Hamlet Quotes

Hamlet Madness Quotes

How we cite the quotes:
Citations follow this format: (Act.Scene.Line). Line numbers correspond to the Norton edition.

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

From the play's beginnings, Hamlet is distressed. Here, his desire for his "flesh" to "melt" and dissolve into "dew" registers his anguish over his father's death and his mother's remarriage to his uncle. Clearly, Hamlet's thoughts here are suicidal and register some mental and emotionally instability. We also know from his earlier conversation with Gertrude and Claudius that he's been in a melancholy mood.

History Snack: Elizabethans believed the human body was made up of four basic elements, called humors: phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile. These elements were supposed to influence a person's disposition and mood. Hamlet seems to be suffering from what Elizabethans referred to as "melancholy," which was associated with too much "black bile" in the body. This state led to lethargy, irritability, distorted imagination, and so on. Basically, it sounds a lot like what we call "clinical depression" today.

Textual Note: Some modern editions of the play read "sullied flesh" instead of "solid flesh." This is because the first folio (published 1623) edition of the play (which reads "solid") is slightly different than the first quarto (published 1603) edition, which reads "sallied." Modern editors who prefer the first quarto reading update the word "sallied" to "sullied." Both words seem to work so why are we making a big deal out of this? Well, the terms have slightly different connotations. Some editors and literary critics prefer "sullied" flesh because it suggests that Hamlet feels that he personally has been soiled, stained, or contaminated by his mother's incestuous relationship with his murderous uncle. This has some important implications for the play's theme of "Sex."

How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on

After the Ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius has murdered his father, Hamlet begins to plan his next steps. Here, he warns his friends that he will put on an "antic disposition," which results in the delay of Hamlet's revenge. What does "antic" mean, exactly? Well, it means "clown" or a performer who plays the role of a "grotesque," which means that Hamlet is going to pretend to be a madman. (This has some important implications for the play's ideas about theater and acting, which you can read more about in "Art and Culture.")

Here's something you might like to know. Shakespeare borrows the idea of feigned madness from one of the play's major sources, the story of "Amleth," a legendary Danish tale that dates back to at least the 9th century. In the source story, Amleth clearly pretends to be mad after his uncle kills his father and marries his mother, Gerutha. (The idea is that if the uncle believes Amleth has lost his mind, he won't suspect that Amleth knows the truth behind the murder. Amleth, then, will be safe from his murderous uncle.)

Famously, Hamlet's "antic disposition" is so convincing that we often wonder if he isn't truly mad. Audiences and literary critics have debated this question forever. Here's out position: there's plenty of evidence to argue either way, which seems to be Shakespeare's point. Like so many other issues in the play, the question of Hamlet's sanity is utterly ambiguous. So, if you're interested in taking up one side of the "is he or isn't he debate," just keep in mind the following things: 1) Hamlet says he's going to pretend to be mad ; 2) Hamlet's already "melancholy" at the beginning of the play ; 3) Elizabethan ideas about "madness" are unstable and they're different than modern notions of mental illness. As we'll see, the play itself offers multiple definitions of madness.

My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ancle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors,—he comes before me.
Mad for thy love?
My lord, I do not know;
But truly, I do fear it.
What said he?
He took me by the wrist and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm;
And, with his other hand thus o'er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stay'd he so;
At last, a little shaking of mine arm
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being: that done, he lets me go:
And, with his head over his shoulder turn'd,
He seem'd to find his way without his eyes;
For out o' doors he went without their helps,
And, to the last, bended their light on me. (2.1.1)

The last time we heard from Hamlet, he told his friends that he was going to play the part of a madman or "antic." This, as we know is a central component of the little game of cat and mouse he plays with Claudius, which ultimately delays Hamlet's revenge. In this passage, we see that Ophelia is genuinely frightened by Hamlet's disheveled appearance and disturbing behavior. Even Polonius is convinced that Hamlet is "mad for [Ophelia's] love" (1.2.8). This seems entirely plausible given that Polonius has forced Ophelia to stop seeing Hamlet and to reject his letters. Some literary critics see Hamlet as a deeply disturbed guy in this moment, possibly because he's feeling rejected and betrayed by the hapless Ophelia.

