Hamlet

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of Hamlet published in 1992.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not "seems."
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Gertrude
Page Number: 1.2.79
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet says this line to his mother Gertrude when she inquires why he “seems” to be so dismayed. He corrects her word choice and points out that his sadness is an accurate reflection of his emotional state after his father’s death—rather than an external performance of mourning.

The difference between the truth of interior emotions (“is”) and exterior presentations in a social context (“seems”) is a critical theme throughout Hamlet. Many of the characters hide their true intentions in order to plot against others, and Hamlet’s actions, in particular, are the subject of much skepticism. As he becomes increasingly irrational and distraught, both the other characters and the audience of Shakespeare’s work are tasked to determine whether these behaviors are appearances or realities.

Hamlet has encapsulated this central concern of the play, here, within the correction of a single verb. The passage points out that while other characters may be more likely to attribute actions to displays of emotion, Hamlet holds a commitment to actual sentiment. Of course, we also must be skeptical of such a line: Perhaps Hamlet’s insistence on the “is” actually reveals just how carefully he coordinates his speeches. But regardless of whether we trust him, it is clear that he and Shakespeare have put high stakes on linguistic precision and the coherence between belief and act.

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O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 1.2.33-34
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet is left alone at this point and enters into his first soliloquy. He discourses on the spite he feels for the other characters and ponders the merits of suicide.

Though the question of suicide is most famously explored in Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech, it appears already at this early moment in the play. Shakespeare, then, does not present Hamlet’s depressive rumination as so much the result of specific plot elements, but rather as an inherent component of his personality. In this case, the language remains more metaphorical and less assertive than it will be later.

What Hamlet desires is not to actively destroy his flesh but rather to let it passively become liquid through some process: It does not matter to him how this is done—melting, thawing, or inexplicable transformation—are all acceptable routes. He simply bids the natural world to allow this to occur in some way. (Associating suicide with water imagery also foreshadows Ophelia’s drowning later in the play.) The use of the interjection “O,” the conditional construction with “would,” and the repetition of “too too” all give the line a mournful and apathetic tone. Thus the passage positions the limits of human life as an important thematic conceit, while giving us a starting point of relative passivity toward the idea—which will come to contrast with Hamlet’s more assertive musings.

Frailty, thy name is woman!
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Gertrude
Page Number: 1.2.150
Explanation and Analysis:

In his soliloquy, Hamlet expresses disgust for Gertrude’s actions in the wake of King Hamlet’s death. The protagonist complains of her lustful nature and her moral weakness.

Shakespeare develops in this phrase a clever rhetorical strategy—one that has endured and been used in texts that range from James Joyce's Ulysses to a Supreme Court dissension to a Pokémon episode. The literal meaning of the sentence is that woman are frail, but by inverting the order of the sentence, he forefronts the accusative quality. Then by making the subject the “name” of the quality, he implies that frailty is epitomized and embodied by the female character. According to this logic, it is not just that some women are frail, but rather that they are synonymous with frailty.

Despite the rhetorical power of the statement, it is also a gross generalization—something of which Shakespeare would have certainly been aware. Hamlet rapidly switches from examining the specific case of Gertrude to making a general comment on her entire sex, which points to his tendency for rash action and totalizing language. We see, then, the playwright giving linguistic power to his characters, even as he also displays their shortcomings in rationality and sensibility.

Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral bak'd meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Claudius, Gertrude, Horatio
Page Number: 1.2.87-88
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet continues to rant about Claudius and Gertrude’s marriage. Here, he complains to Horatio about how rapidly their wedding took place after his father’s death.

To do so, Hamlet uses a grotesque image of the same food being served at the funeral and the marriage. What were “bak’d meats” (baked meats) at his father’s death are allowed to chill and then be repurposed for Hamlet's father's widow and brother. This is, of course, not a literal description of what occurred with the meals at each ceremony, but rather a rhetorical way for Hamlet to stress the speed and discourtesy of his mother’s actions. That Hamlet chooses the exclamation “thrift, thrift” brings a darkly economic dimension into the text. The term indicates that Gertrude and Claudius reused the meats in order to save expenses—which would be an offensive choice in the wake of her husband’s death. Thus it is not just speed that falls under critique here, but rather the casual and desensitized way they have acted. The passage stresses both the importance of social norms in Hamlet’s world, but also how flagrantly they have been violated in the specific events of the play.

Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
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.
Related Characters: Polonius (speaker), Laertes
Page Number: 1.3.84-86
Explanation and Analysis:

As Laertes departs for France, his father Polonius gives an extensive speech on how he should comport himself abroad. Here, he discusses how Laertes should represent his interior beliefs to others.

These lines are actually some of the most commonly misinterpreted from all of Shakespeare’s work. Looked at in isolation, they seem to recommend that Laertes act with integrity toward others and represent himself perfectly in accord with his interiority. Polonius contends that if he is faithful to his “ownself” internally, then his outward nature “to any man” will be equally honest and correct. Yet earlier in the same speech Polonius tells Laertes, “Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue”—which advises extensive self-control, in which a “character” is monitored and “thoughts” are left un-vocalized when it suits the thinker. Polonius, then, is speaking these later lines with a deep sense of irony: one should be true only in so far as one is in control of one’s thoughts and actions.

It is essential to be on the lookout throughout Hamlet for these types of ironies, particularly when characters are reflecting on questions of performance and integrity. Quite often a few lines in isolation will seem earnest, but when given more context will actually present the speaker as lying or jesting. Thus by professing that there is an internal self to whom Laertes could be true, Polonius only complicates the stakes of identity—and shows even more so how the self is the result of performance and ever-changing construction.

Act 1, scene 4 Quotes
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Related Characters: Marcellus (speaker)
Page Number: 1.4.100
Explanation and Analysis:

Marcellus says this line after watching Hamlet run after the Ghost of his father. He observes, darkly, the negative state of both Hamlet’s mind and the corresponding political situation of Denmark.

Though the line is said in response to Hamlet’s emotional outburst and irrational behavior, it does not place blame on him directly. Rather, it presents his action to be the result of an environmental factor: it is the general “state of Denmark” that holds the “rotten” quality. Yet at the same time Mercellus leaves the source entirely ambiguous with the subject “Something.” That something could be a person like Claudius, or perhaps Hamlet’s madness, or perhaps the Ghost itself, who is driving Hamlet to ruinous action.

Thus Shakespeare’s work leaves undisclosed the precise source of the tragedy: if a more conventional tale would give us specific heroes and villains who are deemed either good or "rotten," the triumph of Hamlet is to leave uncertain who exactly is “rotten.” The line also notably brings a political element to bear on the actions, drawing attention to how Hamlet and his father both have a direct effect on the “state.” Though this is a less-often analyzed strain of the play, it is important to recall the geopolitical developments that form the backdrop of the text. Here, we see foreshadowed the decay of Denmark and the way it will be vulnerable to foreign encroachment.

Act 1, scene 5 Quotes
O, villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Claudius
Page Number: 1.5.113
Explanation and Analysis:

As Hamlet converses with the Ghost, he curses both Gertrude and Claudius. Here, he exclaims on how Claudius is deceptive and presents an aura of goodwill despite his evil intent.

It’s worthwhile to track some of Hamlet’s repeated speech formations: once more he uses the interjection “O” to stress the emotional intensity of the phrase, and his triple invocation of “villain” is also characteristic of how he will often repeat words many times to build emphasis. Here, “villain” is first said twice to doubly-inscribe the role to Claudius, after which it is qualified with the mixed descriptor “smiling, damned.” Thus the reader only sees the specific qualities of Claudius behavior after we have been told repeatedly that they are evil.

