Literary Wisdom

“Is Thy Union Here?”: The Symbolism of the Pearl in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

A pearl, the birthstone of June, is a queer creature when compared to the remainder of what modern society deems “precious stones”. One never imagines a pearl to reflect so brilliantly the light that a ruby reflects so well and so often, nor does one imagine a pearl to be made of a pure and almost transparent material like that of a diamond. Pearls are, by their definition, ever concealing ordinary sand, as if they wish earnestly for no one to know their true worth. Nevertheless, this final quality of the pearl inspired one of the most significant and beautiful scenes in what is perhaps the finest piece of English drama ever penned: Hamlet. After musing upon the pearls’ tendency to conceal, William Shakespeare exaggerates the now-horrific quality of the concealed object and thus uses the pearl to symbolise the hidden intentions and conclusions of King Claudius and the hidden maturity of Hamlet’s wisdom.

The “union”, or the “fake pearl containing poison” according to the commentary, is not the first strategy Claudius employs to kill Hamlet after the prince exposes his guilt, but he does trust it as the foolproof auxiliary plan: “A chalice for the nonce, whereon but sipping,/If he by chance escape your venom’d  stuck,/Our purpose may hold there” (- – – 166, 193). After hearing of this confidence, the audience then attempts to speculate what warrants such trust. What is so peculiar about Laertes’ rapier that would compel Claudius to incline towards the chalice? In both those instances, poison by the sword in addition to poison by the pearl, the near-immediacy of the death would indubitably place considerable suspicion on the true offenders. What Claudius truly wants to do is hide—hide by his own hand. Vengeance through what he sees as a third party, as a person who, though bearing sufficient reason to punish Hamlet, is not privy to the king’s more dire and unholy reason for vengeance, simply is not enough for Claudius’ conscience. He not only wishes to hide his identity as Hamlet’s murderer, but to slay Hamlet directly so that he may more easily hide from his guilt, just as the whiteness of the pearl hides the fatal substance inside. Though Claudius may look white on the outside, especially by all his wealth and his helping Laertes fight for his father and sister, his heart bears a poisonous resentment.

After the meeting between the king and the advisor’s son, the reader or playgoer finds Claudius not only wishing to bring the utmost harm upon his nephew, but to do so in a manner that reflects typical regal ambition. When Claudius drops the pearl into the chalice, Shakespeare compels him to make a grandiloquent, ostentatious show of it: 

The king shall drink to Hamlet’s better breath;

And in the cup an union shall he throw,

Richer than that which four successive kings

In Denmark’s crown have worn. Give me the cups;

And let the kettle to the trumpet speak,

The trumpet to the cannoneer without,

The cannons to the heavens, the heavens to earth

‘Now the king drinks to Hamlet!’ (- – – 193)

Though kings throughout history have boasted of their resplendence in such manner as Claudius does in the above passage, the reader might also recall that this resplendence is what compelled Claudius to commit murder, perhaps extending so far as to hinder him from confessing his guilt in Act III, Scene iii, when he says, “I am still possess’d/Of those effects for which I did the murder,/My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen” (- – – 127). Consequently, Claudius forsakes justice for outer signs of wealth, and as Prince Hamlet is younger—and likely less mature—he gives Hamlet the pearl in the chalice with the assumption that Hamlet shares the same object of Claudius’ ambitions: wealth and ease. Before Claudius says, “The king shall drink to Hamlet’s better breath”, he first says that “[i]f Hamlet give the first or second hit,/Or quit in answer of the third exchange,/Let all the battlements their ordnance fire”, thus indicating that he wishes for Hamlet to reach his death by relaxing in his easy victory and his superior power (- – -193). Hamlet would die in celebrating what appears to be the loveliest material things his regal life has to offer.

By the time Hamlet begins his duel with Laertes, Claudius has set his snare; the Prince must choose how to react. As he knows of Claudius’ guilt, the reader can likely infer that Hamlet derives his response of “I’ll play this bout first; set it by awhile” from suspicion, though he does not seem to think that the cup is poisoned (- – – 193-194). He would not act so surprised at the words of his mother’s last breath—“O my dear Hamlet!/The drink, the drink; I am poison’d”—if he had supposed the cup to be poisoned beyond all legitimate doubt: “O villainy! Ho! let the door be lock’d:/Treachery! seek it out” (- – -194). When Laertes rightly grants the fault both of the rapier and the chalice to Claudius, however, Hamlet takes immediate action, giving the king both instruments of death while Hamlet himself had to suffer only one (- – – 194-195). This alone does not give the reader enough information to judge him mature, though. The reader sees Hamlet’s maturity only when he feeds Claudius his own draught and says, “Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane,/Drink off this potion;—is thy union here?” (- – -195). According to the commentary of the Folger edition of Hamlet, “union” is a “probable pun on union as ‘pearl’…and union in marriage and death” (Shakespeare 280). Hamlet already knows the literal answer to his question; it’s the figurative—and perhaps another sense of the literal—sense in which he asks that one must give close attention. If the reader relates the pearl as a symbol of wealth to the first two motivations of Claudius’ murder—the “crown” and his “ambition”—and relates the figurative meaning to Claudius’ final object, “marriage”, one finds that Hamlet essentially throws the worthlessness of Claudius’ pursuits into his face, finding it difficult to believe that both Claudius’ objects in murder, his judgement, and his own self could be so faux as the pearl which was supposed to kill Hamlet (- – – 127, 195). The pearl, in effect, is turned inside out as Hamlet matures enough to set apart the things that bear no importance in the world and confirms his previous declaration of trust in Providence in the “defy augury” speech (- – – 191).

The intricate symbolism Shakespeare employed in his exaggeration of the pearl’s concealing quality allowed Hamlet to stand in greater contrast to Claudius. Where Claudius focused all his attentions on the riches and potential corruption that could be gained from the inside and the outside of the pearl, respectively, Hamlet chooses to disregard those things for the beauty of the trait which the color of pearls most often connotes: innocence. Ever since the murder of his father, Hamlet had lived in accordance to what he could do himself, only to bring horrors upon everyone around him; now, as a renewed man, his filth is covered with white and given a second chance. Though the pearl may not be dazzlingly radiant as the diamond, Hamlet’s quiet change evokes a lovely white, therefore rendering new meaning to the words of the God in which he trusted at the end of his life: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it” (“Matthew 13”).

Works Cited

“Matthew 13, King James Version (KJV) | The Bible App.” Read the Bible. A Free Bible on Your Phone, Tablet, and Computer. | The Bible App |, 1/MAT.13.KJV.

Shakespeare, William, et al. Hamlet. Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Shakespeare, William, et al. Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Wiley, 2000.


~Sarah Merly


March 30, 2019