Hamlet Essay features Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous critique
based on his legendary and influential Shakespeare notes and lectures
HAMLET was the play, or rather Hamlet himself was the character, in the
intuition and exposition of which I first made my turn for philosophical
criticism, and especially for insight into the genius of Shakspeare,
noticed. This happened first amongst my acquaintances, as Sir George
Beaumont will bear witness; and subsequently, long before Schlegel had
delivered at Vienna the lectures on Shakspeare, which he afterwards
published, I had given on the same subject eighteen lectures substantially
the same, proceeding from the very same point of view, and deducing the
same conclusions, so far as I either then agreed, or now agree, with him.
I gave these lectures at the Royal Institution, before six or seven
hundred auditors of rank and eminence, in the spring of the same year, in
which Sir Humphrey Davy, a fellow-lecturer, made his great revolutionary
discoveries in chemistry. Even in detail the coincidence of Schlegel with
my lectures was so extraordinary, that all who at a later period heard the
same words, taken by me from my notes of the lectures at the Royal
Institution, concluded a borrowing on my part from Schlegel. Mr. Hazlitt,
whose hatred of me is in such an inverse ratio to my zealous kindness
towards him, as to be defended by his warmest admirer, Charles
Lamb—(who, God bless him! besides his characteristic obstinacy of
adherence to old friends, as long at least as they are at all down in the
world, is linked as by a charm to Hazlitt's conversation)—only as
'frantic';—Mr. Hazlitt, I say, himself replied to an assertion of my
plagiarism from Schlegel in these words;—"That is a lie; for I
myself heard the very same character of Hamlet from Coleridge before he
went to Germany, and when he had neither read nor could read a page of
German!" Now Hazlitt was on a visit to me at my cottage at Nether
Stowey, Somerset, in the summer of the year 1798, in the September of
which year I first was out of sight of the shores of Great Britain.
Recorded by me, S. T. Coleridge, 7th January, 1819.
The seeming inconsistencies in the conduct and character of Hamlet have
long exercised the conjectural ingenuity of critics; and, as we are always
loth to suppose that the cause of defective apprehension is in ourselves,
the mystery has been too commonly explained by the very easy process of
setting it down as in fact inexplicable, and by resolving the phenomenon
into a misgrowth or lusus of the capricious and irregular genius of
Shakspeare. The shallow and stupid arrogance of these vulgar and indolent
decisions I would fain do my best to expose. I believe the character of
Hamlet may be traced to Shakspeare's deep and accurate science in mental
philosophy. Indeed, that this character must have some connection with the
common fundamental laws of our nature may be assumed from the fact, that
Hamlet has been the darling of every country in which the literature of
England has been fostered. In order to understand him, it is essential
that we should reflect on the constution of our own minds. Man is
distingtuished from the brute animals in proportion as thought prevails
over sense: but in the healthy processes of the mind, a balance is
constantly maintained between the impressions from outward objects and the
inward operations of the intellect;—for if there be an overbalance, in
the contemplative faculty, man thereby becomes the creature of mere
meditation, and loses his natural power of action. Now one of Shakspeare's
modes of creating characters is, to conceive any one intellectual or moral
faculty in morbid excess, and then to place himself, Shakspeare, thus
mutilated or diseased, under given circumstances. In Hamlet he seems to
have wished to exemplify the moral necessity of a due balance between our
attention to the objects of our senses, .and our meditation on the
workings of our minds,—an equilibrium between the real and the imaginary
worlds. In Hamlet this balance is disturbed: his thoughts, and the images
of his fancy, are far more vivid than his actual perceptions, and his very
perceptions, instantly passing through the medium of his contemplations,
acquire, as they pass, a form and a colour not naturally their own. Hence
we see a great, an almost enormous, intellectual activity, and a
proportionate aversion to real action, consequent upon it, with all its
symptoms and accompanying qualities. This character Shakspeare places in
circumstances, under which it is obliged to act on the spur of the
moment:—Hamlet is brave and careless of death; but he vacillates from
sensibility, and procrasti-nates from thought, and loses the power of
action in the energy of resolve. Thus it is that this tragedy presents a
direct contrast to that of Macbeth; the one proceeds with the utmost
slowness, the other with a crowded and breathless rapidity.
The effect of this overbalance of the imaginative power is beautifully
illustrated in the everlasting broodings and superfluous activities of
Hamlet's mind, which, unseated from its healthy relation, is constantly
occupied with the world within, and abstracted from the world without,—
giving substance to shadows, and throwing a mist over all common-place
actualities. It is the nature of thought to be indefinite;—definiteness
belongs to external imagery alone. Hence it is that the sense of sublimity
arises, not from the sight of an outward object, but from the beholder's
reflection upon it;—not from the sensuous impression, but from the
imaginative reflex. Few have seen a celebrated waterfall without feeling
something akin to disappointment: it is only subsequently that the image
comes back full into the mind, and brings with it a train of grand or
beautiful associations. Hamlet feels this; his senses are in a state of
trance, and he looks upon ex-ternal things as hieroglyphics. His
O! that this too too solid flesh would melt, &c.
springs from that craving after the indefinite—for that which is
not—which most easily besets men of genius; and the self-delusion common
to this temper of mind is finely exemplified in the character which Hamlet
gives of himself:—
—It cannot be
But I am pigeon-livered, and lack gall
To make oppression bitter.
He mistakes the seeing his chains for the breaking them, jdelays action
till action is of no use, and dies the victim of mere circumstance and
There is a great significancy in the names of Shakspeare's plays. In
the Twelfth Night, Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, and Winter's
Tale, the total effect is produced by a coordination of the characters as
in a wreath of flowers. But in Coriolanus, Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet,
Othello, &c. the effect arises from the subordination of all to one,
either as the prominent person, or the principal object. Cymbeline is the
only exception; and even that has its advantages in preparing the audience
for the chaos of time, place, and costume, by throwing the date back into
a fabulous king's reign.
But as of more importance, so more striking, is the judgment displayed
by our truly dramatic poet, as well as poet of the drama, in the
management of his first scenes. With the single exception of Cymbeline,
they either place before us at one glance both the past and the future in
some effect, which implies the continuance and full agency of its cause,
as in the feuds and party-spirit of the servants of the two houses in the
first scene of Romeo and Juliet; or in the degrading passion for shews and
public spectacles, and the overwhelming attachment for the newest
successful war-chief in the Roman people, already become a populace,
contrasted with the jealousy of the nobles in Julius Caesar;—or they at
once commence the action so as to excite a curiosity for the explanation
in the following scenes, as in the storm of wind and waves, and the
boatswain in the Tempest, instead of anticipating our curiosity, as in
most other first scenes, and in too many other first acts;—or they act,
by contrast of diction suited to the characters, at once to heighten the
effect, and yet to give a naturalness to the language and rhythm of the
principal personages, either as that of Prospero and Miranda by the
appropriate lowness of the style,—or as in King John, by the equally
appropriate stateliness of official harangues or narratives, so that the
after blank verse seems to belong to the rank and quality of the speakers,
and not to the poet;—or they strike at once the keynote, and give the
predominant spirit of the play, as in the Twelfth Night and in
Macbeth;—or finally, the first scene comprises all these advantages at
once, as in Hamlet.
Compare the easy language of common life, in which this drama
commences, with the direful music and wild wayward rhythm and abrupt
lyrics of the opening of Macbeth. The tone is quite familiar;—there is
no poetic description of night, no elaborate information conveyed by one
speaker to another of what both had immediately before their
senses—(such as the first distich in Addison's Cato, which is a
translation into poetry of 'Past four o'clock and a dark morning!');—and
yet nothing bordering on the comic on the one hand, nor any striving of
the intellect on the other. It is precisely the language of sensation
among men who feared no charge of effeminacy for feeling what they had no
want of resolution to bear. Yet the armour, the dead silence, the
watchfulness that first interrupts it, the welcome relief of the guard,
the cold, the broken expressions of compelled attention to bodily feelings
still under control—all excellently accord with, and prepare for, the
after gradual rise into tragedy;— but, above all, into a tragedy, the
interest of which is as eminently ad et apud intra, as that of Macbeth is
directly ad extra.
