Hamlet Quotes To Use In Essays
NOTE: Don’t waste time learning off what act and scene each quote is from, it won’t gain you any extra marks in the exam. Just have a general sense of where they belong chronologically eg ‘In the nunnery scene…’ or ‘In the prayer scene…’ or ‘In the gravedigger’s scene…’
Act 1, scene 2 – Claudius conducts affairs of state, begs Hamlet not to be so melancholy, and Gertrude asks him to stay with them instead of returning to college.
“A little more than kin and less than kind” – Hamlet, aside. Reveals disgust at his new ‘relationship’ to his uncle/step-father Claudius
“I have that within me which passes show/ these but the trappings and the suits of woe” – Hamlet to Gertrude. Here Hamlet distinguishes between genuine grief (his own) and false grief (Gertrude/Claudius).
“I shall in all my best obey you, madam” – Hamlet to Gertrude. He deliberately snubs Claudius, and reluctantly obeys his mother.
“that the Everlasting had not fixed/ His canon against self-slaughter” – Hamlet He is so depressed that he contemplates suicide, but won’t go through with it because it’s a sin.
“Frailty, thy name is woman” – Hamlet, soliloquy. His opinion of women has plummeted following his mother’s hasty remarriage.
“O most wicked speed, to post/ With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!/ It is not nor it cannot come to good/ But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue” – Hamlet, soliloquy. He feels constrained not to complain, but is disgusted by their relationship. The marriage of such close relatives would have been regarded as incest in Shakespearean times. It is doubly revolting because they don’t even wait until Hamlet’s Snr’s body is cold in the grave, thus showing a profound lack of respect for his memory.
“I shall not look upon his like again” – Hamlet to Horatio. Hamlet’s admiration for his father is clear. Hamlet believes that he is irreplaceable. Ironic comment because he will meet his father again (as a ghost) in the very next scene!
“I doubt some foul play…/Foul deeds will rise/ Though all the earth o’erwhelm them to men’s eyes” – Hamlet. The appearance of his father’s ghost makes him suspicious, but he is confident that he will discover the truth.
Act 1, scene 4 – Hamlet waits in darkness for the ghost to appear, whilst the sounds of revelry from Claudius’ court ring in the background.
“oft it chances in particular men/ the stamp of one defect/ his virtues else be they as pure as grace/ shall in the general censure take corruption/ from that particular fault” – Hamlet’s soliloquy revealing his intellectual side commenting on the reputation of Danes for being drunkards, he notes that men may be blessed with many gifts, abilities and virtues, but their one fault may be their downfall. A small element of evil can corrupt an otherwise virtuous individual.
Act 1, scene 5 – Hamlet meets his father’s ghost and learns the truth.
“Haste me to know it, that I with wings as swift/ As meditation or the thoughts of love/ May sweep to my revenge” – Hamlet to the ghost. Hamlet wants to know the details of the crime so he can immediately seek revenge.
“From the table of my memory/ I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records…/And thy commandment all alone shall live/ Within the book and volume of my brain” He swears to erase everything from his memory except this urgent demand for revenge
“O most pernicious woman/ O villain, villain, smiling damned villain!…/ One may smile, and smile and be a villain/ At least I am sure it may be so inDenmark” – Hamlet to himself He equally blames his mother (for her betrayal) and Claudius (for the crime) and reiterates an idea from Marcellus earlier on that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”.
“No, you will reveal it” – Hamlet to Horatio. At first he refuses to tell his best friend, Horatio, what he has discovered. Although he quickly changes his mind, this reveals the beginnings of his paranoia.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/ Then are dreamt of in your philosophy” –Hamlet to Horatio. The supernatural atmosphere increases as Hamlet maintains that science and rationality cannot explain everything in the universe.
“The time is out of joint. O cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right!” He comments that the state of Denmark has been afflicted with a terrible sickness, and laments the fact that it is his fate/destiny to find the cure.
