Monday, March 24, 2008

Hamlet and the Fishmonger

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. 2nd. ed. London: Arden, 1982.

If Hamlet has overheard Polonius’ plan to “loose my daughter to him” (II.ii), Hamlet’s identification of Polonius as “a fishmonger” makes more sense . . . if we consider “fishmonger” to have the associations Harold Jenkins, the editor of the second Arden edition of the play, thinks it has. Therefore, the sneaky Gibson Hamlet may be spot on. Or it may be over-interpreting the word, and, working backward from that point, it may ascribe to Hamlet qualities that he does not have.

The OED is notoriously unhelpful with any off-color possibilities for this word. In fact, its five-word definition—“One who deals in fish”—seems to eliminate any polysemous potential in practical application (particularly as it might point to Polonius). The use Hamlet makes of the word in Hamlet is conspicuous by its absence from the illustrative quotations.

It might be too simplistic to gloss “fishmonger” as “bawd,” but I’m tempted to let it go at that. Most of Hamlet’s “mad” words to Polonius seem much more pointed than simply humorous.

If Polonius is a fishmonger in this sense, that makes Ophelia the fish. But she may be (and, in some productions, she most decidedly is) “She is nother fyshe nor fleshe, nor good red hearyng” (1 Hen. IV, III.iii.144).

Could there be some elision that makes the joke plainer and more pointed? Shakespeare uses the word “fleshmonger” in Measure for Measure—”Was the Duke a flesh-monger, a foole, and a coward, as you then reported him to be? (V. i. 337)—and the OED pulls no punches about the meaning of that word: Definition 2 reads “A fornicator; a pander.”

More on this in the future—believe it or not, there’s much more to say!

But . . . coming soon . . . Jephthah!

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Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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