In all the best attested stories of ghosts and visions, as in that of
Brutus, of Archbishop Cranmer, that of Benvenuto Cellini recorded by
himself, and the vision of Galileo communicated by him to his favourite
pupil Torricelli, the ghost-seers were in a state of cold or chilling damp
from without, and of anxiety inwardly. It has been with all of them as
with Francisco on his guard,— alone, in the depth and silence of the
night;—''twas bitter cold, and they were sick at heart, and not a mouse
stirring.' The attention to minute sounds,—naturally associated with the
recollection of minute objects, and the more familiar and trifling, the
more impressive from the unusualness of their producing any impression at
all —gives a philosophic pertinency to this last image; but it has
likewise its dramatic use and purpose. For its commonness in ordinary
conversation tends to produce the sense of reality, and at once hides the
poet, and yet approximates the reader or spectator to that state in which
the highest poetry will appear, and in its component parts, though not in
the whole composition, really is, the language of nature. If I should not
speak it, I feel that I should be thinking it;—the voice only is the
poet's,— the words are my own. That Shakspeare meant to put an effect in
the actor's power in the very first words— "Who's there?" —
is evident fromt he impatience expressed by the startled Francisco in the
words that follow —"Nay, answer me: stand and unfold
yourself." A brave man is never so peremptory, as when he fears that
he is afraid. Observe the gradual transition from the silence and the
still recent habit of listening in Francisco's—"I think I hear
them"—to the more cheerful call out, which a good actor would
observe, in the—"Stand ho! Who is there?" Bernardo's inquiry
after Horatio, and the repetition of his name and in his own presence
indicate a respect or an eagerness that implies him as one of the persons
who are in the foreground; and the scepticism attributed to him,—
Horatio says, 'tis but our fantasy;
And will not let belief take hold of him—
prepares us for Hamlet's after eulogy on him as one whose blood and
judgment were happily commingled. The actor should also be careful to
distinguish the expectation and gladness of Bernardo's 'Welcome, Horatio!'
from the mere courtesy of his 'Welcome, good Marcellus!' Now observe the
admirable indefiniteness of the first opening out of the occasion of all
this anxiety. The preparation informative of the audience is just as much
as was precisely necessary, and no more;—it begins with the uncertainty
appertaining to a question:—
Mar. What, has this thing appear'd again to-night?—
Even the word 'again' has its credibilizing effect. Then Horatio, the
representative of the ignorance of the audience, not himself, but by
Marcellus to Bemardo, anticipates the common solution—"tis but our
fantasy!' upon which Marcellus rises into
This dreaded sight, twice seen of us—
which immediately afterwards becomes 'this apparition,' and that, too,
an intelligent spirit, that is, to be spoken to! Then comes the
confirmation of Horatio's disbelief;—
Tush! tush! 'twill not appear!—
and the silence, with which the scene opened, is again restored in the
shivering feeling of Horatio sitting down, at such a time, and with the
two eye-witnesses, to hear a story of a ghost, and that, too, of a ghost
which had appeared twice before at the very same hour. In the deep feeling
which Bernardo has of the solemn nature of what he is about to relate, he
makes an effort to master his own imaginative terrors by an elevation of
style,—itself a continuation of the effort,—and by turning off from
the apparition, as from something which would force him too deeply into
himself, to the outward objects, the realities of. nature, which had
Ber. Last night of all,
When yon same star, that's westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it bums, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one—
This passage seems to contradict the critical law that what is told,
makes a faint impression compared with what is beholden; for it does
indeed convey to the mind more than the eye can see; whilst the
interruption of the narrative at the very moment when we are most
intensely listening for the sequel, and have our thoughts diverted from
the dreaded sight in expectation of the .desired, yet almost dreaded,
tale—this gives all the suddenness and surprise of the original
Mar. Peace, break thee off; look, where it comes again!—
Note the judgment displayed in having the two persons present, who, as
having seen the Ghost before, are naturally eager in confirming their
former opinions,—whilst the sceptic is silent, and after having been
twice addressed by his friends, answers with two hasty syllables—'Most
like,' —and a confession of horror:
—It harrows me with fear and wonder.
O heaven! words are wasted on those who feel, and to those who do not
feel the exquisite judgment of Shakspeare in this scene, what can be said
?—Hume himself could not but have had faith in this Ghost dramatically,
let his anti-ghostism have been as strong as Sampson against other ghosts
less powerfully raised.
Act i. sc. i.
Mar. Good now, sit down, and tell me, he that knows,
Why this same strict and most observant watch, &c.
How delightfully natural is the transition to the retrospective
narrative! And observe, upon the Ghost's reappearance, how much Horatio's
courage is increased by having translated the late individual spectator
into general thought and past experience,—and the sympathy of Marcellus
and Bernardo with his patriotic surmises in daring to strike at the Ghost;
whilst in a moment, upon its vanishing the former solemn awe-stricken
feeling returns upon them:—
We do it wrong, being so majestical,
To offer it the show of violence.—
Ib. Horatio's speech:—
I have heard,
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day, &c.
No Addison could be more careful to be poetical in diction than
Shakspeare in providing the grounds and sources of its propriety. But how
to elevate a thing almost mean by its familiarity, young poets may learn
in this treatment of the cock-crow.
Ib. Horatio's speech:—
And, by my advice,
Let us impart what we have seen to-night
Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.
Note the inobtrusive and yet fully adequate mode of introducing the
main character, 'young Hamlet,' upon whom is transferred all the interest
excited for the acts and concerns of the king his father.
Ib. sc. 2. The audience are now relieved by a change of scene to the
royal court, in order that Hamlet may not have to take up the leavings of
exhaustion. In the king's speech, observe the set and pedantically
antithetic form of the sentences when touching that which galled the heels
of conscience,—the strain of undignified rhetoric,—and yet in what
follows concerning the public weal, a certain appropriate majesty. Indeed
was he not a royal brother?—
Ib. King's speech:—
And now, Laertes, what's the news with you? &c.
Thus with great art Shakspeare introduces a most impor-tant, but still
subordinate character first, Laertes, who is yet thus graciously treated
in consequence of the assistance given to the election of the late king's
brother instead of his son by Polonius.
Ham. A little more than kin, and less than kind.
King. How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Ham. Not so, my lord, I am too much i' the sun.
Hamlet opens his mouth with a playing on words, the complete absence of
which throughout characterizes Macbeth. This playing on words may be
attributed to many causes or motives, as either to an exuberant activity
of mind, as in the higher comedy of Shakspeare generally; —or to an
imitation of it as a mere fashion, as if it were said—'Is not this
better than groaning?'—or to a contemptuous exultation in minds
vulgarized and overset by their success, as in the poetic instance of
Milton's Devils in the battle;—or it is the language of resentment, as
is familiar to every one who has witnessed the quarrels of the lower
orders, where there is invariably a profusion of punning invective,
whence, perhaps, nicknames have in a considerable degree sprung up;—or
it is the language of suppressed passion, and especially of a hardly
smothered personal, dislike. The first and last of these combine in
Hamlet's case; and I have little doubt that Farmer is right in supposing
the equivocation carried on in the expression 'too much i' the sun,' or
Ham. Ay, madam, it is common.
Here observe Hamlet's delicacy to his mother, and how the suppression
prepares him for the overflow in the next speech, in which his"
character is more developed by bringing forward his aversion to externals,
and which betrays his habit of brooding over the world within him, coupled
with a prodigality of beautiful words, which are the half embodyings of
thought, and are more than thought, and have an outness, a reality sui
generis, and yet retain their correspondence and shadowy affinity to the
images and movements within. Note also Hamlet's silence to the long speech
of the king which follows, and his respectful. but general, answer to his
Ib. Hamlet's first soliloquy:—
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! &c.
This tædium vitæ is a common oppression on minds cast in the Hamlet
mould, and is caused by disproportionate mental exertion, which
necessitates exhaustion of bodily feeling. Where there is a just
coincidence of external and internal action, pleasure is always the
result; but where the former is deficient, and the mind's appetency of the
ideal is unchecked, realities will seem cold and unmoving. In such cases,
passion combines itself with the indefinite alone. In this mood of his
mind the relation of the appearance of his father's spirit in arms is made
all at once to Hamlet:—it is—Horatio's speech, in particular—a
perfect model of the 'true style of dramatic narrative;— the purest
poetry, and yet in the most natural language, equally remote from the
ink-horn and the plough.