Act 2, scene 2 – Claudius sends Rosencrantz & Guildenstern to discover the cause of Hamlet’s madness; Hamlet fobs them off. They introduce a group of players to cheer him up, and he comes up with a plan to prove Claudius’ guilt.
“It appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours”. Hamlet to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, revealing his disillusionment with the world.
“My uncle-father, and aunt-mother, are deceived…/ I am but mad north-north-west” – Hamlet to Ros & Guild. He reveals that he is only a little/only occasionally mad to his old school friends.
“Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I…/ Am I a coward…/I am pigeon-livered and lack gall/ To make oppression bitter” – Hamlet soliloquy. Hamlet berates himself, having seen the passion of the players, for not acting on his own passionate desire for revenge.
“The spirit that I have seen/ May be a devil…/I’ll have grounds/More relative than this” – Hamlet soliloquy. He reveals part of the reason for his hesitancy (afraid to trust the ghost’s word), and resolves to have firmer evidence of his uncle’s guilt before he inflicts punishment.
“the play’s the thing/ wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” – Hamlet. He decides that the best way to test Claudius’ guilt is to make him face his own crime in the form of a play, and then watch for his reaction.
Act 3, scene 1 – the ‘nunnery scene’ opens with a meditation on life and death. Ophelia has been sent by Polonius/Claudius to speak to Hamlet so that they can test the theory that his madness is due to unrequited love. Hamlet is cruel and cynical towards her, either (a) because he realises she’s in league with Polonius/Claudius or (b) because he’s so disgusted with the idea of love/marriage following his mother’s betrayal of his father’s memory.
“To be or not to be, that is the question/ Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/ Or to take arms against a sea of troubles/ And by opposing, end them” –Hamlet wonders which is preferable, life or death. At this point he sees life as nothing more than pain and suffering. Later in this speech he suggests that all that stops us from killing ourselves is the fear of the unknown – “the dread of something after death”
“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all/ And thus the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought/ And enterprises of great pitch and moment/ With this regard their currents turn awry/ And lose the name of action” – Hamlet soliloquy. The opening sentence can mean two things. First, that reflecting on the implications of an action can make us afraid of performing it (as he’s afraid of killing Claudius) or secondly, that our moral voice makes us fear doing what we know is morally wrong (committing murder). Our natural hot blooded reaction is cooled by over-analysing the issue.
“No, not I, I never gave you aught” – Hamlet to Ophelia as she attempts to return gifts that he gave her in the past. His response may suggest that he views this ‘new’ Ophelia as a stranger. His view of women has certainly suffered.
“I did love you once” – Hamlet to Ophelia “Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so” – Ophelia to Hamlet “You should not have believed me…I loved you not” – Hamlet to Ophelia “I was the more deceived” – Ophelia to Hamlet “Get thee to a nunnery…if thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow” Hamlet to Ophelia. Hamlets’ bitterness towards women generally, and towards his ex-lover Ophelia specifically is revealed in this scene. He ridicules her rejection of him, suggesting she is now only fit for a nunnery, where she can guard her virginity forever! It has been suggested that Hamlet knows that her father is hiding behind the arras. he may also suspect sudden change of heart was motivated by Polonius’ accusation that he only wanted her so he could steal her virginity and he is insulted that she thought so little of him.
“If thou wilt marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them” – Hamlet to Ophelia, offering a further critique of women.
Act 3, scene 2 – Hamlet tests and confirms Claudius’ guilt with the performance of “The Murder of Gonzago”. Ros & Guild and Polonius deliver the message that Gertrude wants to see him in her chamber.
“Is this a prologue…? – Hamlet to Ophelia “’Tis brief my Lord” – Ophelia to Hamlet “As woman’s love” – Hamlet to Ophelia. His obsession with his mother’s “o’er hasty marriage” is affecting his view of all women, and making him particularly cruel to Ophelia.
