Word of the Day: Ha

November 12, 2010 in Word of the Day

For actors, directors and scholars, Shakespeare’s use of ‘ha’ is no laughing matter. Given that laughter is never included in stage directions, it’s not always clear whether the appearance of ‘ha! ha! ha!’ in dialogue is meant to represent genuine spontaneous laughter or something forced, sarcastic, even sinister. Justice Shallow’s reaction to the unfortunately-named Robert Mouldy in Henry IV Part II (III.ii.106) seems to be genuine enough. However, when Cassio comes out with it three times in Othello IV.i, in response to Iago’s claim that he will marry Desdemona, a laugh that he intends to sound dismissive has quite the opposite effect on Othello who overhears it. Titus Andronicus‘s ‘Ha, ha, ha!’ has to be a genuinely mad response to the butchery that he sees around him, but recognisable enough for Marcus to ask him ‘Why dost thou laugh?’ (III.i.264) And I haven’t even mentioned Lear’s response to his Fool… (I.v.14)

Perhaps what’s so scary about these instances of tragic laughter is that, in plays where power is bound up in the characters’ ability to manipulate language, seeing them resort to the inarticulacy of laughing is a terrifying sign of slipping out of control. Also not insignificant is the similarity between ‘Ha, ha, ha’ and ‘Sa, sa, sa’, a fencing term (from the French: ‘ca, ca, ca’ ) uttered during the sword’s thrust. In the contemporary The Revenger’s Tragedy, the protagonist Vindice (who has earlier come out with a rather forced laugh while disguised as Piato) shouts this as he finally stabs a victim.

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