Hoist With His Own Petard

Petard

‘Hoist with his own petard’ is a phrase from a speech in William Shakespeare’s play ‘Hamlet’ that has become proverbial.

The phrase’s meaning is literally that the bomb-maker (a “petard” is a small explosive device) is blown up (‘hoisted’ off the ground) by his own bomb, and indicates an ironic reversal, or poetic justice.

The phrase occurs in a central speech in the play in which Hamlet has discovered a plot on his life by Claudius and resolves to respond to it by letting the plotter be ‘Hoist with his own petard.’ Although the now-proverbial phrase is the best known part of the speech, it and the later sea voyage and pirate attack are central to critical arguments regarding the play.

The phrase, and its containing speech, exist in only one of three early printed versions of the play — the second quarto edition — and scholars are divided on whether this is indicative of authorial intent, or a mere artifact of playhouse practicalities. The speech is a central exemplar of a general theme or pattern in Hamlet: ironic reversal. Throughout the play the pattern unfolds repeatedly: his enemies employ a stratagem against Hamlet, but fail, and he then turns the stratagem back on them. In the final scene, Laertes applies poison to his rapier in order to kill Hamlet, but Hamlet ends up killing Laertes with that same poisoned rapier. And in the end, Hamlet kills Claudius with the same rapier and poisoned wine that were Claudius’s intended weapons against him.

The word ‘hoist’ here is the past participle of the now-archaic verb ‘hoise’ (since Shakespeare’s time, hoist has become the present tense of the verb, with hoisted the past participle), and carries the meaning ‘to lift and remove.’ A ‘petard’ is a ‘small bomb used to blow in doors and breach walls’ and comes from the French ‘pétard,’ which, through Middle French (‘péter’) and Old French (‘pet’), ultimately comes from the Latin ‘pedere’ (‘to break wind’).

Ironic reversal was well-known in sixteenth-century England, and Elizabethan theater inherited the tradition from both Latin comedy and Christian thought. It was so common as to constitute convention, and an early example is from ‘The Jew of Malta’ (1589): Barabas the Jew lays a trap involving a collapsing floor but falls through it himself and lands in a cauldron he had prepared for stewing Turks.

A central critical question in ‘Hamlet’ is the degree to which Hamlet hesitates and procrastinates, or whether he is coldly determining Claudius’s guilt and waiting for an opportunity to exact his revenge. One pivotal point in this question is the ‘Hoist with his own petard’ speech: does it indicate merely that Hamlet suspects the plot against him and means to be on guard, or does it indicate that he has already planned a counter to it?

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