“Lady shall I lie in your lap?”….. “did you think I meant country matters?” “That’s a fair thought to lie between maid’s legs” Hamlet to Ophelia. He engages in sexual inuendo, suggesting that she, not he, is the one fixated on sex. Again, he is probably still hurt that she thought his only interest in her was sexual and broke off their relationship as a result.
“Your majesty, and we that have free souls, it touches us not” Hamlet during the play.
“He poisons him I’ th’ garden for his estate…You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife” – Hamlet to Claudius. Hamlet goads Claudius into a reaction, commenting repeatedly on the performance of the play (within a play) ‘the murder of Gonzago’. However, he makes a mistake when he makes the murderer in the play the King’s nephew. The members in the court who are watching the play don’t know that Claudius killed his brother, so they are likely to interpret this as Hamlet threatening to kill his uncle Claudius.
“My wit’s deceased” “Sir, I lack advancement” “Do you thinkI am easier to be played on than a pipe?”. Hamlet no longer views Rosencrantz & Guildenstern as friends, and refuses to give them a straight answer when they again try to probe the reasons for his madness/melancholy.
“Let me be cruel, not unnatural; I will speak daggers to her, but use none” Hamlet in soliloquy resolves not to put his feelings into action – he has promised the ghost of his father that he won’t punish Gertrude for Claudius’ crime. We are still unclear as to whether or not Gertrude was involved in his father’s murder but Hamlet seems convinced that she was.
Act 3, scene 3 – the prayer scene
“Why this is hire and salary, not revenge” – Hamlet soliloquy. He decides that if he kills Claudius at prayer, he’ll be acting like nothing more than a hired assassin. If Claudius goes to heaven, his punishment will be nought and Hamlet’s revenge will be incomplete.
“Then trip him that his heels may kick at heaven/ And that his soul may be as damned and black/ As hell whereto he goes” ” – Hamlet soliloquy. He resolves to wait until he is certain that Claudius will go to hell, by killing him when he’s committing a sin.
Act 3, scene 4 – Hamlet’s meeting with Gertrude, where he accidentally kills Polonius.
“Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended” – Gertrude to Hamlet
“Mother, you have my father much offended” – Hamlet to Gertrude. Hamlet refuses to allow his mother to lecture him on correct behaviour.
“Have you forgot me?” – Gertrude
“You are the queen, your husband’s brother’s wife/ And would it were not so, you are my mother” – Hamlet. Gertrude, shocked by his lack of respect, asks if he has forgotten that he is speaking to his mother. Hamlet’s disgust springs from the religious belief that the marriage of such close relatives as Gertrude and Claudius is wrong and incestuous.
“A bloody deed – almost as bad, good mother/ As kill a king and marry with his brother” – Hamlet to Gertrude. Hamlet’s response to his crime is cold and unemotional. He is so obsessed with the crimes of his uncle and mother, that he feels his own (he has just killed Polonius) pale into insignificance. He seems to think that his mother was involved in (or had previous knowledge of) the plot to kill his father Hamlet Snr. (Note: her response suggests she knew nothing of it)
“Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! / I took thee for thy better”. Hamlet’s major emotion following his murder of Polonius is disappointment because he hoped it was Claudius hiding behind the arras. He seems unaffected by the fact that he has murdered a (largely) innocent man, and suggests that Polonius got what he deserved for being a meddlesome fool!
“Have you eyes? You cannot call it love, for at your age/ The hey day in the blood is tame, it’s humble/ And waits upon the judgement, and what judgement/ Would step from this to this?”. Hamlet forces his mother to look at two portraits of her lovers– one of his father, one of Claudius. He cannot understand how she could be satisfied with the pathetic replacement she has found.
“A murderer & a villain…a vice of kings/ A cutpurse of the empire & the rule”. Hamlet’s assessment of Claudius’ character, designed to torture his mother with guilt. (Cutpurse = Thief)
“Do you see nothing there?”. Hamlet is amazed that Gertrude cannot see the ghost. She becomes convinced that he is truly mad.
