Thursday, February 8, 2024

Overreaction to a New York Times Crossword Puzzle Clue

Sarah and Rafael Musa. "The Door's Open." New York Times Crossword Puzzle. Edited by Will Shortz. Friday, January 26, 2024. "Tricky Clues" note by Deb Amlen. 

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

Note: There will be a spoiler for four-across in this post. But you can see the clue and the blank space on the image to the right. Read on at your own risk.

I haven't been doing crossword puzzles for long, but, like far more seasoned puzzle-doers, I can already complain about the clues.

As you might suspect, I particularly revel in the not-infrequent Shakespeare clues. It's nice to find a balcony or a last word Hamlet utters or the occasional fool. But then there are the less-straightforward clues—the ones that border on the controversial or at least that require more explanation.

Such is the case with the clue for 4A in a recent puzzle: "The 'handsaw' in Hamlet's 'I know a hawk from a handsaw.'" And the answer, as you can see below, is "Heron."

The most reasonable response to this is, of course, "Huh?" And the explanation in the "Tricky Clues" section doesn't really help much:

At times like these, there are worse things to do than turn to Harold Jenkins' Arden edition of Hamlet. Here's his brief note on the line:

Being Jenkins, we also have a comprehensive LN (Long Note) that tells us more:

Thank you, Harold Jenkins! The "Tricky Clues" explanation made it seem like everyone should automatically know that when Hamlet says "handsaw," he really means "heron." It's more complicated than that.

And I agree with Jenkins' general reading that no such stretching is necessary. Putting the two terms into the same class (two kinds of birds or two kinds of tools) empties the phrase of its vitality and its import. Hamlet isn't saying that he can tell two very similar things apart ("I can tell the difference between a 200-thread-count and a 220-thread-count pillowcase" or "I can tell a 40-watt bulb from a 45-watt bulb"). That would give the spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern too great a reason to watch him even more closely. Instead, he's saying he knows the difference between a mountain and a molehill or an elephant and an earwig—something that takes no special insight or intelligence. 

It reminds me of the people who insist that when Jesus says it's as easy for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, he isn't talking about a literal needle but about a very small gate called "the needle's eye." You could just get a camel through that gate if you unloaded it and did a lot of convincing and cajoling: it would be difficult, but not impossible. Interpreting it in that way takes away its power and its humor.

"I can tell a hawk from a handsaw"—I can tell the difference between a living, breathing, feathered bird found in the wild and an inanimate object found on a carpenter's workbench—says everything by saying nothing. Let's leave it with its power and humor. The answer to 4A should be "small saw."

Links: The puzzle in the NYTimes archives.

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