Ib. sc. 3. This scene must be regarded as one of Shakspeare's lyric
movements in the play, and the skill with which it is interwoven with the
dramatic parts is peculiarly an excellence of our poet. You experience the
sensation of a pause without the sense of a stop. You will observe in
Ophelia's short and general answer to the long speech of Laertes the
natural carelessness of innocence, which cannot think such a code of
cautions and prudences necessary to its own preservation.
Ib. Speech of Polonius:—(in Stockdale's edition.)
Or (not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,)
Wronging it thus, you'll tender me a fool.
I suspect this 'wronging' is here used much in the same sense as
'wringing' or 'wrenching'; and that the paren-thesis should be extended to
Ib. Speech of Polonius:—
——How prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows:—these blazes, daughter, &c.
A spondee has, I doubt not, dropped out of the text. Either insert 'Go
to' after 'vows';—
Lends the tongue vows: Go to, these blazes, daughter—
Lends the tongue vows:—These blazes, daughter, mark you—
Shakspeare never introduces a catalectic line without intending an
equivalent to the foot omitted in the pauses, or the dwelling emphasis, or
the diffused retardation. I do not, however, deny that a good actor might
by employing the last mentioned means, namely, the retardation, or solemn
knowing drawl, supply the missing spondee with good effect. But I do not
believe that in this or any other of the foregoing speeches of Polonius,
Shakspeare meant to bring out the senility or weakness of that personage's
mind. In the great ever-recurring dangers and duties of life, where to
distinguish the fit objects for the application of the maxims collected by
the experience of a long life, requires no fineness of tact, as in the
admonitions to his son and daughter, Polonius is uniformly made
respectable. But if an actor were even capable of catching these shades in
the character, the pit and the gallery would be malcontent at their
exhibition. It is to Hamlet that Polonius is, and is meant to be,
contemptible, because in inwardness and uncontrollable activity of
movement, Hamlet's mind is the logical contrary to that of Polonius, and
besides, as I have observed before. Hamlet dislikes the man as false to
his true allegiance in the matter of the succession to the crown.
Ib. sc. 4. The unimportant conversation with which this scene opens is
a proof of Shakspeare's minute knowledge of human nature. It is a well
established fact, that on the brink of any serious enterprise, or event of
moment, men almost invariably endeavour to elude the pressure of their own
thoughts by turning aside to trivial objects and familiar circumstances:
thus this dialogue on the platform begins with remarks on the coldness of
the air, and inquiries, obliquely connected, indeed, with the expected
hour of the visitation, but thrown out in a seeming vacuity of topics, as
to the striking of the dock and so forth. The same desire to escape from
the impending thought is carried on in Hamlet's account of, and moralizing
on, the Danish custom of wassailing: he runs off from the particular to
the universal, and, in his repugnance to personal and individual concerns,
escapes, as it were, from himself in generalizations, and smothers the
impatience and uneasy feelings of the moment in abstract reasoning.
Besides this, another purpose is answered;—for by thus entangling the
attention of the audience in the nice distinctions and parenthetical
sentences of this speech of Hamlet's, Shakspeare takes them completely by
surprise on the appearance of the Ghost, which comes upon them in all the
suddenness of its visionary character. Indeed, no modern writer would have
dared, like Shakspeare, to have preceded this last visitation by two
distinct appearances,—or could have contrived that the third should rise
upon the former two in impressiveness and solemnity of interest.
But in addition to all the other excellences of Hamlet's speech
concerning the wassel-music—so finely revealing the predominant
idealism, the ratiocinative meditativeness, of his character—it has the
advantage of giving nature and probability to the impassioned continuity
of the speech instantly directed to the Ghost. The momentum had been given
to his mental activity; the full current of the thoughts and words had set
in, and the very forgetfulness, in the fervour of his argumentation, of
the purpose for which he was there, aided in preventing the appearance
from benumbing the mind. Consequently, it acted as a new impulse,—a
sudden stroke which increased the velocity of the body already in motion,
whilst it altered the direction. The co-presence of Horatio, Marcellus,
and Bemardo is most judiciously contrived; for it renders the courage of
Hamlet and his impetuous eloquence perfectly intelligible. The
knowledge,—the unthought of consciousness, —the sensation,—of human
auditors,—of flesh and blood sympathists—acts as a support and a
stimulation a. tergo, while the front of the mind, the whole consciousness
of the speaker, is filled, yea, absorbed, by the. apparition. Add too,
that the apparition itself has by its previous appearances been brought
nearer to a thing of this world. This accrescence of objectivity in a
Ghost that yet retains all its ghostly attributes and fearful
subjectivity, is truly wonderful.
Ib. sc. 5. Hamlet's speech:—
O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else?
And shall I couple hell?—
I remember-nothing equal to this burst unless it be the
first speech of Prometheus in the Greek drama, after the exit of Vulcan
and the two Afrites. But Shakspeare alone could have produced the vow of
Hamlet to make his memory a blank of all maxims and generalized truths,
that 'observation had copied there,'—followed immediately by the speaker
noting down the generalized fact,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain!
Mar. Hillo, ho, ho, my lord!
Ham. Hillo, ho, ho, boy I come bird, come, &c.
This part of the scene after Hamlet's interview with the Ghost has been
charged with an improbable eccentricity. But the truth is, that after the
mind has been stretched beyond its usual pitch and tone, it must either
sink into exhaustion and inanity, or seek relief by change. It is thus
well known, that persons conversant in deeds of cruelty contrive to escape
from conscience by connecting something of the ludicrous with them, and by
inventing grotesque terms and a certain technical phraseology to disguise
the horror of their practices. Indeed, paradoxical as it may appear, the
terrible by a law of the human mind always touches on the verge of the
ludicrous. Both arise from the perception of something out of the common
order of things—something, in fact, out of its place; and if from this
we can abstract danger, the uncommonness will alone remain, and the sense
of the ridiculous be excited. The dose alliance of these opposites—they
are not contraries— appears from the circumstance, that laughter is
equally the expression of extreme anguish and horror as of joy: as there
are tears of sorrow and tears of joy, so is there a laugh of terror and a
laugh of merriment. These complex causes will naturally have produced in
Hamlet the disposition to escape from his own feelings of the overwhelming
and supernatural by a wild transition to the ludicrous, —a sort of
cunning bravado, bordering on the flights of delirium. For you may,
perhaps, observe that Hamlet's wildness is but half false; he plays that
subtle trick of pretending to act only when he is very near really being
what he acts.''
The subterraneous speeches of the Ghost are hardly defensible:—but I
would call your attention to the char-acteristic difference between this
Ghost, as a superstition connected with the most mysterious truths of
revealed religion,—and Shakspeare's consequent reverence in his
treatment of it,—and the foul earthly witcheries and wild language in
Act ii. sc. i. Polonius and Reynaldo.
In all things dependent on, or rather made up of, fine address, the
manner is no more or otherwise rememberable than the light motions, steps,
and gestures of youth and health. But this is almost everything:—no
wonder, therefore if that which can be put down by rule in the memory
should appear to us as mere poring, maudlin, cunning,— slyness blinking
through the watery eye of superannuation. So in this admirable scene,
Polonius, who is throughout the skeleton of his own former skill and
statecraft, hunts the trail of policy at a dead scent, supplied by the
weak fever-smell in his own nostrils.
Ib. sc. 2. Speech of Pofonius:—
My liege, and madam, to expostulate, &c.
Then as to the jingles, and play on words, let us but look into the
sermons Of Dr. Donne (the wittiest man of that age) and we shall and them
full of this vein.
I have, and that most carefully, read Dr. Donne's sermons, and find
none of these jingles. The great art of an orator—to make whatever he
talks of appear of importance—this, indeed, Donne has effected with
Ham. Excellent well;
You are a fishmonger.