“Confess yourself to heaven. Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come”. Hamlet begs his mother to repent her sins. He wants to save her soul proving he still loves her.
“For this same lord I do repent; but heaven hath pleased it so/ To punish me with this, and this with me/ That I must be their scourge and minister”. Hamlet realises that he will eventually be punished for his crime, but he is also convinced that it is the will of the Gods that he be their instrument of vengeance and punishment. (Polonius’ deceit has been punished by Hamlet.) He no longer worries what is right and wrong – he has convinced himself that getting revenge is what God wants him to do.
“I essentially am not in madness/ But mad in craft”. Hamlet reveals to his mother that his madness is nothing more than an act, but warns her not to reveal this fact to her husband Claudius.
“I’ll lug the guts into the neighbour room”. Hamlet’s lack of respect for the dead makes us wonder if his remorse was genuine.
Act 4, scene 2 – Hamlet describes his old school friends as sponges, that soak up everything the King says. However, in the end, they will be cast aside: “When he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and sponge, you shall be dry again”
Act 4, scene 3 – Claudius quizzes Hamlet about the whereabouts of Polonius’ body and tells him he is to be sent toEngland‘for his own safety’, as there he can avoid punishment for the crime he has committed.
“In heaven. Send hither to see. If your messenger find him not there, seek him i’ th’ other place yourself”. It is threatening comments like this that convince Claudius that Hamlet is a threat to him and must be disposed of.
Act 4, scene4 – Hamlet meets a Norwegian officer, who tells him of Fortinbras’ expedition to capture a small patch of land fromPoland. Hamlet then compares himself unfavourably to Fortinbras (although Shakespeare doesn’t necessarily agree – he seems to be ridiculing Fortinbras’ meagre justification for waging war).
“What is a man/ If his chief good and market of his time/ Be but to sleep and feed? A beast no more….Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means to do it… Rightly to be great/ Is not to stir without great argument/ But greatly to find quarrel in a straw/When honour’s at the stake/ How stand I then/ That have a father killed, a mother stained/ Excitements of my reason and my blood/ And let all sleep? While to my shame I see/ The imminent death of twenty thousand men/ That for a fantasy or trick of fame/ Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot/ Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause”
He knows that there is more to life than serving one’s bodily desires, otherwise we are no better than animals. He realises that he has no excuse for his inaction. He argues that the true sign of greatness can be seen in a man (like Fortinbras) who will fight over a trifle when his honour is at stake. By comparison, Hamlet sees his own inaction, when he has every reason to seek revenge, as pathetic. He is ashamed. However, the audience may be less sure of the righteousness of Fortinbras’ actions – he is, after all, causing the imminent death of 20,000 men for ‘a fantasy or a trick of fame’.
“O from this time forth/ My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth”. Hearing of Fortinbras’ leads to a further resolution to get revenge for once & for all.
Act 4, scene 6 – we hear from Horatio that Hamlet has escaped and is returning toDenmark.
Act 4, scene 7 – Claudius convinces Laertes that Hamlet killed his father, and devises a plan to get rid of him in a faux fencing match.
Act 5, scene 1 – the graveyard scene, where Hamlet muses on the nature of life and death, accidentally comes across Ophelia’s funeral, and fights with Laertes.
“That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once…This might be the pate of a politician, which this ass now o’er-reaches; one that would circumvent God”. Hamlet muses on the idea that even those who attempt to by-pass God’s law and morality, cannot escape the inevitability of death.
“Get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come”. However she paints her face, a lady will end up looking no more attractive than this skull (the irony of this thought lies in his ignorance of the fact that the grave is being dug for Ophelia). He again muses on the pointlessness of our worldly concerns, as none of us can avoid death. He later muses that many great leaders, like Alexander and Caesar, also ended up in the grave, just as the king, Claudius enters.
“What is he whose grief bears such an emphasis?”. Again, Hamlet feels offended by what he sees as false and over the top protestations of grief.