History Snack: Elizabethans thought that love really could make a man sick and mentally ill. They called this state "love melancholy." Check out what a doctor, Bernard Gordon, had to say in Lilium Medicinale:

The illness called heroes is melancholy anguish caused by love for a woman. The cause of this affliction lies in the corruption of the faculty to evaluate… [men forget] all sense of proportion and common sense…it can be defined as melancholy anguish. (Cited in Ioan Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance.)

In light of Hamlet's plans to play the "antic," we can't help but notice that Hamlet looks and acts just like a guy who's playing the stereotypical role of an unrequited lover. Is he faking here? If so, why would Hamlet do this to Ophelia? One answer is that Hamlet seems to know that Ophelia will report his behavior to her father (Polonius is notorious for spying and sucking up to the king), who will then share the information with King Claudius. One could argue, then, that Hamlet is purposely playing the role of a melancholy lover.

[…] The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me:

Throughout the play, the presence of the Ghost is associated with the possibility of Hamlet's insanity. Here, Hamlet is concerned that the Ghost may be "the devil" and is trying to tempt him to murder Claudius without just cause. What's interesting to us about this passage is the way Hamlet (who is alone on stage at this point) wonders if his melancholy state has left him vulnerable. As we know, many Elizabethans thought that those who suffered from melancholy were at risk for experiencing hallucinations (thought to have been caused by too much "black bile" in the body). This could leave them vulnerable to the devil's power and deception.

We see a similar idea at work earlier in the play, when Horatio (who is supposed to be an educated skeptic) warns Hamlet that the Ghost could "deprive [Hamlet of his] sovereignty and reason / And draw [him] into madness"(1.4.9).

He knew me not at first; he said I
was a fishmonger: he is far gone, far gone: and
truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for
love; very near this.

Polonius is convinced that Hamlet is "far gone, far gone" in his love for Ophelia. But, if we take a close look at the passage in which Hamlet calls Polonius a "fishmonger," it seems clear that Hamlet is mocking Polonius and merely playing the part of an "antic" (a madman but also a "grotesque" or "clown" figure). Polonius believes that Hamlet simply doesn't recognize him, but Hamlet is likely making a bawdy joke at Polonius's expense. A "fishmonger" is slang for "pimp," and Hamlet seems to be saying that he knows Polonius is using his daughter (like a pimp would use a prostitute) to spy on Hamlet and curry favor with King Claudius. Hamlet's crude suggestion becomes even more apparent in light of the fact that just a few lines earlier, Hamlet compared Ophelia to a "dead dog" that "breeds maggots" while rotting in the sun (2.2.5). When Polonius walks away, Hamlet calls him a "tedious old fool." These are just the kinds of things an "antic" would say and you can read more about this kind of "role" by going to "Art and Culture."

HAMLET I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is
southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.

Hamlet admits to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that even though he's acting like a raving lunatic, he definitely has his wits about him. In other words, he knows they've been sent by Claudius to spy on him.

How is it with you, lady?
Alas, how is't with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep;
And, as the sleeping soldiers in the alarm,
Your bedded hair, like life in excrements,
Starts up, and stands on end. O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience. Whereon do you look?

What's striking about this passage is the fact that Hamlet is the only one who can see and hear the Ghost when it appears in Gertrude's bedroom. (Earlier in the play, the castle guards and Horatio could see the spirit but Hamlet is the only one who has ever spoken with it.) So, what's going on here? What's changed? One possible explanation is that the Ghost chooses to appear only to Hamlet. (This kind of thing is common in the literature of the period.) Another possibility is that Hamlet's the only one who can see the Ghost here because it's a figment of his imagination, which would mean that Hamlet has broken down and has lost his mind.

