Hamlet North by Northwest

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Photo. by 'Dave again'

“I am but mad north-north-west: when the
wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.”
Hamlet, 2.2.

I am only mad north-by-north-west: when then wind is southerly, I know the difference between a hawk and a handsaw.

How to work out what these lines mean?

This is how I did it…

Theory 1: it has been adopted by many scholars that ‘handsaw’ is one syllable off ‘hernshaw’ which was a kind of heron. Hawk was in fact a nickname for a plasterer’s tool, ergo, the mix-up is in the joke made between the parallel meanings of both words, when corrected to their proper meaning.

Theory 2: Again, working on the basis of ‘hernshaw’ being a kind of heron, when during the sport of ‘hawking’ a heron in flight will typically fly away downwind so – in the middle of the morning, a typical time for hawking – the hunter watching his hawk pursue down a southerly wind to the north (unlike a northerly wind which would have him facing the south-south-east and the sun at that time) means the hunter has his back to the sun and thereby can tell the difference between a hawk and hernshaw, during the sport (and not have his eyes blinded by the sun).

Theory 3: my personal favourite although surely incorrect: J. Halliwell-Phillips makes a reference to a book by ‘C.W.H.’ called ‘Athenaum’ which I cannot identify nor locate but apparently suggests that through Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (translation published 1579 / originally written by Plutarch in Greek in the late 1st century) Shakespeare may have become acquainted with the Ancient Egyptian motifs of a hawk for the North Wind and a heron for the Southern Wind, the meaning being that Hamlet is not so mad as to be unable to identify the southerly migration of the hernshaw when hawks are nowhere to be seen. Pretty thin, I know, but don’t shoot the messenger.

What is crucial however, is that Hamlet sounds completely mad in attempting to affirm his sanity. I do not believe it was intended to be understood by the audience but rather Shakespeare was writing from the heart and soul of his character, who certainly indeed, meant to baffle his friends.

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Humphrey Bartosik is the creative director of African film-making company Sarras Production. He is also the co-founder of .44 Calibre Shakespeare. http://44calibreshakespeare.com http://sarrasproduction.com Twitter @DailyBard
  • Robert Allsop

    I suspect a climatic origin for the meaning of this passage : in north/west Europe latitudes, when the wind is blowing from the NorthWest quarter, the wind has a tendency to be blowing every which way at once – see line of dialogue in the 1945 Powell and Pressburger film “I know where I’m going” – I suggest the line is implying the equivalent of a state of mental confusion, contrasting with when there is a – stable – southerly airstream.

  • David Harris

    Regarding “North by Northwest;” Consider geography. If you look that direction from the caste of Helsignor (Elsinore), you are facing the Bay of Kattegat, which would be the only route for a Norwegian attack (from Fortinbras). Therefore, this is the direction the guard post was most likely facing from where the ghost of old Hamlet was sighted. And that ghost, along with its command to Hamlet, is the source of his madness.

  • Graeme Marsh

    Is it not as simple as it is spoken?
    That so many are proclaiming my madness, whilst in truth I am tormented by the fact that my father has been killed by my uncle….
    Mad..you may think…but no….
    I am QUITE sane….and when the winds blow in my favour….or when I be given an audience willing to listen to how I see the situation…..
    In such environments..yes..I know the difference..between a hawk, and a handsaw….

  • VoxPopper

    One interpretation is that the winds are an allusion to the 4 humors, which makes the passage both comedic and more interesting since Hamlet is self diagnosing.

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  • Dav


    Check out this interpretation of the hawk and handsaw spanish flags!

  • Dav

    I think the audience would get the puns of hawks, hernsaw, handsaw and building trades. The audience is ‘in’ on the ‘appearance of madness.

  • http://44calibreshakespeare.com Humphrey

    Thanks for these insights! Intriguing…

  • Christian Smith

    In the 16th c, ‘hawk’ was already in use to denote a person who preys on others. Hence one could make a case that it refers to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as spies.
    The southerly wind is a powerful storm agent in Ovid’s Metamorphosis (Shakespeare’s favourite mythological text): “[Jove] sent the south wind forth;/ And out on soaking wings the south wind flew,/ His ghastly features veiled in deepest gloom./ His beard was sodden with rain, his white hair drenched;/ Mists wreathed his brow and streaming water fell/ From wings and chest; and when in giant hands/ He crushed the hanging clouds, the thunder crashed/ And storms of blinding rain poured down from heaven.” (I,264-271). This is from the story of the flood where Jove destroyed the humans and promised a new race of men. I see this context as analogous to what Hamlet would like to do – allow no more breeding among the corrupt Danes. The southerly wind would sweep away those who are like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to whom Hamlet says these lines.

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