That is, you are sent to fish out this secret. This is Hamlet's own
Ham. For if the sun breeds maggots in a dead dog,
Being a god, kissing carrion—
These purposely obscure lines, I rather think, refer to some thought in
Hamlet's mind, contrasting the lovely daughter with such a tedious old
fool, her father, as he. Hamlet, represents Polonius to himself:—'Why,
fool as he is, he is some degrees in rank above a dead dog's carcase; and
if the sun, being a god that kisses carrion, can raise life out of a dead
dog,—why may not good fortune, that favours fools, have raised a lovely
girl out of this dead-alive old fool?' Warburton is often led astray, in
his interpreta-tions, by his attention to general positions without the
due Shakspearian reference to what is probably passing in the mind of his
speaker, characteristic, and expository of his particular character and
present mood. The subsequent passage,—
O Jephtha, judge of Israel I what a treasure hadst thou!
is confirmatory of my view of these lines.
Ham. You cannot. Sir, take from me any thing that I will more
willingly part withal; except my life, except my life, except my
This repetition strikes me as most admirable.
Ham. Then are our beggars, bodies; and our monarchs, and
ont-stretched heroes, the beggars' shadows.
I do not understand this; and Shakspeare seems to have intended the
meaning not to be more than snatched at:—'By my fay, I cannot reason!'
The rugged Pyrrhus—be whose sable arms, &c.
This admirable substitution of the epic for the dramatic, giving such a
reality to the impassioned dramatic diction of Shakspeare's own dialogue,
and authorized too, by the actual style of the tragedies before his time
(Porrex and Ferrex, Titus Andronicus, &c.)—is well worthy of notice.
The fancy, that a burlesque was intended, sinks below criticism: the
lines, as epic narrative, are superb.
In the thoughts, and even in the separate parts of the diction, this
description is highly poetical: in truth, taken by itself, that is its
fault that it is too poetical!—the language of lyric vehemence and epic
pomp, and not of the drama. But if Shakspeare had made the diction truly
dramatic, where would have been the contrast between Hamlet and the play
—— had seen the mobled queen, &c.
A mob-cap is still a word in common use for a morning cap, which
conceals the whole head of hair, and passes under the chin. It is nearly
the same as the nightcap, that is, it is an imitation of it, so as to
answer the purpose ('I am not drest for company'), and yet reconciling it
with neatness and perfect purity.
Ib. Hamlet's soliloquy:
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am! I &c.
This is Shakspeare's own attestation to the truth of the idea of Hamlet
which I have before put forth.
The spirit that I have seen,
May be a devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and, perhaps
Out of my weakness, and my melancholy,
(As he is very potent with such spirits)
Abuses me to damn me.
See Sir Thomas Brown:
I believe————that those apparitions and ghosts of departed
persons arc not the wandering souls of men, but the unquiet walks of
devils, prompting and suggesting us unto mischief, blood and villany,
instilling and stealing into our hearts, that the blessed spirits are not
at rest in their graves, but wander solicitous of the affairs of the
world. Relig. Meet. Pt. I. Sect. 37.
Act iii. sc. i. Hamlet's soliloquy:
To be, or not to be, that is the question, &c.
This speech is of absolutely universal interest,—and yet to which of
all Shakspeare's characters could it have been appropriately given but
Hamlet? For Jaques it would have been too deep, and for Iago too habitual
a communion with the heart; which in every man belongs, or ought to
belong, to all mankind.
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourne
No traveller returns.—
Theobald's note in defence of the supposed contradiction of this in the
apparition of the Ghost.
O miserable defender! If it be necessary to remove the apparent
contradiction,—if it be not rather a great beauty,—surely, it were
easy to say, that no traveller returns to this world, as to his home, or
Ham. Ha, ha! are you honest?
Oph. My lord?
Ham. Are you fair?
Here it is evident that the penetrating Hamlet perceives, from the
strange and forced manner of Ophelia, that the sweet girl was not acting a
part of her own, but was a decoy; and his after speeches are not so much
directed to her as to the listeners and spies. Such a discovery in a mood
so anxious and 'irritable accounts for a certain harshness in him;—and
yet a wild up-working of love, sporting with opposites in a wilful
self-tormenting strain of irony, is perceptible throughout. 'I did love
—'I lov'd you not:'—and particularly in his enumeration of the faults
of the sex from which Ophelia is so free, that the mere freedom therefrom
constitutes her character. Note Shakspeare's charm of composing the female
character by the absence of characters, that is, marks and out-juttings.
Ib. Hamlet's speech:—
I say, we will have no more marriages: those that are married
already, all but one, shall live: the rest shall keep as they are.
Observe this dallying with the inward purpose, characteristic of one
who had not brought his mind to the steady acting point. He would fain
sting the uncle's mind;
—but to stab his body!—The soliloquy of Ophelia, which follows, is the
perfection of love—so exquisitely unselfish!
Ib. sc. 2. This dialogue of Hamlet with the players is one of the
happiest instances of Shakspeare's power of diversifying the scene while
he is carrying on the plot.
Ham. My lord, you play'd once i' the university, you say? (To
To have kept Hamlet's love for Ophelia before the audience in any
direct form, would have made a breach in the unity of the interest;—but
yet to the thoughtful reader it is suggested by his spite to poor
Polonius, whom he cannot let rest.
Ib. The style of the interlude here is distinguished from the real
dialogue by rhyme, as in the first interview with the players by epic
Ros. My lord, you once did love me.
Ham. So I do still, by these pickers and stealers.
I never heard an actor give this word 'so' its proper emphasis.
Shakspeare's meaning is—'lov'd you? Hum! —so I do still, &c.'
There has been no change in my opinion:—I think as ill of you as I did.
Else Hamlet tells an ignoble falsehood, and a useless one, as the last
speech to Guildenstern—'Why, look you now,' &c.— proves.
Ib. Hamlet's soliloquy:—
Now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.
The utmost at which Hamlet arrives, is a disposition, a mood, to do
something:—but what to do, is still left undecided, while every word he
utters tends to betray his disguise. Yet observe how perfectly equal to
any call of the moment is Hamlet, let it only not be for the future.
Ib. sc. 4. Speech of Polonius. Polonius's volunteer obtrusion of
himself into this business, while it is appro-priate to his character,
still itching after former importance, removes all likelihood that Hamlet
should suspect his presence, and prevents us from making his death injure
Hamlet in our opinion.
Ib. The king's speech:—
O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven, &c.
This speech well marks the difference between crime and guilt of habit.
The conscience here is still admitted to audience. Nay, even as an audible
soliloquy, it is far less improbable than is supposed by such as have
watched men only in the beaten road of their feelings. But the.
final—'all may be well!' is remarkable;—the degree of merit attributed
by the self-flattering soul to its own struggle, though baffled, and to
the indefinite half-promise, half-command, to persevere in religious
duties. The solution is in the divine medium of the Christian doctrine of
expiation:—not what you have done. but what you are, must determine.
Ib. Hamlet's speech:—
Now might I do it, pat, now he is praying:
And now I'll do it:—And so he goes to heaven:
And so am I revenged? That would be scann'd, &c.
Dr. Johnson's mistaking of the marks of reluctance and procrastination
for impetuous, horror-striking, fiendishness! — Of such importance is
it, to understand the germ of a character. But the interval taken by
Hamlet's [speech is truly awful! And then—
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words, without thoughts, never to heaven go,—
O what a lesson concerning the essential difference [between wishing
and willing, and the, folly of all motive-mongering, while the individual
Ib. sc. 4.
Ham. A bloody deed;—almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
Queen. As kill a king?
I confess that Shakspeare has left the character of the
Queen in an unpleasant perplexity. Was she, or was she
not, conscious of the fratricide?
Act iv. sc. 2.
Ros. Take you me for a spunge, my lord?
