The word is "fool."

The OED has been no help on this, but my copy of Hamlet makes reference to its having the meaning "baby" so when Polonius says "You'll tender me a fool" he is cautioning Ophelia that she might end up getting pregnant. But the book dismisses this reading.

I would think, though, that if the book has an a priori assumption that this reading COULD exist (before it dismisses it) there must be some history of the word's having that meaning.

Does anyone have any scholarly resources which substantiate the presumption that "fool" is used to mean "baby"?

  • 1
    I know it isn't universal, but I'm hoping that it is substantiated so that it has some basis.
    – rosends
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 18:43
  • 1
    Alternatively, proof that the word specifically means "grandfather" would be nice.
    – rosends
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 18:45
  • 1
    @AlanCarmack I'm using a 1994 Arden but I have loads of editions so I will scour through them and see if any has a source.
    – rosends
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 20:01
  • 1
    Some editions adopt this reading, including Signet (edited by Sylvan Barnet) or suggest it as a possible reading, including Folger. The reading is adopted in less scholarly versions as well. Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 23:42
  • 2
    doesn't it just mean the baby will be a fool?
    – user13267
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 10:17

6 Answers 6


This conjecture was advanced by Dowden in his edition of Hamlet for the Arden Shakespeare, 1899, p. 34, note to l. 109:

Does this mean, You will present yourself to me as a fool? or, You will present me (to the public) as a fool? or, can “fool” mean an innocent, a baby?—for Polonius is not over-delicate in his warnings. See Romeo and Juliet, i.iii.31 and 48.

Here's the passage he cites in support of this conjecture:

When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple
Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,
To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug!
Shake quoth the dove-house: ‘twas no need, I trow,
To bid me trudge:
And since that time it is eleven years;
For then she could stand alone; nay, by the rood,
She could have run and waddled all about;
For even the day before, she broke her brow:
And then my husband—God be with his soul!
A’ was a merry man—took up the child:
‘Yea,’ quoth he, ‘dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit;
Wilt thou not, Jule?’ and, by my holidame,
The pretty wretch left crying and said ‘Ay.’
To see, now, how a jest shall come about!
I warrant, an I should live a thousand years,
I never should forget it: ‘Wilt thou not, Jule?’ quoth he;
And, pretty fool, it stinted and said ‘Ay.’

But fool does not mean ‘innocent, baby’ here—it is an epithet applied to an innocent. One might as well argue that silly means ‘baby’ because mothers occasionally call their children ‘little silly’.

As Dowden says, the pun would be in character; and certainly both Shakespeare and Polonius are capable of layering their puns three deep; but I have difficulty conceiving that this meaning would ever occur to an auditor without prompting by an editor. The best that can be said of this conjecture is that it is ingenious, but unsupported by any real evidence—and I doubt Dowden himself would have claimed more than that for it.

  • 1
    So Dowden would have to be supposing that Shakespeare was (at best) citing Shakespeare? (Ham ref Rom)? I'm using the 1994 Arden and I recall Dr. Kastan mentioning the potential meaning in class. I was hoping it had deeper roots. If I still have my Furness I will check there.
    – rosends
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 20:01
  • @Dan I'm suggesting rather that Dowden is straining at his interpretation of the Nurse's fools to support a fairly far-fetched conjecture. Dowden is the original Arden series; Kastan is I believe the Third Series. Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 22:05
  • @Dan On poking around I find Kastan is one of the series editors of the 3d series; your copy is probably Harold Jenkins' 2d series edition of 1982. The 3d series Ham is Thompson and Taylor, vol 1 2006, vol 2 2007; and there is now a 'Revised Edition' (2016) in the series, by the same editors (and the same Series Editors: Kastan, Woudhuysen and Proudfoot). Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 22:23
  • Mine is Kastan 1994 -- he made us buy it.
    – rosends
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 0:10
  • John Dover Wilson's 1941 edition makes reference to Dowden's suggestion of fool as baby which would then change the nature of Ophelia's response but he then cites "fool" as "Darling" as applied to a baby in R+J. Furness says nothing, nor does Rolfe.
    – rosends
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 10:17

I don't believe that fool can mean baby. But in this context, one interpretation is:

You'll have a baby by Hamlet, and it will grow up to be a fool (because its father is a fool).

  • Or also: your child will be a fool because you are a fool to believe what you do about Hamlet's "tenders" to you. Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 0:53

I couldn't find any archaic usage of fool meaning baby. As suggested in the following comment the term may suggest a pun but it is doesn't mean "baby".

  • His last use of the word “tender” is in line 108 where he says, “you’ll tender me a fool,” this time using the verb tender in an offering sense, as in the OED definition, but his word can also be a pun, for someone who is a fool could be called “tender-witted” or maybe “tender-brained” (I.iii. 108).

  • In the whole of the sentence, Polonius is warning against Ophelia taking Hamlet’s affections too seriously, not actually for her own sake, but because her gullibility makes him look like a fool.



What about another version:

"You'll render me a fool" ?

he is threatening Ophelia that getting involved with Hamlet will make people say he, Polonius, is not a proper father and head of family.


Without aware of scholarly precedent, synonyms can be a good way to understand this by replacing fool with baby and see if the same makes sense in a context. So, here I try:

If a gentleman shows in an open crowd that he is in possession of a bundle of currency notes, it is overwhelming to label that gentleman acting like a child or fool for the time being.

  • No, because changing the context destroys the very thing we're looking at: can 'fool' mean or allude to a 'baby' in this particular usage. Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 14:47

I have no idea if this is related to this situation, but it is correct that the words "fool" and "baby" have the same root meaning:
In the Bible, there has been the murder of the babies around the time that Jezus was born, this event is currently still remembered as the day of the innocent children. The word "innocent" however seems to be a quite recent word, in earlier days (in other languages, like Dutch), another word was used ("onnozel" in Dutch), which at the beginning meant innocent, but the meaning of this word has changed into "fool".

So, as in other languages there was a word, which previously meant "innocent" (like a baby) but has a different meaning now (being "fool"), I can very well imagine a similar evolution in the English language.

  • But I've never seen this biblical scene called "Slaughter of the fools', with 'fools' referring to the 'innocents' ('infants') that were slaughtered. Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 14:49

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