Those specific qualities return us to the question of how one separates interior identity from exterior presentation. Though Claudius is externally “smiling” and thus presenting a positive, friendly image, he is internally still a “villain.” The term “damned” also adds important information: Claudius is ethically accountable for his actions and fated to a negative fate as a result of them. This term implies, then, that Hamlet believes in a system of moral justice, be it religious or secular, and furthermore stresses that this justice will be imposed based on interior identities, not on the external performance of how one comforts with smiles.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Horatio
Page Number: 1.5.187-188
Explanation and Analysis:

After speaking to the Ghost, Hamlet expresses a skepticism with Horatio’s observation that the ghost is “strange.” Hamlet points out here that Horatio’s way of viewing the world has excluded certain phenomena and experiences and thus has caused him to limit his idea of reality.

To assert this claim, Hamlet notes that Horatio is limited in his perceptions of what exists. This limitation exists in both “heaven and earth,” implying that Horatio is blind to not only things in a different realm (“heaven”) but also to what he could presumably see on “earth,” such as the Ghost. Hamlet implies that a given way of viewing the world prevents us from perceiving even those things all around us. He uses the term “philosophy” rather loosely then—not as a set of metaphysical concepts on, say, the existence of free will or God, but rather something more like a personal philosophy that dictates what is considered “strange” in the world.

The phrase “dreamt of,” after all, positions “philosophy” not as a rational body of thought, but rather something pseudo-scientific or even mystical. Hamlet could very well have said “Than exist in your philosophy,” but instead he chooses to present belief systems as akin to one’s dreams. Thus Hamlet can justify both his own somewhat erratic behavior by rendering it equally valid as a dreamt-of philosophy, and more broadly call into question any reader’s assumptions of the arbitrary separation of normal and strange.

Act 2, scene 2 Quotes
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.
Related Characters: Polonius (speaker)
Page Number: 2.2.97-99
Explanation and Analysis:

After completing his diplomatic relations with Claudius and Gertrude, Polonius begins to speak about Hamlet’s madness. He introduces the speech with this construction that cherishes and promises concise language.

The phrase “brevity is the soul of wit” is another example of how Shakespeare will invert sentence structures for emphatic and rhetorical effect. Most simply this means, “it is important to be brief in order to be witty”—but Polonius instead makes “brevity” a central, constitutive aspect of “wit,” as opposed to a common feature. Just as Hamlet called women the name of frailty, here Polonius has rendered brevity to be wit’s soul. “Tediousness,” on the other hand, is associated with the external parts of the body—the material that is superficial and extraneous. Polonius uses this phrase to justify and introduce his “brief” speech.

As with many of Polonius’ statements, however, these lines are deeply ironic. Polonius is always a verbose character, and this speech is particularly rambling: he discourses extensive about the nature of Hamlet’s madness without making any particularly useful or incisive contributions. These lines themselves serve to elongate the position—adding “an outward flourish” in the very act of denouncing such a gesture. We should note, furthermore, that Polonius is not interested in “truth” per say, but rather just “wit”—which itself a type of “outward flourish.” On the simplest level, this irony further undermines Polonius’s character, presenting him ever more as an unaware fool. But it also offers a broader comment on how people’s promises and intentions often differ from their actions: One may claim brevity to be the soul of wit while failing to be either brief or witty.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 2.2.68-70
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Hamlet speaks to his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They have tried to express that Denmark is not as bad as Hamlet presents it to be, and in response he notes that the merit in things lies less in their actual existence and more in how they are subjectively experienced.

In the broadest sense, Hamlet is offering a brilliant metaphysical claim about the nature of reality: he is denying that external events are ever “good or bad,” but rather become so based on how one is “thinking.” It is not clear, in this case, whether Hamlet believes one can actively will via “thinking” for something to become positive or negative—or if he fatalistically believes that whatever one’s mental state is will determine if something is “good or bad.” Most likely, the second option is the case here, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have tried to shift his “thinking,” but Hamlet presents his interpretation of reality as pre-determined. This sort of nihilistic explanation may seem commonplace now, but it was certainly not widespread in Shakespeare’s time—and it is part of the reason for Hamlet’s lasting legacy as an early account of modern human psychology. Furthermore, this comment stresses that while Hamlet may seem to be descending increasingly into madness, that process has also given him a certain type of insight into the reality of the world.