Ham. Ay, Sir; that .soaks up the King's countenance, his rewards, his
Hamlet's madness is made to consist in the free utterance of all the
thoughts that had passed through his mind before;—in fact, in telling
Act iv. sc. 5. Ophelia's singing. O, note the conjunction here of these
two thoughts that had never subsisted in disjunction, the love for Hamlet,
and her filial love, with. the guileless floating on the surface of her
pure imagina-tion of the cautions so lately expressed, and the fears not
too delicately avowed, by her father and brother, concern-ing the dangers
to which her honour lay exposed. Thought, affliction, passion, murder
itself—she turns to favour and prettiness. This play of association is
instanced in the close:—
My brother shall know of it, and so I thank you for your good
Ib. Gentleman's speech:—
And as the world were now bnt to begin
Antiquity forgot, custom not known,
The ratifiers and props of every word—
They cry, &c.
Fearful and self-suspicious as I always feel, when I seem to see an
error of Judgment in Shakspeare, yet I cannot reconcile the cool, and, as
Warburton calls it, 'rational and consequential,' reflection in these
lines with the anony-mousness, or the alarm, of this Gentleman or
Messenger, as he is called in other editions.
Ib. King's speech:—
There's such divinity doth hedge a king,
That treason can but peep to what it would,
Acts little of his will.
Proof, as indeed all else is, that Shakspeare never intended us to see
the King with Hamlet's eyes; though, I suspect, the managers have long
Ib. Speech of Laertes:—
To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!
Laertes is a good character, but, &c. WARBURTON.
Mercy on Warburton's notion of goodness! Please to refer to the seventh
scene of this act;—
I will do it;
And for that purpose I'll anoint my sword, &c.
uttered by Laertes after the King's description of Hamlet;—
He being remiss,
Most generous, and free from all contriving,
Will not peruse the foils.
Yet I acknowledge that Shakspeare evidently wishes, as much as
possible, to spare the character of Laertes,—to break the extreme
turpitude of his consent to become an agent and accomplice of the King's
treachery;—and to this end he reintroduces Ophelia at the close of this
scene to afford a probable stimulus of passion in her brother.
Ib. sc. 6. Hamlet's capture by the pirates. This is almost the only
play of Shakspeare, in which mere accidents, independent of all will, form
an essential part of the plot;
—but here how judiciously in keeping with the character of the
over-meditative Hamlet, ever at last determined by accident or by a fit of
Ib. sc. 7. Note how the King first awakens Laertes's vanity by praising
the reporter, and then gratifies it by the report itself, and finally
points it by—
Sir, this report of his
Did Hamlet so envenom with his envy!—
Ib. King's speech:
For goodness, growing to a pleurisy,
Dies in his own too much.
Theobald's note from Warburton, who conjectures 'plethory.'
I rather think that Shakspeare meant 'pleurisy,' but involved in it the
thought of plethora, as supposing pleurisy to arise from too much blood;
otherwise I cannot explain the following line—
And then this should is like a spendthrift sigh,
That hurts by easing.
In a stitch in the side every one must have heaved a sigh that 'hurt by
Since writing the above I feel confirmed that 'pleurisy' is the right
word; for I find that in the old medical dictionaries the pleurisy is
often called the 'plethory.'
Queen. Your sister's drown'd, Laertes.
Laer. Drown'd! O, where?
That Laertes might be excused in some degree for not cooling, the Act
concludes with the affecting death of Ophelia,—who in the beginning lay
like a little projection of land into a lake or stream, covered with
spray-flowers, quietly reflected in the quiet waters, but at length is
under-mined or loosened, and becomes a faery isle, and after a brief
vagrancy sinks almost without an eddy!
Act v. sc. i. O, the rich contrast between the Clowns and Hamlet, as
two extremes! You see in the former the mockery of logic, and a
traditional wit valued, like truth, for its antiquity, and treasured up,
like a tune, for use.
Ib. sc. i and 2. Shakspeare seems to mean all Hamlet's character to be
brought together before his final disappearance from the scene;—his
meditative excess in the grave-digging, his yielding to passion with
Laertes, his love for Ophelia blazing out, his tendency to generalize on
all occasions in the dialogue with Horatio, his fine gentlemanly manners
with Osrick, and his and Shak-speare's own fondness for presentiment:
But thou would'st not think, how ill all's here about my heart;
but it is no matter.
1 It is so pointed in the modem editions.—Ed.
Commentary - Act I.
Hamlet Commentary provides a comprehensive description of every act
with explanations and translations for all important quotes.
Act I. Scene I. - Elsinore. A Platform before the Castle.
Francisco: "'tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart."
King Hamlet of Denmark has recently died from poisoning. Denmark is
in a state of high alert and preparing for possible war with Young
Fortinbras of Norway. A ghost resembling the late King Hamlet is spotted
on a platform before Elsinore Castle in Denmark.
The play opens to the solitary scene of Francisco a soldier on guard
duty on a platform before Elsinore Castle.
Bernardo, another soldier enters, asking "Who's there?" (Line
Francisco does not reply, demanding identification from the intruder.
Bernardo supplies this (Line 3) and Francisco warmly greets Barnardo as
his replacement on guard duty. Barnardo tells us that it is midnight and
advises his friend to"get thee [go to] bed," (Line 7).
Francisco is happy to do this, thanking Barnardo and saying "'tis
[it is] bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart" (it is very cold and I
am sick at heart), (Line 8), a line which symbolizes the mood of this play
and the state of tension in Denmark.
Before leaving we learn from Francisco that it has been a quiet watch
with "Not a mouse stirring" (not a mouse moving), (Line 10).
Francisco hears the approach of two men whom we soon learn are the
soldiers Horatio and Marcellus who identify themselves as being loyal to
Denmark (Lines 15-16).
Before leaving, Francisco tells Marcellus that Barnardo has relieved
Bernardo now meets up with Marcellus and Horatio, Marcellus asking if a
certain apparition (The Ghost) seen before on a watch has returned.
Marcellus: "What! has this thing appear'd again to-night?"
(Has the thing or the Ghost appeared again tonight?), (Line 21).
Learning from Bernardo that the apparition (The Ghost) has not
returned, Marcellus explains the apparition further...
Barnardo explains that "Horatio says 'tis [it is] but our fantasy,
[imagination]" but also that Horatio has agreed to sit with the men
in case it appears again so Marcellus can prove the apparition is real and
not merely fantasy (Lines 23-29).
Barnardo tells the skeptical Horatio to "sit down awhile,"
(Line 31) as Barnardo begins to tell the story of the apparition (Lines
29-39) when Marcellus notices the Ghost and cries out "Peace!"
(Line 40), telling Horatio and Barnardo to look "where it [The Ghost]
comes again!" (Line 40).
The Ghost now enters, Barnardo noting that this ghost has "the
same figure [appearance], like the king that's dead" (the recently
deceased King Hamlet of Denmark), (Line 41).
Marcellus tells Horatio to question the Ghost, after all "Thou
[you-Horatio] art [are] a scholar;" he says (Line 42) .
Horatio is reluctant since he says the Ghost "harrows me with fear
and wonder" (fills me with fear and wonder), (Line 44), but on
Marcellus' urging, Horatio speaks to the Ghost.
Horatio now questions the Ghost, asking "What art [are] thou [you]
that usurp'st [disturbs / takes] this time of night, / Together with that
fair and war-like form [appearance] / In which the majesty of buried
Denmark [King Hamlet of Denmark] / Did sometimes march? by heaven I charge
thee [command you], speak!" (Lines 47- 48).
The Ghost does not answer, Marcellus saying it is offended and Bernardo
saying that it "stalks [runs] away" (Line 50).
With the Ghost gone, Marcellus and Bernardo notice that the unbelieving
Horatio is pale and trembling (Line 53). Bernardo asks Horatio "Is
not this something more than fantasy?" (Is this not more than fantasy
as you suggested earlier), (Line 54).
Horatio still trembling, says he would never have believed in the Ghost
had he not seen it with his own eyes (Line 56) and Horatio mentions that
the Ghost not only looked like the now dead King Hamlet but wore the
"very armour" that King Hamlet had on when "he the
ambitious Norway combated;" (he fought the ambitious Fortinbras, King
of Norway) and when King Hamlet "smote the sledded Polacks [Poles] on
the ice" (defeated the Poles on the ice), (Lines 60-63).
Marcellus reminds Horatio that the Ghost of the King has appeared twice
before, wearing this very armor, Horatio saying that in his opinion, the
appearance of the Ghost "bodes some strange eruption to our
state" (foretells that something very bad will happen to our
country), (Line 68).