“I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers/ Could not with all their quantity of love/ Make up the sum” Hamlet feels the nature and quality of his love was more powerful than Laertes’. It is possible that his attack on Laertes is motivated by utter shock that Ophelia is dead and a combination of guilt and rage when Leartes implies that Hamlet may be partially to blame. He cannot bear the thought that he may have contributed to the death of this woman he loved and so lashes out.
Act 5, scene 2 – the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes, which ultimately leads to the completion of Hamlet’s revenge, and the death of all of the major characters in the play.
“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends/ Rough-hew them how we will”. He now believes in a divine purpose behind everything that human beings do, in the idea that (even if we don’t know it at the time) there is a grand pattern. All of his recent good luck appears to Hamlet as proof that he has been saved from death for a greater purpose – to get revenge on Claudius and thus serve him with the divine justice he deserves for his crimes.
“He should those bearers put to sudden death/ not shriving-time allowed” Hamlet’s deceitful replacement of Claudius’ letter to the King of England with one of his own ordering the execution of Ros. & Guild, and his lack of remorse at their deaths reveals how morally tainted he has become in the course of the play by the deception and betrayal that surrounds him.
“They are nor near my conscience, their defeat/ Does by their own insinuation grow” Hamlet feels that they have only got what they deserved for getting mixed up with a villain like Claudius. He assumes that they knew about the plot to have him killed.
“He that hath killed my king, and whored my mother/ Popped in between th’ election and my hopes/ Thrown out his angle for my proper life” This is a summary of all of Hamlet’s grievances with Claudius – he killed his father, turned his mother into a slut, prevented Hamlet from gaining the throne, and then attempted to have him killed.
“I am very sorry, good Horatio/ That to Laertes I forgot myself/ For by the image of my cause I see/ The portraiture of his”. Hamlet regrets his row with Laertes, because he realises that Laertes has a just reason for seeking vengence, and that in thus they are very much alike.
“I will win for him if I can; if not, I will gain nothing but my shame and the odd hits”. Hamlet casually accepts the invitation to a duel, as though he has nothing to lose
“Thou wouldst not think how ill’s here about my heart… a kind of gaingiving as would perhaps trouble a woman”. He is filled with a sense of foreboding, his spirit is troubled, but he suspects this is no more than womanly cowardice and superstition.
“If it be now ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come”. Hamlet has lost all fear of death – he believes that if his time has come, there is nothing he can do about it. (Que sera, sera, whatever will be will be).
“Give me your pardon sir, I have done you wrong…What I have done…I here proclaim was madness”. Hamlet asks Laertes to forgive him, he did not knowingly kill his father.
“How does the queen?…O villainy. Ho, let the door be locked…The point envenomed too?/ Then venom to thy work.” Hamlet stabs the King, then forces him to drink poison. His mother’s death finally provokes Hamlet to action. It is fitting that Claudius is killed with the weapons he himself poisoned in order to kill Hamlet.
“Heaven make thee free of it” Hamlet offers Laertes forgiveness as he lies dying.
“If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart/ Absent thee from felicity awhile/ And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain/ To tell my story”. Hamlet begs Horatio on his deathbed to tell the truth to the world and thus protect his memory beyond the grave.
“I do prophesy th’ election lights/ On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice…the rest is silence”. Hamlet’s final words reveal his noble concern for the future of the kingdom, even as he lies dying.
After his death great tributes are paid to him by both Horatio & Fortinbras. Horatio says “goodnight sweet prince and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” and Fortinbras comments “Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage; Forhe was likely, had he been put on, To have proved most royal“.
No more can be said of Hamlet – the rest is silence.