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 2.2.273-275
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet continues to reflect on whether his happiness is primarily based on his disposition or events occurring in the external environment. Here, he points out that joy would come easily to him except for the psychic baggage of negative dreams.

What exactly Hamlet means by “bad dreams” is, however, far from clear. Hamlet is often fixated on his and others’ dreams, for they exist on the borderline of reality. They thus seem to introduce foreign or irrational concepts into daily life—here ones that prevent one from living peacefully. Were Hamlet not to have these invasive thoughts, he implies, he would live ignorantly but at peace. “Bounded in a nutshell” functions as a metaphor for a closed and secluded world with no stream of information—and without being tempted by anything exterior, Hamlet would be able to redefine his reality as “a king of infinite space.” His mind could set its own limits and be content and empowered even with an objectively negative situation. Dreams, however, allow one access beyond one’s own reality—so they become a metaphor for escaping the nutshell and then becoming dissatisfied with its cramped surroundings.

Another, slightly narrower, interpretation could see his communication with the Ghost as a sort of dream, for the specter appears only at night and does not speak with any other characters. In that case, Hamlet implies that the Ghost is his “bad dream”: for he introduces the ethical imperative to avenge his father by killing Claudius. In both cases, Hamlet seems nostalgic for a state of lesser awareness in which he could still be that ignorant “king of infinite space.”

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in 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?
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 2.2.327-332
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet continues to soliloquize to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about human nature. He first lauds mankind’s many incredible characteristics in accomplishments before tempering his praise by pointing out human mortality.

At first, Hamlet seems to have strikingly changed his tone from his previous condemnations of human nature. Man’s reason is “noble” or honorable and just, while the “infinite” nature of his “faculty” means it can extend beyond mundane occurrences. He then appreciates the external appearance and behaviors of humanity, likening them first to an “angel” and then “a god.” Indeed, at the time humans are considered the most beautiful thing in the world and deemed the “paragon” or best of all animals. The turn comes when Hamlet says that despite all these remarkable characteristics, humans are just “this quintessence of dust”: Their essential quality is neither noble nor beautiful, but just basic material of the earth.

Yet even before the chilling last line, the phrases glimmer with a negative bent. Hamlet shouts with a seemingly ecstatic air, but the obsessive repetition of exclamation marks grows hollow by the eighth repetition—putting the emphasis more on the phrase’s desperation than any sense of real excitement. Likening men to angels or a god may just seem laudatory, but it is also implausible, and so it comes off as parodic or shrill. Hamlet thus pokes fun at the way that humanity has built up a conceited vision of itself, and points out that they are all fundamentally dust: they have come from nothing and, being mortal, will eventually return to that state.

What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), First Player
Page Number: 2.2.586-587
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Hamlet responds to having watched one of the actors perform a speech from the Trojan War, in which Hecuba grieves for her husband Priam. He struggles with his own emotional apathy at his father’s death, considering how intensely the player could exhibit emotion for a fictional grief.

Hamlet’s anxiety here occurs on several levels. First, he is confronting the fact that he has not yet avenged his father. He is distraught that someone who is merely performing grief would seem capable of serious action, whereas he himself deliberates and talks endlessly without having acted. There is thus a disjunction between the “him” of the actor and the historical figure of Hecuba that has caused him to weep—in a way that makes Hamlet feel he should be more capable of weeping.

But the passage also returns us to the questions of performance that have occupied Hamlet throughout the text. After all, he does not presumably believe that the player actually identifies fully with Hecuba—and thus his concern over the weeping has more to do with the fact that humans are able to craft their emotions so effectively. This ability calls into the question anyone’s emotional responses—even his own—for they seem less predicated on actual feelings, if Hamlet’s request that the player take on a role allows him to do so with ease. Hamlet will, of course, make use of this exact quality in the next act, when he puts on a mock play to test Claudius’s response, so he is far from dispensing with the performative aspect of emotions. Rather, Shakespeare shows us a character struggling to make sense of the disconnect between interior and exterior—here with the artifice of theater itself.