Marcellus now sets the context of the play by asking Horatio why their
guard duty watches Denmark by night, why weapons are being constructed and
being bought and why shipwrights are being made to work on Sunday, against
normal custom (Lines 70-78).
Horatio answers that all these actions are happening because Denmark is
preparing for war.
Horatio explains that the late King Hamlet fought King Fortinbras of
Norway, killing him in single combat and securing for Denmark, Norwegian
territory which by agreement fell to King Hamlet since he won the fight
and killed King Fortinbras (Lines 80-95).
Now, explains Horatio, Young Fortinbras, the son of the late King
Fortinbras and nephew to the current King of Norway, has raised a force of
"lawless resolutes," (lawless men) to help him reclaim the lands
his father, King Fortinbras of Norway lost by losing the fight against the
late King Hamlet of Denmark (Lines 96-100).
Young Fortinbras is not described favorably, being characterized by
Horatio as being "of unimproved mettle hot and full,"
(unlearned, hot-blooded and reckless / rash), (Line 96).
It is this fear of attack, Horatio explains, that is the main reason
their watch guards against intruders and the main reason for their
preparations for war (Lines 96-108).
Bernardo agrees that it is Young Fortinbras who motivates their
preparations for war, noting that the "portentous figure" (The
Ghost), did come armed and during their watch (Lines 108-111).
Horatio agrees that it is significant that the Ghost appears now,
saying that it is "trouble to the mind's eye" (Line 112) and
remembering that such portents did precede Caesar's death, Horatio
believing that the Ghost must be a precursor of things to come in Denmark.
Just as Horatio finishes this thought, he sees the Ghost reappear (Lines
Horatio demands that the illusion stay and not leave as it did before,
asking it to speak to him if it can and tell them the future "If thou
art privy to thy country's fate," (if you know my country's future),
which Horatio hopes their foreknowledge of may avoid, and finally why this
spirit exists (Line 132).
Unfortunately a cock crows, the Ghost rapidly moving twice before
vanishing once more without saying a word (Lines 139-142).
Bernardo, Horatio and Marcellus all agree the Ghost was about to speak
before the cock crowed, Horatio advising that they "impart [tell]
what we have seen to-night / Unto [to] young Hamlet;" since as
Horatio says, "upon my life [on my life], / This spirit, dumb
[silent] to us, will speak to him" (Lines 168-171).
With the morning approaching (daybreak), (Lines 165-168), the three men
agree to speak to young Hamlet, Marcellus saying he knows where to find
the "young Hamlet" (son of the late King Hamlet and nephew to
the current King "most conveniently" to tell him what they have
seen (Line 174).
Act I. Scene II. - A Room of State in the Castle.
King Claudius: "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?"
King Claudius who now rules Denmark, has taken King Hamlet's wife,
Queen Gertrude as his wife. King Claudius fearing that Young Fortinbras of
Norway may invade, has sent ambassadors to Norway to urge the King of
Norway to restrain Young Fortinbras. Young Hamlet distrusts King Claudius.
The King and Queen of Denmark (Claudius and Gertrude) do not understand
why Hamlet still mourns his father's death over two months ago. In his
first soliloquy, Hamlet explains that he does not like his mother marrying
the next King of Denmark so quickly within a month of his father's
Within Elsinore Castle, the current King of Denmark, King Claudius
(succeeding King Hamlet) Queen Gertrude (Hamlet's mother), Lord
Chamberlain Polonius, his son Laertes, the courtiers Voltimand and
Cornelius, Lords and Attendants enter.
The King (Claudius) expresses his grief for King Hamlet's (his
predecessor's) death, saying that all in their kingdom grieve and mourn
"our dear brother's death" (Line 1), adding that
"discretion" (discretion) has "fought with nature"
(the natural desire to mourn a loved one) in their suppressing their
complete grief of King Hamlet's death (Line 4).
King Claudius, the newly appointed King of Denmark explains that he has
taken Hamlet's previous wife, Gertrude as his wife and as "our
queen," whilst adding that his court in "Your better wisdoms
[judgment]," have "freely gone [allowed] / With this affair
[marriage] along:" (Line 16) or have accepted this and now receive
King Claudius' thanks.
It is important to note that this marriage would have drawn gasps from
Shakespeare's audience since such a marriage would have been viewed as
Claudius now outlines recent events, reminding all that Young
Fortinbras even now in their time of grief has sought back the lands his
father lost now that King Hamlet has died (Lines 17-20), Claudius
explaining that "young Fortinbras," may be encouraged by the
belief that Denmark is now in disarray following King Hamlet's death
Claudius explains that he has written to the leader of Norway who is
currently "impotent and bed-rid," (sick and weak / bedridden),
(Line 28) to suppress his nephew Young Fortinbras from pushing this issue.
Claudius has done this by dispatching Cornelius and Voltimand to Norway,
the two men exiting after pledging their loyalty (Line 40).
We learn also of a parallel in that King Hamlet has been succeeded by
his brother as has the late King Fortinbras since both their sons are
referred to as nephews of the current rulers of Denmark and of Norway.
Turning his attention to Laertes, King Claudius asks Laertes to speak
his mind to him (Lines 42-50).
Laertes now asks King Claudius for "Your leave and favour
[permission] to return to France;" (Line 52) from where he left
willingly and dutifully to witness King Claudius' coronation as the new
King of Denmark.
After the King finds that Polonius, Laertes' father has given his
permission, (Lines 57-61), Claudius gives his permission for Laertes to
leave (Line 63).
Hamlet makes his first observation, suspiciously commenting in an aside
(a speech sharing his private thoughts with the audience) that Claudius
who referred to him as a "son,-" (Line 64) is "A little
more than kin [family], and less than kind" (a little more than
family and less than kind), (Line 65).
King Claudius now asks how Hamlet who has recently lost his father
(King Hamlet) can still be sad...
King Claudius: "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?"
(How is it that you are still gloomy as if dark clouds hang over you?),
Hamlet coyly replies that this is "Not so, my lord;"
explaining that "I am too much i' [in] the sun" (it is not so my
Lord. I have been in the sun too long), (Line 67).
Queen Gertrude, no doubt sensing the tension, tells her son to
"cast thy [your] nighted colour off, / And let thine [your] eye look
like a friend on Denmark" (drop your sad outlook and let your eye
look like friend on Denmark), telling her son not to "Seek for thy
noble father in the dust:" (look for your father in the dust) since
Hamlet must realize "all that live must die, / Passing through nature
to eternity" (Lines 68-73).
Hamlet agrees too easily, prompting his mother to ask why her husband's
death "seems it so particular with thee?" (seems so important to
him), (Line 74).
Hamlet now explodes, saying "Seems, madam!" adding "Nay,
it is; I know not 'seems'" (Line 76), explaining that his color or
mood are "but the trappings and the suits of woe (what happens when
you are sad), (Line 86).
It seems only Hamlet appears to be mourning his father's death whilst
those around him go on with life as if King Hamlet had never lived, let
alone died. Even Queen Gertrude, his mother, feels this way; she married
King Hamlet's replacement (King Claudius) almost immediately after King
Hamlet, her husband, had died!
The King praises Hamlet as being "sweet and commendable
(praiseworthy)" (Line 87) in his nature to mourn his father, but
tells Hamlet that his father lost a father and this father, his father,
explaining that loss is a part of life (Lines 88-92).
Claudius explains that to grieve for some time is acceptable but to
"persever [carry on] / In obstinate [stubborn] condolement [grieving]
is a course [action] / Of impious [unbecoming / undignified] stubbornness;
" (Line 92) adding that such ongoing grieving is above all else,
"unmanly grief:" (Line 93).
King Claudius develops this theme of grieving being "unmanly"
for some time before telling Hamlet that his desire to go back to school
in Wittenberg will not be granted since it is "most retrograde [the
opposite] to our [King Claudius' and company's] desire;" (Lines
The Queen (Gertrude, Hamlet's mother) asks Hamlet to stay as well,
Hamlet agreeing by saying, "I shall in all my best obey you,
madam" (Line 119).
