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"But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand an end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine..."
- William Shakespeare,

That's Hamlet's Dad, blogging that the accommodations in the afterlife aren't really up to his royal standards. A bit of a whiner, really. Still, I supposed I'd be a big tetchy as well if I'd had poison poured in my ear.

This line, it seems to me, represents Shakespeare at his laziest - it's supposed to be pretty scary stuff, but barely manages bathos. I mean, really - the eyes starting from their spheres line is goofy enough, but the bit about the porpentine is just silly. I imagine him writing this late at night with Burbage hammering on the door, and William thinking, "I know that porpentine thing strikes the wrong tone, but it'll just have to do until Dr. Johnson writes the dictionary and I can look up the correct spelling."

And of course some editions of the play do change the spelling - and the line loses all of it's charm.

So, just who is the fretful porpentine?

Is he Schrödinger's cat?

A cosmic hobo?

A super-intelligent shade of the colour blue?

Or someone less interesting than that?

Read on, and all may be revealed!


Whence the fretful porpentine?

the fretful porpentine

(artist’s impression)