This is our second in a series of posts in which we explain some common,
but often misunderstood, Shakespeare phrases. Today we will discuss the
phrase “hoist with his own petard.”
The phrase appears in Act III, Scene IV of Hamlet when Hamlet tells his mother, the Queen, that he knows he must go to England and that his friends, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, carrying sealed letters for the King of England, will be his escorts:
There’s letters seal’d: and my two schoolfellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fang’d,
They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way,
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For ’tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petard: and’t shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines,
And blow them at the moon
Note that in Shakespeare’s time, engineers were constructors of military engines and weapons.
Meaning of the Phrase
The phrase means to be injured by the device that you intended to use to injure others.
A literal example from our own time is illustrative. In 2009, on a Northwest Airlines flight from a Amsterdam to Detroit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, now known affectionately as the Underwear Bomber, lit his own crotch on fire trying to detonate a bomb he had hid in his skivvies.
That, my friends, is what it means to be hoist with your own petard.
Origin of the Phrase
Although the word is out of use today, a petard is a small engine of war used to blow breaches in gates or walls. They were originally metallic and bell-shaped but later cubical wooden boxes. The significant feature of a petard, however, was that it was full of gunpowder. Today it is known simply as a bomb.
By the 16th century, the petard, or bomb, was used by most military forces in Europe.
John Florio’s dictionary, written in 1598, defined petardo (the Spanish form of the word) as “a squib or petard of gun powder used to burst up gates or doores with.”
The word petar had wide usage in Shakespeare’s time, as evidenced by this sentence from Zackary Coke’s Logick:
“The prayers of the Saints ascending with you, will petarr your entrances through heavens Portcullis”.