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter. O God, God, / How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!Act One scene two, ll. 129-34
Hamlet's first soliloquy finds him more melancholic, more desperate, than at any other point in the play. In the beginning, his motives and feelings are clear in a way that they never are after his encounter with the ghost. Hamlet is simply disgusted that his mother, who had appeared to be so much in love with his father, has married Claudius, her vastly inferior former brother-in-law. For Hamlet as the play opens, existence itself is a burden; he wishes that the body could simply melt away and free him from his torment. Although sometimes his rhetoric in the ensuing Acts resonates with this first declaration of misery, Hamlet's sincerity becomes much more difficult to judge once he has received his supernatural charge. His moods become more manic, his language more explosive and punning, and his motivation becomes infinitely mysterious. Here, though, freed from the need to act on his thoughts and feelings (he even says, at the end of the speech, "But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue"), he is truly in his miserable element.
By the way, the first line of this speech reads differently in different editions. Some editors follow the second quarto and admit "sallied flesh" (or even "sullied flesh"). Others follow the first folio and put "solid flesh." The emphasis is either on the flesh's innate depravity or on its frustrating solidity. Because Hamlet expresses a desire that the flesh go from a firm and resilient to something like a liquid or gaseous state, I have opted for "solid" as more consistent with the elemental imagery of the passage.
There, my blessing with thee, / And these few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue, / Nor any unproportioned thought his act. Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar. / Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, / Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel, / But do not dull thy palm with entertainment / Of each new-hatched, unfledged courage. [...] Neither a borrower nor a lender be, / For loan oft loses both itself and friend, / And borrowing dulls th' edge of husbandry. / This above all, to thine own self be true, / And it must follow as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man.Act One scene three, ll. 55-80
Beloved of refrigerator magnet and bumper sticker companies everywhere, Polonius' advice to Laertes puts the critic in a double bind. On the one hand, there is no denying that his advice is often sound, if generally cliched and obvious, and very memorably expressed. On the other, the speech must be read in context, and when done so it becomes deeply ironic. One phrase in particular is very rich coming from Polonius -- "to thine own self be true, / And it must follow as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man." Polonius is, of course, the quintessential false man. He is forever plotting strategems and eavesdropping behind the arras. That he nevertheless feels comfortable positing that one should be true to oneself (whatever that means) and thereby never false to any man is a testament to his shallow disregard for the deeper import and meaning of his language. Polonius mouths words without meaning them. He is windy and empty. And this speech in particular, with its smug certainties, serves as a stark contrast to Hamlet's searching, questioning, endless attempts at self-exploration.
I have of late -- but wherefore I know not -- lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition, that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'er-hanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason; how infinite in faculties, in form and moving; how express and admirable in action; how like an angel in apprehension; how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?Act Two scene two, ll. 282-92
Speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet here sums up the central paradox of the "quintessence of dust," mankind -- at once the most sublime of creatures, and no better than the lowest. Paradoxically, Hamlet uses his angel-like apprehension to determine the worthlessness of man. He at once places his species in a standard Renaissance cosmos, rising hierarchically from the earth to the heavens, and denies this hierarchy. This speech is often cited as a statement of Hamlet's deep melancholy -- similar to the soliloquy in Act One -- but here his melancholy is far larger than his present circumstances. His melancholy is metaphysical in nature and cosmic in scope. Already, he has outgrown the generic task before him, to kill his uncle, and has used the occasion of revenge and madness to explore much larger questions about the place of humanity in the universe.
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! / Is it not monstrous that this player here, / But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, / Could force his soul so to his own conceit / That from her working all his visage wanned; / Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect, / A broken voice, and his whole function suiting / With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing, / For Hecuba!Act Two scene two, ll. 506-14 ff.