The play's the thing,
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 2.2.633-634
Explanation and Analysis:

As Act Two ends, Hamlet’s settles on a plan to determine whether Claudius is guilty: he proposes to stage an altered version of The Murder of Gonzago, which will have much in common with the story the Ghost recounted of his murder. Thus by watching Claudius’s response, Hamlet hopes to ascertain his guilt.

That Hamlet sees theater as the way to best access human truth is somewhat ironic. The art form would seem to epitomize performance and deceit, for it shows just how easily people can take on alternate identities and emotions. Yet this is the exact quality of theater that Hamlet seeks to exploit, for staging the play in a certain way will allow it to function as a trap for “the conscience.” Artificiality, he implies, can serve as a route to honesty if properly exploited.

The comment also has meta-textual implications for the play, for if Hamlet is using The Murder of Gonzago to his advantage, he is himself on trial within Shakespeare’s tragedy. Yet things are not so clear cut in Shakespeare’s work: in a sense, the characters remain caught in his artifice, displaying their “conscience” for the viewer. But at the same time their mixed motives and allegiances resist our interpretive abilities—we remain uncertain whether Hamlet is mad or whether Claudius is fully guilty—thus questioning the limits of an artwork to reveal the truth of a conscience.

Act 3, scene 1 Quotes
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?
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 3.1.64-68
Explanation and Analysis:

While Polonius and Claudius hide and eavesdrop, Hamlet breaks into this most famous soliloquy, perhaps the best-known speech in the English language. Hamlet returns to the question of suicide, wondering if it would be preferable to end his life or not.

Though Hamlet’s language has grown more direct from its earlier references to "dew," it still speaks to his passivity in the face of desperation. He phrases the question of death in the abstract with the infinitive verb forms “to be, or not to be”—and makes it “the question” of humanity, as opposed to a personal matter. These choices imply that the decision whether or not to exist is a constant struggle for each person, a struggle that Hamlet tries to mediate through the metric of what is “nobler in the mind.” This phrase implies that death is evaluated based on perceived correctness or social value, as opposed to, say, a universal ethical system.

For the two options themselves, Hamlet chooses evocative images: “To be” is put in relatively more passive terms as a continuous process of “suffering” an onslaught of external attacks from “outrageous fortune”—that is to say, the constant influx of events that cannot be shifted in one’s destiny. Suicide, on the other hand, is presented as an active fight that wages war on “a sea of troubles” and, indeed, is successful in the endeavor. The phrase “by opposing end them” seems noble or glorious, but what it literally means is to vanquish one’s “outrageous fortune” by ending one’s life. Thus Hamlet presents his lack of suicide not as the result of insufficient desperation, but rather his apathy from wishing to take on such a fight. Life becomes, for him, a constant decision of whether he will finally arrive at sufficient motivation to shift course and end his and/or Claudius’s life.

Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Ophelia
Page Number: 3.1.131-134
Explanation and Analysis:

After Ophelia tries to return a set of gifts Hamlet has given her, he renounces their relationship. He first disparages Ophelia for her lack of honesty, and then implicates himself as the cause of moral wrongdoing.

This passage is another striking example of how Hamlet’s apparent insanity covers up complex reflections on human nature and society. His general claim is that Ophelia should not continue to propagate the species, for all men are sinners even if they are generally honest and well-intentioned. Yet instead of expressing this statement directly, Hamlet couches it in the lunatic demand that Ophelia enter a “nunnery”: a place where should would be celibate and therefore unable to “be a breeder of sinners,” or give birth to more children.

Though this passage might be interpreted in passing as chastising Ophelia for her sins, Hamlet’s claim is actually based on his own transgressions. He notes, in a somewhat roundabout manner, that others could consider his actions reprehensible despite his “indifferent honest” behavior: “indifferent” in that he remains relatively passive, and “honest” in that any sins are supposedly driven by a strong moral compass. Yet, Hamlet reasons, if even his disposition makes him worthy of accusation, then presumably other similar men are sinners, and Ophelia should not risk giving birth to one of them. Shakespeare, here, shows how Hamlet’s nihilistic images of the world are a fascinating mixture of compelling and irrational. The logic makes sense and carries deep philosophical weight, while being simultaneously insensitive and outrageous. The two, Shakespeare shows us, can quite easily coexist.

