John Frame

We’ve Been Mocked!: The use of the term “Cuckold” in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

            In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the term “cuckold” is used only once (by Laertes), bearing a resonance throughout the play that calls one to think of the implications of the term and how Shakespeare may be employing it. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun form of “cuckold” as both “a derisive name for the husband of an unfaithful wife” (1), and “a member of a genus of birds which lay eggs in other birds’ nests” (2). The verb form is defined as both “to dishonour (a husband) by adultery” (1), and “to cheat, trick” (2). All of the definitions raise very interesting questions regarding how Shakespeare utilizes “cuckold” as both a harsh criticism of Polonius, Laertes, Hamlet, and the state of Denmark, as well as perhaps an accusation on Gertrude’s chastity and faithfulness. We witness its sole appearance in Act VI, as Laertes states:
            That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard,
            Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot
            Even here between the chaste unsmirched brow
            Of my true mother. (IV.v.117-120)

Laertes employs the term as a self-afflicted accusation. Gertrude says, “Calmly, good Laertes” (IV.v.116), to which Laertes replies the above quotation. If even a drop of his blood is calm, then he is as good as good as a bastard, worthless; because that is the only way that he will cease the need to avenge his cuckold father’s death. But the term “harlot” is also very interestingly applied to not only Gertrude if we take one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions (“n. an unchaste woman; prostitute” (5c)) as a possible marker; but also to Laertes since the OED also defines it as a man made out to be a “buffoon” (2) or “servant” (3). Laertes may as well be the harlot since he has essentially allowed Claudius to continue to use his mother and make him out to be a worthless avenger of his father’s death. The same can probably be said for Hamlet. He sits back while Claudius believes that he has won. Gertrude plays a part in making him a buffoon as well; just as by the end of the play, Gertrude becomes the buffoon who drinks the deathly liquid from the cup, just as Polonius was killed by the vile of deathly poison.

            If we concentrate on the use of the verb form in the above quotation, then it is necessary to call into question Gertrude’s hand in the murder of Polonius. She is obviously the one who has done the action of cuckolding Polonius. She has committed adultery in the eyes of most of the men in the play. She defends Claudius, the murderer! But even though all of those possibilities ring true throughout the play, it is hard to ignore the symbolic use of the term “cuckold.” Denmark has been made a cuckold. That, I think is the most important, and least recognized, recipient of Laertes’ accusation. If he does not seek revenge, and therefore justice, then there is n hope for Denmark. An empire is only as strong and honorable as its leader. Claudius is weak. We are aware of this. We’ve somehow been made a cuckold, it seems.