The King is pleased that Hamlet will stay, saying "'tis a loving
and a fair reply:" (it is a loving and fair reply) adding that
"This gentle and unforc'd [unforced] accord [agreement] of Hamlet /
Sits smiling to my heart;" (Line 120-124), the King announcing that a
celebration, complete with drinking and "cannon" fire will
celebrate and mark this change of heart in Hamlet.
The King and Queen now exit, leaving Hamlet alone to discuss his true
feelings in his first soliloquy...
Alone, Hamlet expresses his real feelings about King Claudius and Queen
Gertrude, his mother. Hamlet is not happy and wishes he could commit
suicide since the "uses of this world" have become "weary,
stale, flat, and unprofitable" to him but Hamlet quickly chides
himself for such thoughts, they are like weeds in a garden and a sin
Hamlet now explains to us that his father (King Hamlet), unlike the
impression we get from King Claudius, is "But two months dead:"
(has only recently died), (Line 139).
Hamlet now tells us that King Hamlet was "so loving to my mother /
That he might not betweem the winds of heaven / Visit her face too
roughly" and yet within a month, a mere month, his very own mother
remarried with the current King of Denmark (Claudius), (Line 140).
So angry is Hamlet that he generalizes that all woman like his mother
are weak when he says: "Frailty, thy [your] name is woman!"
Hamlet sarcastically and bitterly describes his mother as being
"Like Niobe, all tears;" a woman who shed not a tear for her
husband but only for her dead children, saying that even this woman would
have mourned longer than Gertrude, his mother and the former wife to the
now dead King Hamlet (Line 149).
Hamlet cannot believe this, exclaiming "O God! a beast, that wants
discourse of reason, / Would have mourn'd longer,-" (O God! a beast
that wanted or needed a reason, would have mourned longer) than his mother
(Line 151), Hamlet still barely believing that she could so quickly have
"married with mine uncle, [married my uncle, King Claudius]",
Hamlet cannot accept this, and still not believing his mother could do
this, describes King Claudius as "My father's brother, but no more
like my father / Than I to Hercules [regarded as a great man in this
time]:" and yet "within a month, / Ere yet the salt of most
unrighteous tears / Had left the flushing in her galled eyes, / She
married" (and yet barely had her tears left her eyes when she
remarried), (Line 153).
He remarks again on his mother's speedy marriage as being with
"most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous
sheets" (Line 157).
Hamlet is sure none of this can come to any good but decides to keep
his opinions to himself.
Hamlet: "It is not nor it cannot come to good; / But break, my
heart, for I must hold my tongue!" (Line 158).
Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo arrive, telling Hamlet of the Ghost
Before this happens, we get a further insight into Hamlet's troubled
nature when Horatio says he came to see King Hamlet's funeral (Line 176).
Hamlet sarcastically replies that "I think it was to see my mother's
wedding" since the two events happened so close to each other (Line
Hamlet gives us more imagery of the speed with which one ceremony (the
funeral) was replaced by the marriage when he remarks that "the
funeral bak'd meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables"
(the meat prepared for the funeral did coldly furnish the marriage tables
which followed), (Line 180), a line sarcastically suggesting that
Gertrude's remarriage following King Hamlet's death was so rapid, the food
prepared for the funeral could have served as food for the subsequent
Hamlet now mentions that he believes he has seen his father in "my
mind's eye," (Line 186), Horatio agreeing that King Hamlet "was
a goodly king" (Line 186).
Hamlet agrees, and now Horatio describes what he, Bernardo and
Marcellus have seen, describing The Ghost as "a figure like your
father [the late King Hamlet], / Armed at points exactly," (Line
Hamlet questions Horatio and Marcellus further and decides that if the
Ghost is "my noble father's person," (Line 244) he will speak to
it. Hamlet tells Horatio and company that he will meet them on the guard
platform between eleven and twelve o'clock to see the Ghost.
Hamlet ends the scene, saying "My father's spirit in arms!"
fearing "all is not well; / I doubt some foul play:" (Line 255).
Act I. Scene III. - A Room in Polonius' house.
Laertes: "This above all: to thine own self be true...."
Laertes, the son of Lord Chamberlain Polonius, gives his sister
Ophelia some brotherly advice. He warns Ophelia not to fall in love with
Young Hamlet; she will only be hurt. Polonius tells his daughter Ophelia
not to return Hamlet's affections for her since he fears Hamlet is only
Within a room in Polonius' house, Laertes (Polonius' son) is giving
Ophelia, Polonius' daughter some brotherly advise.
Laertes warns his sister not to follow her heart with Hamlet too
deeply, for as he says, "his will is not his own," (Hamlet does
not control himself, King Claudius and Queen Gertrude influence him),
owing to his position as Queen Gertrude's son (Line 16).
Laertes adds that Hamlet cannot as "unvalu'd persons do,"
(common people do) carve out a life for himself "for on his choice
depends / The safety and the health of the whole state;" (Line 20).
"Then if he says he loves you," Laertes warns, she should
remember that the Prince's wife (Hamlet's wife) will largely be dictated
by the King (Claudius), (Line 24).
Laertes therefore reminds Ophelia to be wary and fearful of the loss of
honor she could sustain if she should lose her heart and be used, warning
her to protect her "chaste treasure" (her virginity), (Line 32).
Laertes now further describes the perils of following one's heart
(Lines 24-52), telling her that the "best safety lies in fear:"
Ophelia says she will follow Laertes advise, warning Laertes not to
show her the righteous way to live whilst not following his own advise.
Laertes tells his sister to "fear me not" (Line 51) announcing
that their father, Polonius arrives.
I shall th'effect of this good lesson keep, / As watchman to my heart.
But, good my brother, / Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, / Show me
the steep and thorny way to heaven, / Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless
libertine, / Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, / And recks
not his own rede" (Lines 45-51)
Polonius now gives his daughter advise suggesting that Ophelia not
speak her thoughts (Line 60), nor be vulgar but rather familiar instead
He tells his daughter to "Give every man thine [your] ear, but few
thy [your] voice:", telling her to "reserve thy [your]
judgment" (Line 69).
Polonius also advises that Ophelia would be wise to "Neither a
borrower, nor a lender be;" because "For loan oft loses both
itself and friend, [in loans one often loses oneself and friend] / And
borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry" Laertes warns (Line 76).
Famously, Polonius tells his daughter, "This above all [above all
else]: to thine own self be true," (be true to yourself), (Line 78),
adding that in his opinion as night follows day, Ophelia "canst not
[cannot] then be false to any man" (Line 80).
Laertes must now leave (Line 85), telling his sister to "remember
well / What I have said to you" before exiting (Line 85), Polonius
wanting to know what this was (Line 88).
Alone with his daughter, Polonius demands to know the truth of any
relationship between his daughter (Ophelia) and Prince Hamlet.
Polonius explains that he knows Hamlet has very recently "Given
private time to you;" and Ophelia the same (Line 92), asking to know
what is going on so he can be sure of his daughter's honor (Lines 88-99).
Ophelia replies that Hamlet has "made many tenders / Of his
affection to me" (has spoken sweet words of love to me), (Line 100).
Polonius is not impressed saying "Affection! pooh! you speak like
a green girl [innocent naive girl]," asking if his daughter believes
Hamlet's "tenders," (words), (Line 101).
Ophelia replies she is not sure, but her father is. He is certain
Hamlet merely wishes to "use" his daughter and in doing so
Ophelia will "tender me a fool" (make a fool of Polonius), by
being used (Line 108).
Ophelia defends Hamlet saying he has "importun'd me with love / In
honourable fashion" (Line 111) but Polonius does not believe a word
of it, saying Hamlet's "holy vows of heaven" (Line 113) are
merely like "springes to catch woodcocks", a lie to catch or
seduce his daughter...
Polonius now lays down the law, telling his daughter to keep her
distance, ordering her to "be somewhat scanter [less available] of
your maiden presence;" (Line 120), nor to believe Hamlet's vows,
"for they are brokers [lies]," finally telling Ophelia that he
does not want Ophelia to "give words or talk with the Lord
Hamlet" since Polonius obviously fears his daughter being made a fool
and by the culture of the time, himself being made one as well (Lines
Ophelia will not disobey her father saying, "I shall obey, my
lord" (Line 136).
