I was giving a short talk on the Bayeux Tapestry to a class the other day and mentioned that another word for “tapestry” is “arras“. It was then that, while one part of my mind looked after the waffle about the Bayeux Tapestry, the other went wandering off to Denmark… It reasoned with itself thus:
“Wasn’t it an arras behind which Polonius hid when Hamlet entered his mother’s boudoir? And when Hamlet heard him didn’t he cry ‘A rat!’, and couldn’t it be that Shakespeare was deliberately punning?”
Later, when I looked up the passage, this is what I found:
POLONIUS [behind the arras]. What, ho! help, help, help!
HAMLET [draws]. How now, a rat? dead, for a ducat, dead.
He makes a pass through the arras
POLONIUS [falls]. O, I am slain!
QUEEN. Oh me,what hast thou done?
HAMLET. Nay, I know not,
Is it the king?
He lifts up the arras and discovers Polonius, dead
QUEEN. O what a rash and bloody deed is this!
HAMLET. A bloody deed – almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
QUEEN. As kill a king!
HAMLET. Ay, lady, it was my word….
[to Polonius] Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
The word “arras” is never mentioned on stage, it is simply a stage direction. If the direction was written by Shakespeare perhaps the word “arras” made an impression on him that found its expression in the choice of words later on in the passage. Happily, the pun, if it is a pun, is not made explicit for the audience by having Hamlet or his mother make mention of the arras itself.