I am but mad north-northwest; when the wind is southerly,
I know a hawk from a handsaw. Hamlet Scene 7-370-371
What is Hamlet saying here? In minds enmeshed in current events of forgotten fears, long dead conversations half-remembered on Hawking Lane, Stainsby under the Heron of Stainsby Pond. Is Hamlet like his mother says- “Mad as the sea and wind when both contend which is the mightier“?
What do we see? The stage directions I know a hawk – Hamlet looks at Guildenstern, and flaps his arms using body language as if to say to Guildenstern, “you are a good hawk, you came to my hand and shook it, like a well-trained hawk will respond to his owner’s hand and “shake hands” with his owner.” from a handsaw – Hamlet drops his arms, and turns to Rosencrantz, holds his forearm horizontally his hand in a handshake position, quickly does an action like sawing wood, jabbing his hand at Rosencrantz. Hamlet’s body language says, “I know you saw my hand, but you didn’t shake it. You are therefore not a handshake, you are only a handsaw.” Rosencrantz doesn’t understand it, and steps back, alarmed. He’s thinking, “my goodness, he really is mad, he’s trying to jab me!”
These few lines allude to: ‘handsaw’ is one syllable off ‘hernshaw’ which was a kind of heron. Hawk was in fact a nickname for a plasterer’s tool. So the joke is made between the parallel meanings of both words. ‘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).
Further, did Shakespeare know Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (translation published 1579) with its Ancient Egyptian motifs of a hawk for the North Wind and a heron for the Southern Wind?. Hamlet is not so mad as to be unable to identify the southerly migration of the hernshaw when hawks are nowhere to be seen!!
And then again: mad north-northwest – this phrase plays off a line in Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowls.” Chaucer’s line is: “As wisely as I saw thee north-northwest,” where Chaucer is speaking of Venus. According to Hamlet Online “However, from England, the planet Venus is never seen in the NNW. What Chaucer wrote is impossible, if he did mean the planet Venus, as it appears he did. Shakespeare was apparently familiar with that line from Chaucer, and with the observational difficulty it raised, and so he turned Chaucer’s “wisely” into “madly.” A person who did think he saw Venus in the NNW, from England, would be mad. Shakespeare went a little further with the “wise”=”mad” equation in Hamlet, as when he had Claudius speak of Laertes’s “wisest friends,” which can be read with the facetious undertone of “maddest.” Since Venus symbolizes love, the concept of madly seeing Venus expresses madness in love.”
when the wind is southerly – Wittenberg, Germany, is almost due south of Helsingor, Denmark. Hamlet’s phrase about the southerly wind can be understood as reference to the fact that Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, in traveling to Elsinore, “blew in on a southerly wind,” as the saying expresses it. Presuming they sailed from the coast of Germany, they literally blew in on a southerly wind.
Hamlet has identified Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, from his point of view, as “enemy vessels,” working for Claudius. Related to the situation in those days in England, it makes Hamlet, England, and Claudius, Spain. Spain was England’s archenemy, and even tried to invade England with the Spanish Armada, which, of course, blew in from the south, on a southerly wind.
Spanish ships, in those days, flew two ensigns, at least, depending on their mission. The ensign of the Spanish Netherlands displayed a Burgundy Cross, in red. The Burgundy Cross was stylized, and the design resembled saw teeth. One could loosely call it a “handsaw” design.
The ensign flown by Spanish galleons sailing to America, had a royal eagle design in the center, and the eagle was surrounded by a gold wreath. One could deprecate the royal eagle by calling it a “hawk,” for alliteration.
Those two ensigns, then, can be poetically referred to as the hawk and the handsaw. They are both “enemy flags,” although they are somewhat different.
With the ensign reference, Hamlet casts R & G as “enemy vessels,” working for Claudius, and is also saying that he can tell the difference between R & G, the difference between the “hawk” and the “handsaw.” The Burgundy Cross on the Netherlands ensign is red. The ‘Rose-‘ part of “Rosencrantz” can be taken to mean “red,” based on the stereotypical red rose. The wreath on the galleon ensign is gold. The ‘Guild-‘ part of “Guildenstern” means “gold.”
The difference between R & G that Hamlet means, first, is that R is “red,” and G is “gold,” the same as a difference in colors on the Spanish ensigns. It’s wordplay between the character names and the Spanish flag designs, with respect to the colors. Then, with respect to the designs, there is again the corresponding difference, with G the “hawk” and R the “handsaw.”
Overall, Hamlet’s speech can be “translated” as follows:
When I look north-northwest, I’m as mad as Chaucer, over love, however,
when “enemy vessels” blow in on a southerly wind, from Wittenberg,
I can tell the “hawk” from the “handsaw,” as well as the English can.