Hamlet

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Religion, Honor, and Revenge Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Action and Inaction Theme Icon
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon
Religion, Honor, and Revenge Theme Icon
Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Hamlet, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Religion, Honor, and Revenge Theme Icon

Every society is defined by its codes of conduct—its rules about how to act and behave. There are many scenes in Hamlet when one person tells another how to act: Claudius lectures Hamlet on the proper show of grief; Polonius advises Laertes on practical rules for getting by at university in France; Hamlet constantly lectures himself on what he should be doing. In Hamlet, the codes of conduct are largely defined by religion and an aristocratic code that demands honor and revenge if honor has been soiled.

But as Hamlet actually begins to pursue revenge against Claudius, he discovers that the codes of conduct themselves don't fit together. Religion actually opposes revenge, which would mean that taking revenge could endanger Hamlet's own soul. In other words, Hamlet discovers that the codes of conduct on which society is founded are contradictory. In such a world, Hamlet suggests, the reasons for revenge become muddy, and the idea of justice confused.

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Religion, Honor, and Revenge Quotes in Hamlet

Below you will find the important quotes in Hamlet related to the theme of Religion, Honor, and Revenge.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
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.

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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 2, scene 2 Quotes
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.

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.

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 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.