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me. You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery ... 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Page Number: 3.2.393-402
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet responds angrily to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern here, believing correctly that they are agents from his mother. He rejects their support as manipulative and asserts his own autonomy.

To criticize his friends’ actions, Hamlet uses a series of images of instruments, each of which position Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as seeking to “play upon” Hamlet. “My stops” refers to the holes in a recorder or flute, also called a “fret,” while “pluck” calls up a stringed instrument such as a lute (which also has "frets"). By mixing a variety of different instruments, Hamlet points out that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s tactics are lacking in specificity. It does not matter which metaphor they select, or which type of instrument they imagine Hamlet to be. They may “fret” him—a pun on playing an instrument, but also provoking frustration or angst—but he refuses to produce the corresponding music.

Hamlet demonstrates with these images his understanding of the game being played by his friends: he resists manipulation by pointing out that their effects are foolhardy. And his references to art are striking, considering the way that theater has been used to make sense of human duplicity and manipulation. Shakespeare thus present the arts as a way for the characters to conceptualize human interaction—to theorize, grasp, and fight against the way we try to control each other.

Act 3, scene 3 Quotes
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below;
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Related Characters: Claudius (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.102-103
Explanation and Analysis:

Hamlet enters into Claudius’s chambers, intending to kill him, but decides against it when he sees him praying. Yet after Hamlet exits, Claudius reveals here that his prayers were in vain, for they were mere words without the associated repentant thoughts.

These lines return to the theme of external presentation and internal identity, here by approaching the question of language. Claudius points out that “words” and the “thoughts” they convey are not necessarily linked, for the language may “fly up” with the intent to access the heavens, while their contents “remain below” in an earthly, or even hellish, realm. This is a clever explanation of what it means to lie, and Claudius points out that while such a separation of word and meaning might be effective in human interactions, it does not at all function in prayer. When he says “Words without thought never to heaven go,” he repeats the exact same words from the previous line to show that while his language may “fly up,” it will not actually reach its destination in “heaven.” Thus a repenting prayer is deemed to require a higher truth-value than human communication, because divinities are able to correctly recognize when content and language—interior and exterior—have been divorced.

Beyond rendering ironic Hamlet’s decision to not kill the praying Claudius, this passage also gives us important information about the spiritual belief systems of the characters. Even the sinner Claudius, who does not repent, is shown to be aware of the consequences of his actions. Thus the characters hold a continued belief in divine destiny that can see through performances to some kind of interior truth.

Act 4, scene 3 Quotes
Claudius: What dost thou mean by this?
Hamlet: Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Claudius (speaker)
Page Number: 4.3.33-35
Explanation and Analysis:

When Claudius asks Hamlet where he has put Polonius’s body, Hamlet offers an expectedly indirect response that Polonius is food for worms. He adds, here, that this is the eventual fate of all men.

Hamlet’s comment functions simultaneously as an evasive maneuver, an indirect threat, and an existential comment on humanity. First, it allows him to avoid giving a specific location for the body—stressing that it does not matter where Polonius is located, for his fate in all places is the same. Second, he implies through the reference to “a king” that Claudius may soon meet a similar fate as Polonius. And third, Hamlet points out how humans of all social statuses find equal ground in their death. Since the worms now feasting on Polonius are transforming his flesh into soil, his body may soon be feeding someone of lowly status like “a beggar.”

This point returns to Hamlet’s earlier anxieties about how humans, despite their nobility and pretenses, are never anything more than “dust.” Here, he takes this same comment and makes it a weapon against the pomp of a kingly figure like Claudius. Once more Shakespeare has housed this compelling reflection on human mortality in a multi-layered comment that encapsulates Hamlet’s madness, manipulation, and jesting nature in a single line.