Hamlet's second soliloquy, given after the player has recited the woeful story of Priam's death and Hecuba's grief, explores the nature of performance. How can it be, he asks, that this player can summon up such apparently genuine feeling for a fiction, for a dream, while I (Hamlet) cannot manage to rally my spirits to action in a just cause? Hamlet's speech is very carefully constructed, with reason prevailing for the first long stretch of rhetoric until Hamlet's passion ironically overwhelms him and he explodes, "Fie upon't! foh! / About, my brains." (Hamlet does have a kind of passion after all -- not for revenge, but for expanding upon the lust and depravity of Claudius and Gertrude.) Notice how questions dominate the soliloquy. "Am I a coward? / Who calls me villain, breaks my pate across, / Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face, / Tweaks me by the nose, gives me the lie i'th'throat / As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?" Hamlet is completely incapable of explaining or changing his character; he can merely eloquently wonder at it. Again, his apprehension is god-like, but what good does it do him?
To be, or not to be, that is the question: / Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep -- / No more. And by a sleep to say we end / The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that Flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation / Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep -- / To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub. / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause.Act Three scene one, ll. 56-68 ff.
Here are the most famous words in the play, and likely in all of western literature. Many have taken the speech to be a contemplation of suicide. "To be or not to be" -- that is, "to live or to kill myself." There are some features of the speech that seem to shore this reading up. The speech does suggest that death is a highly attractive destination, and that the only thing that keeps us miserable mortals from seeking it out is the fear of "what dreams may come" in the hereafter. But certainly the speech is more than a simple suicide note. If he is thinking about suicide, he is most definitely contemplating it in the abstract, as a topic of interest more than as an actual option for his own life.
Some critics have decided that the speech is not about suicide at all. To take one example, the eighteenth-century critic Samuel Johnson suggested that the soliloquy is more generally about death, and about the risk of death in a moment of decisive action, than about suicide. He writes, "Hamlet, knowing himself injured in the most enormous and atrocious degree, and seeing no means of redress, but such as must expose him to the extremity of hazard, meditates on his situation in this manner: Before I can form any rational scheme of action under this pressure of distress, it is necessary to decide, whether, after our present state, we are to be or not to be." In other words, Johnson thinks that the speech is really very consistent with the mounting action in the play. Hamlet, in his view, has come to a point where he must decide whether he is willing to put his life on the line, as he surely must, in order to attack the king. The linchpin of this question is -- after we die, do we continue to exist, or do we stop existing? To be, or not to be. If we simply stop existing, certainly the risk is worth the comfort of oblivion. But if, in the hereafter, we retain our minds, our sensibilities, we must pause before leaping into so uncertain, so potentially horrific a fate.
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. [...] Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature; for anything so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first, and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.Act Three scene two, ll. 1-20 ff.
Hamlet's advice to the players may well be taken for Shakespeare's own theory of theater. Indeed, Hamlet is filled with such metatheatrical moments, from the play-within-a-play to the gossip about the London stage; it's not a stretch at all to here the bard's voice behind Hamlet's. The speech's most significant moment, in terms of aesthetic theory, is the passage that begins, "for anything so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing." Hamlet reveals the primeval roots of theater as he understands them -- to act as a mirror on both the universal and the particular levels, reflecting both human nature across centuries and the peculiar habits of a given time in history. Overacting, clowing, and mugging might gain a moment's applause, but these things are not valuable beyond immediate gratification. Indeed, they run counter to the deepest nature of theater, which is to depict humanity not in a grotesque form, but as it actually is.
Oh, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; / It hath the primal eldest curse upon't, / A brother's murder. Pray can I not, / Though inclination be as sharp as will. / My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent, / And like a man to double business bound, / I stand in pause where I shall first begin, / And both neglect. What if this cursed hand / Were thicker than itself with brother's blood, / Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens / To wash it white as snow?Act Three scene three, ll. 36-46 ff.
This is the only soliloquy in Hamlet that does not belong to the title character. In it we finally learn for certain that Claudius is guilty of the murder charged to him. We also learn, perhaps, a little bit of sympathy for this simple, murderous and lustful man. He is, briefly at least, capable of looking into his soul with the same questioning, searching self-examination that Hamlet displays elsewhere. And he does admit the impossible logic of his situation. He cannot truly repent while he still possesses the fruits of his sin, his brother's crown and wife. His situation, then, becomes at least somewhat pitiful, and his motivations much clearer.
