradictory effects. On the one hand, there is the broad comedy, which must have appealed particularly to the groundlings, of watching a student revenger go about his business by: writing aphorisms about the villain’s calumny in his pocket-book (I.5.106-8); reading books (II.2.165); setting up an amateur theatrical performance as a prelude to bloodshed; and discoursing on the nature of his over-intellectuality which prevents him being a proper revenger (IV.39-46). On the other hand, Shakespeare suggests the self-hatred that feeds into Hamlet’s suicidal despair, and, through alerting us to the refined and sensitive nature of Hamlet’s soul, reminds us that we view Hamlet more sympathetically than Hamlet does himself: as the poet Swinburne remarked, ‘Hamlet had somewhat more of mind than another man to make up’.

By Act V, although Hamlet makes amusing sport at the expense of Osric and aspiring professional people such as lawyers, the mockery has a more laconic mood. Hamlet the satirist is now morally compromised himself since he has the blood of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, and, to a degree, Ophelia on his hands. Such bloody experience merges into a more sharply realised awareness of his own mortality, a preoccupation across the play brought into more dramatic focus by Claudius’s attempt to kill him. In the shadow of death, youthful, idealistic anger gives way to a spirit of weary, melancholic stoicism: ‘Let be’ (V.2.196). Whereas earlier in the play Hamlet placed mirrors–metaphorical (The Murder of Gonzago) and literal–in front of Claudius and Gertrude to convince them of their guilt, now the tables are turned as Yorick, a mirror of Hamlet as a court satirist, through his skeletal jaws implicitly asks Hamlet, ‘Where be your gibes now?’ (V.1.160). Corruption, physically, is unavoidable, however much cruel fun Hamlet might derive from quoting satirical rogues attacking old men for their ‘gray beards’ and ‘weak hams’. Moral corruption, Hamletruefully recognises, is natural and endemic, too; ‘the corrupted currents of this world’ identified by Claudius (III.3.57) run not only through secret societal relationships but through Hamlet’s own blood: ‘You are the queen … And, would it were not so, you are my mother’ (III.4.16). The Prince of Denmark knows with greater clarity that he belongs to ‘Adam’s profession’ (V.1.26): in terms of Original Sin, he now feels ‘native and indued/Unto that element’, like Ophelia, drowning (IV.7.179-80). Like his ghostly father, who has seen it all before, Hamlet takes his leave ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ (I.2.231).



Guy, J. (1984) ‘The Tudor Age’ in The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain (ed. Kenneth O. Morgan), Oxford University Press.

Shapiro, J. (2006) 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, Faber.

Joe Sutcliffe teaches English at St Paul’s School, London.

Sutcliffe, Joe

Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)
Sutcliffe, Joe. “‘Where be your gibes now?’ Joe Sutcliffe discusses the role of satire in Hamlet.” The English Review 19.4 (2009): 2+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 11 Jan. 2015.
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