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
Alas! poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest.... Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Horatio, Yorick
Related Symbols: Yorick's Skull
Page Number: 5.1.190-198
Explanation and Analysis:

As Hamlet speaks to the gravediggers, he comes across a skull and learns it is from the court jester Yorick. This shock causes Hamlet to wonder about the distance between Yorick’s behavior in life and his current decaying state.

This passage mixes Hamlet’s characteristic philosophical rumination with an intense dark humor. He offers a series of apostrophe-questions addressed to Yorick, which point out how the dead man will remain ever unable to respond. And the jocular disposition of Yorick reiterates the lack of humor in the current situation. Thus Hamlet is able to take a positive set of terms—“jest,” “gibes,” “gambols,” “songs,” and “merriment”—and turn them all into bleak descriptions of what has been lost. The lines recall his earlier description of how man’s nobility only served to cover an essence of dust. Yet here it is not only great deeds that fade into non-existence, but even small moments of laughter. Shakespeare thus channels the grave scene to point out how the most impressive accomplishments—be they the creation of kingdoms or of “infinite jest”—ultimately end in an empty and absent skull.

Act 5, scene 2 Quotes
We defy augury; there's a 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.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker)
Page Number: 5.2.233-237
Explanation and Analysis:

Before the play’s final duel commences, Horatio and Hamlet discuss his chances of wining the fight. Hamlet expresses confidence in his abilities, as well as a fatalistic belief that death will come to all at some point.

Here, Hamlet stakes out a direct claim against a deterministic viewpoint with the phrase “We defy augury.” (Augury was a means of predicting the future through observing the actions of birds.) Though Hamlet's resulting language takes its cues from prophecy—with the term “providence,” the image of a “sparrow.” which is often interpreted as a portent, and the “will be” future verb tense—Hamlet firmly denies the value of such pseudo-mystic beliefs. Instead, he points out that this “special providence” is actually just a sign of a fate that must transpire at some point, no matter what. Death, for him, will either come “now” in the moment of the duel, or it will arrive at some future point. When he says, “yet it will come,” Hamlet reiterates his point on the eventuality of death.

Yet whereas before this conclusion might have crippled Hamlet from acting, here he finds in it a source of empowerment. Human mortality shows him that one need not pay attention to “augury,” for the expectation of death will be manifested at one point or another—and thus Hamlet finally decides to take up arms against his demons. Shakespeare shows, then, a decisive change in Hamlet's character, in which existential despair can now actively motivate action instead of paralyzing it.

Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Related Characters: Horatio (speaker), Hamlet
Page Number: 5.2.397-398
Explanation and Analysis:

As Hamlet dies, Horatio speaks these emotional words of farewell. With them, he sanctifies Hamlet’s character and actions in the final moments of the play.

First Horatio stresses both Hamlet’s royal heritage and his moral goodness through the term “noble heart.” Next, he reasserts Hamlet’s social position by referring to him as “sweet prince.” And finally he gives him a religious and ethical pass by claiming that “flights of angels” will accompany his death. Each of these moves is significant for a friend that has, throughout the play, often expressed mixed beliefs with respect to Hamlet’s actions. Yet here, Horatio ignores such skepticisms and decides to fully vindicate Hamlet on his deathbed.

What are we to make of how these final judgments are positioned in Horatio’s character? After all, he is presumably quite biased toward his friend, and thus cannot be trusted as the main moral judge of the play. Yet at the same time, he is tasked by Hamlet with carrying on the legacy of the events that have thus transpired—which renders him the author of the tragedy, and thus the closest representative of Shakespeare himself. Perhaps Horatio returns here to Claudius’s earlier explanation of how his words would not rise to heaven because they were divorced from his actual sentiments. Here, Horatio contends that Hamlet is indeed responded to by the heavens—indicating that Hamlet's language has been a truthful representation of his intentions. Whether or not one believes this to be accurate, it reiterates the characters’ belief in a (religious) moral compass for the play that could sense the real significance of actions, and determine who deserved to rise to heaven.

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