Hamlet, in this scene, is not nearly so sympathetic. He comes upon Claudius in his attempt to pray and decides not to murder him for fear that his soul, being in a state of repentance, might ascend to heaven. Speaking of his cruel reasoning in this moment, Samuel Johnson wrote, "This speech, in which Hamlet, represented as a virtuous character, is not content with taking blood for blood, but contrives damnation for the man that he would punish, is too horrible to be read or to be uttered."
How all occasions do inform against me, / And spur my dull revenge! What is a man, / If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. / Sure he that made us with such large discourse, / Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and godlike reason / To fust in us unused. Now whether it be / Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple / Of thinking too precisely on th' event -- / A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom / And ever three parts coward -- I do not know / Why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do', / Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means, / To do't.Act Four scene four, ll. 32-46 ff.
This, Hamlet's final soliloquy, is much like "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I." It is another meditation on the inscrutability of his failure to act when he has so much reason to do so. Whereas in the earlier soliloquy, the passion of an actor for an imaginary griever, Hecuba, occasioned Hamlet's self-reproaches, here the sight of Fortinbras' army marching to contest a worthless piece of land fixes his mind and leads him to wonder at himself. With Hecuba, the emphasis is on feeling; with Fortinbras, the emphasis is on honor. In both cases, though, Hamlet sees men who have petty or fictional objects, and who nevertheless rise to great things; whereas he, with his very palpable reasons for action and feeling, cannot manage to summon any such accomplishment. Of course, as always, he is not sure why this is the case (and nor are we, not really), but he shows the uncertain searching of modern subjectivity in his attempt to formulate this very confusion.
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio -- a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know now how oft. Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chop-fallen? Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that.Act Five scene one, ll. 159-67
Harold Bloom has suggested that despite his protestations of his dead father's greatness, Hamlet did not really have a very happy household growing up. His father was, indeed, a great military ruler, off conquering and governing conquered lands. Bloom suggests that the closest thing Hamlet had to an affectionate father was likely Yorick, the court jester, from whom he likely learned his excellent wit, his macabre sense of humor, and many more of his most Hamlet-esque characteristics. We need not go so far to see the strange mixture of affection and disgust that Yorick's skull give rise to in Hamlet. This is a moment of pure and deep contemplation of death. The fact of mortality is, so to speak, staring Hamlet in the face. Yorick's skull is a very powerful memento mori, a reminder of death -- no matter how much you try to stave off aging, Hamlet says, you're inevitably doomed to be like Yorick, a dirty and lipless skull buried in the ground, forgotten by all but the gravediggers. This sort of reminder was quite common in the Renaissance, with its plagues and its widespread starvation. Death was much more familiar to them than it is to us. Nevertheless, despite our modern dreams of scientific immortality, the universal truth of this final destination still holds.
HOR. If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.
HAM. Not a whit. We defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.Act Five scene two, ll. 192-8
This exchange seems to capture in its essence the changed Hamlet that we see in Act Five scene two. No longer is Hamlet his old questioning, searching, tormented, macabre self. Now he has almost a zen-like acceptance of things as they are. What will be will be. All the world, at this point, seems to exist within a greater order -- perhaps an unknowable order, but an order nonetheless. The speech, while short, contains several rich paradoxes. First, Hamlet claims that there is rhyme and reason to the slightest events of the universe -- there is "special providence in the fall of the sparrow." At the same time, he asserts that we know nothing of the world -- "no man of aught he leaves knows." So all things are rich with meaning, yet we know not what such meaning might be. Thus Hamlet closes the play in a quiet and mysterious counter-poise with fate. He no longer attempts to understand the unknowable, but accepts it as such; indeed, he accepts unknowability as an inescapable condition of all existence. What good is it, then, to roil one's guts over future plans? On the contrary, not the action, but the readiness, is all.