Act I. Scene IV. - The Platform.
Hamlet meets the Ghost of his father and follows it to learn more...
Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus are all on the platform before Elsinore
Castle, waiting for the apparition (The Ghost) of King Hamlet to appear
We learn from their conversation that it is just past midnight and that
"The air bites shrewdly"; it is a very cold night (Line 1).
A flourish of trumpets is heard along with ordnance (canon fire) being
shot off, Hamlet explaining that this noise signals the King's revels or
Hamlet describes King Claudius' behavior quite negatively, remarking at
how he drinks too much, saying that it would be more honorable to ignore
the custom of Danish kings drinking than to maintain such lewd behaviour
out of tradition alone.
Hamlet says this himself with the line, "though I am native here
[born in Denmark] / And to the manner born,-it is a custom / More honour'd
[honored] in the breach [by not performing it] than the observance
[performing the custom]" (Line 16).
Hamlet also describes what he imagines to be the less than dignified
revels (celebrations) King Claudius and company are enjoying:
"The king doth wake to-night and takes his rouse, / Keeps wassail,
and the swaggering up-spring reels; / And, as he drains his draughts of
Rhenish down, / The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out / The triumph of
his pledge" (The King wakes up and drinks his toasts in celebration,
sings badly and drunkenly dances around, heavily drinking his alcohol, the
trumpets finally sounding out the triumph of his pledge in a foolish not
triumphant manner), (Lines 8-11).
Hamlet is not impressed with this behavior, arguing that the dancing
and drinking "takes / From our achievements," (takes something
away from our achievements), giving the Danish a bad name abroad (Line
He likens this to impressive men's reputations, which are reduced by
them having one vice (Lines 23- 36).
At this point the Ghost reappears, Horatio telling Hamlet, "Look,
my lord, it comes" (Line 38).
Hamlet decides that if the Ghost will speak to him, he will address the
Ghost as "Hamlet, / King, father; royal Dane," and excitedly
demands answers (Line 45).
Hamlet wanting to know why his father has returned, asks "Say, why
is this? wherefore? what should we do?" (Line 58).
The Ghost says nothing, beckoning Hamlet to follow him to as Marcellus
says "a more removed [private] ground:", Marcellus telling
Hamlet not to follow the Ghost.
Hamlet ignores Marcellus, deciding that since "It [The Ghost] will
not speak; then, will I [I will] follow it" (Line 62).
Horatio also tells Hamlet not to follow the Ghost since it may tempt
him towards a flood or seek to kill him by leading Hamlet to a cliff
Hamlet however despite the advise of Marcellus (Line 79) and Horatio
(Line 81), follows the Ghost since "My fate cries out, / And makes
each petty artery in this body / As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve"
(my fate cries out and makes each petty artery in my body as strong as
that of a Nemean lion's nerve, a powerful Lion encountered by Hercules),
With the Ghost beckoning, Hamlet asks the men to "Unhand me,"
(let me go) and Hamlet follows the Ghost, Marcellus and Horatio deciding
to follow him (Line 84-86).
Marcellus now remarks that "Something is rotten in the state of
Denmark" but Horatio is more trusting, saying "Heaven will
direct it" (Heaven will take care of things), (Lines 90- 91).
Act I. Scene V. - Another Part of the Platform.
King Hamlet's Ghost: "Revenge his foul and most unnatural
Hamlet learns from his father's Ghost that he was poisoned by King
Claudius, the current ruler of Denmark. The Ghost tells Hamlet to avenge
his death but not to punish Queen Gertrude for remarrying; it is not
Hamlet's place to do so and her conscience and heaven will judge her...
Hamlet swears Horatio and Marcellus to silence over Hamlet meeting the
The Ghost has now led Hamlet away from Horatio and Hamlet impatiently
tells the Ghost, "speak; / I'll go no further" (Line 1).
The Ghost now speaks, saying, "Mark me", Hamlet replying that
he will (Line 2).
The Ghost explains that time is short for him (Line 3) and that soon he
must render or surrender himself to "sulphurous and tormenting
flames" since he has been condemned to walk Denmark by night and burn
in the flames of Purgatory by day (Line 3).
Nonetheless, the Ghost tells Hamlet to "Pity me not, but lend thy
serious hearing / To what I shall unfold" (pity me not Hamlet but
listen carefully to what I am about to tell you), (Line 5).
Hamlet now tells the Ghost to "Speak; I am bound to hear"
The Ghost agrees, saying "So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt
hear" (so you are to revenge when you hear what I have to say), (Line
The Ghost now announces that "I am thy [your] father's
spirit;" (Line 9) explaining that he is "Doom'd [doomed] for a
certain term [time] to walk the night, / And for the day confin'd
[confined] to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of
nature [life] / Are burnt and purg'd away" (Lines 9-13).
The Ghost explains that because he is forbidden, he cannot fully
describe the "secrets of my prison-house," (Line 13).
The Ghost of King Claudius tells Hamlet to "List, list, O list!
[Listen] If thou [you] didst [did] ever thy [your] dear father love-"
Hamlet, listening, hears the Ghost tell Hamlet to,
"Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder" (Line 25).
The Ghost goes on to describe his murder as "Murder most foul, as
in the best it is; / But this most foul, strange and unnatural" (Line
Hamlet pledges to make his revenge if told more (Line 29), the Ghost
explaining that as he slept in his orchard, "A serpent stung me; so
the whole ear of Denmark" was abused, Hamlet explaining that this
"serpent" now wears the crown of the man (King Hamlet) he had
killed (Lines 33-39).
Hamlet immediately realizes that this is his uncle, now King Claudius,
and the Ghost explains that as he was "Sleeping within mine
orchard," (Line 60) in the afternoon as he always did, King Claudius
referred to as "thy [your] uncle" secured a poison, pouring it
into his ears (Line 64) killing him (Lines 64-73).
The Ghost explains that "Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's
hand, / Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd;" (thus as I
was sleeping, by my brother's hand was I murdered and deprived of my life,
my crown and my wife, Queen Gertrude), (Line 74).
The Ghost tells Hamlet to do something about this, telling Hamlet,
"Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned
incest" (let not the royal rule of Denmark remain a place of luxury
and incest), (Line 84).
The Ghost also tells Hamlet to "Taint not thy mind, nor let thy
soul contrive / Against thy mother aught;" (do not let your mind be
tainted into seeking revenge against your mother), advising Hamlet instead
to leave her punishment to heaven and her own conscience (Line 84-89).
Running out of time (Lines 89-91), the Ghost tells Hamlet "Hamlet,
remember me" before exiting (Line 91).
Hamlet resolves to remember the Ghost and to avenge his father's death
as asked, saying that he put aside all else but this
"commandment" (to avenge his father's death) which he says he
will devote his entire "brain," or time to (Lines 92-112).
Hamlet also scorns his mother, calling her "O most pernicious
woman!" (Line 105), also scorning King Claudius' behaviour.
Horatio and Marcellus now join Hamlet who continuously refuses to
answer their questions as to what has happened (Lines 116-132).
Horatio also notes that Hamlet speaks now in "wild and whirling
words," (Line 133).
Hamlet apologizes for this and asks his friends Marcellus and Horatio
to not tell anyone "what you have seen to-night" (Line 144),
Hamlet wanting them too swear this upon his sword, taking an oath not to
tell (Lines 144-148).
Marcellus and Horatio will not agree to this until the Ghost from
beneath the platform says "Swear" (Line 149), Horatio quickly
saying "Propose the oath, my lord" (Line 152).
Telling Marcellus and Horatio to swear on his sword not to tell anyone
what they have seen, Hamlet again is helped by the Ghost saying
"Swear" (Line 155), the Ghost repeating this again (Line 161).
Hamlet now decides that should he appear mad, the two men should not
give any reason explaining his behaviour (Lines 164-179).
Upon hearing the Ghost say "Swear" again (Line 181),
Marcellus and Horatio swear to keep what they have seen a secret (Line
Thanking his friends, Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus depart, Hamlet
reminding the men not to say a word and lamenting that his fate now is to
avenge his father's death (Lines 181-188).