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Hamlet’s sledded poleaxe


U 9.130-2: Not for nothing was he a butcher's son, wielding the sledded poleaxe and spitting in his palms.

As Stephen holds forth in the library, regaling his captive audience with his biographical theory of Hamlet, he conflates bits of Shakespeare’s text with passages from the commentaries, demonstrating his wit and ability to construct an entertaining scholarly melange.

    At one point he imbeds, in a supposition about John Shakespeare’s occupation, a description of William’s activities, using Hamlet père’s battle-axe as a butchering tool.

Not for nothing was he a butcher's son, wielding the sledded poleaxe and spitting in his palms. (9.130-2)

    It is possible that Joyce found the butcher occupation in Aubrey’s Brief Lives, but he did have in his library another source, George Brandes’s William Shakespeare, A Critical Study:

His marriage enabled John Shakespeare to extend his business.  He had large transactions in wool, and also dealt, as occasion offered, in corn and other commodities.  Aubrey’s statement that he was a butcher seems to mean no more than that he himself fattened and killed the animals whose skins he used in his trade.  But in those days the different occupations in a small English country town were not at all strictly discriminated; the man who produced the raw material would generally work it up as well. (p. 6)

    The poleaxe as a butcher’s term could also be familiar to his auditors.  The OED lists several instances of this definition and Bloom had earlier thought:

Wretched brutes there at the cattlemarket waiting for the poleaxe to split their skulls open. (8.723-4)

    And the assembled literati would no doubt be familiar with the textual conundrum posed by the variants “Polacks" and “poleaxe”: Hamlet the King either slaying the sled- (or sledge-)riding Polish soldiers or forcefully striking the icy field with his weapon.

    The adjective “sledded”, however, may have been a puzzler to someone picturing a butcher’s axe, rather than a weapon, unless of course it passed unnoticed in Stephen’s verbal torrent. 

    Joycean scholars too – Gifford, for example - have not explicated the “sledded” part of the phrase, referring only to the “poleaxe”.

    Nevertheless, we do know that Joyce (and presumably Stephen) read footnotes, often the more obscure the better, so it would not be totally improbable for Stephen to intend the meaning of “weighted” for a “sledded” butcher’s poleaxe. 

    In one of the books in Joyce’s library, The tragedy of Hamlet / [William Shakespeare]; edited for the use of students by A. W. Verity, occurs a note on “sledded”:

A wholly different view of the passage is that we should read "the sledded pole-axe" and interpret 'the pole-axe weighted with a sledge or hammer at the back'  The objections are: (1) pole-axe first appears in the fourth Folio (1685), which can scarcely be said to have any textual authority at all; (2) sledge, a 'hammer', is not known to have ever been spelt sled; (3) Horatio says the, not his, and there is no evidence that a weapon of this character especially belonged, as the would imply, to northern kings or peoples;  (4) the incident, so understood, becomes trivial (especially in view of the preceding lines), one that would hardly have made at the time so deep an impression on the onlooker as to recur spontaneously to his memory at such a moment as this.

Other suggestions like his leaded pole-axe, arising from the fact that the Quarto has the unfortunate spelling sleaded, are not worth discussing. (p. 287)

    And earlier in the Glossary:

sledded, I.i.63.  Skeat says that the original form of the noun was sled, and that sledge "is a corrupt form, apparently due to sleds, pl. of sled." That sled=sledge was not obsolete in Shakespeare’s time is shown by Cotgrave’s Dictionary (1611).  The word is of Dutch origin, cognate with slide.  The other word sledge, 'a hammer', is cognate with slay. (p. 283)


    Despite Verity’s caveat, weighted butcher axes did exist in Shakespeare’s time, as well as in Stephen’s, and the phrase “sledded poleaxe” found in some editions of Hamlet certainly suits Stephen’s rhetorical intentions.

    It may also be worth noting that in “Cyclops”, “poleaxe” adds an additional ethnic identification to the Polish pianist, patriot and prime minister, Ignacy Jan Paderewski (with the traditional Polish honorific “Pan,”) and a Celtic touch in “Paddy,” the complex becoming Pan Poleaxe Paddyrisky (12.565).1

Robert Janusko

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1 Puns on Paderewski’s name were not uncommon. "Later May recounts that her mother interrupted a concert by a famous Polish pianist, Ignacy Paderewski, to ask her, 'Phwat county in Ireland did Paddy Roosky come from?'" (The Irish 400 (1897), Vaudeville act by the Elinore Sisters quoted by M. Alison Kibler in: Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville, Chapel Hill: 1999, p. 103).