What, Gertrude? How does Hamlet?
Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend
Which is the mightier: in his lawless fit,
Behind the arras hearing something stir,
Whips out his rapier, cries, 'A rat, a rat!'
And, in this brainish apprehension, kills
The unseen good old man.

This is an incredibly interesting passage. In the previous passage, Hamlet tells Gertrude that he isn't crazy but he asks her to lie and tell Claudius that he is in fact mad. As we can see here, Gertrude tells the king that Hamlet's as "mad as the sea and wind." Why does she do this? Is she trying to protect her son by lying to Claudius? Or, does she really think Hamlet's gone off the deep end? Where do Gertrude's loyalties lie at this point in the play?

[…] poor Ophelia
Divided from herself and her fair judgment,
Without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts:

When Ophelia enters a room in the castle in Act IV, scene v singing seemingly nonsensical songs, it's obvious she has gone mad. Ophelia's clear mental deterioration, then, seems to stand in stark contrast to Hamlet's feigned madness.

But what causes Ophelia to go mad? The easy answer is that she loses her mind because her ex-boyfriend has murdered her father. But, the issue seems to be much more complex. Several critics suggest that Ophelia "cracks" under patriarchal pressure, which seems to make a lot of sense. Throughout the play, Ophelia is ordered around by her brother and her father and has no control over her social or love life. Her own father uses her carelessly in order to spy on Hamlet, which leads to Hamlet's ruthless attack on Ophelia's "honesty." These issues have major implications for the play's portrayal of "Gender," so be sure to check it out.

Follow her close; give her good watch,
I pray you.

Ophelia's mad ramblings are a source of major concern in the royal court, as we see here when Claudius orders Horatio to keep a close eye on her. The fact is that Ophelia's babblings about her father's murder could have important political implications – "for she may strew / Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds" (4.5.2). Later, we see just how volatile the realm can be when Laertes leads a rebellion and finds many eager supporters who would help him overthrow King Claudius.











Hamlet Revenge Quotes

How we cite the quotes:
Citations follow this format: (Act.Scene.Line). Line numbers correspond to the Norton edition.

Now, sir, young Fortinbras,
Of unimproved mettle hot and full,
Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there
Shark'd up a list of lawless resolutes,
For food and diet, to some enterprise
That hath a stomach in't; which is no other—
As it doth well appear unto our state—
But to recover of us, by strong hand
And terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands
So by his father lost

Prince Fortinbras's attempts to reclaim the lands his father lost to Old Hamlet in a bet is the first of three revenge plots in the play, all of which involve sons seeking revenge for a father's death. (For more about the implications of this, check out the theme of "Family.") Here, we see that Fortinbras acts like a traditional revenge tragedy hero – he takes swift and forceful action. This, as we soon learn, establishes him as a foil to Prince Hamlet, who notoriously delays taking action to avenge his own father's murder.

Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.

Hamlet's initial reaction to the Ghost's news that Old Hamlet was murdered is rather ironic, don’t you think? Here, he seems willing to "sweep" to revenge what the Ghost calls his "foul, strange, and unnatural murder." But, as we know, Hamlet takes forever to get things done. We should point out that, here, the Ghost hasn't yet named the murderer. Could it be that Hamlet will later hesitate to avenge his father's death because it is Claudius he must murder? (It's not easy to kill a relative, much less a king, right?)

I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love--
O God!
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

In revenge tragedies, the appearance of a murder victim's ghost is common and straightforward. (Check out our discussion of "Genre" for more on the conventions of revenge tragedy.) But, in Hamlet, things are a bit more complex. Here, the Ghost claims that he's doomed to suffer in Purgatory (often imagined as a fiery place where souls had to "purge" their sins before they could move on to heaven), until young Hamlet avenges his "foul and most unnatural murder" by killing Claudius. (A few passages later the Ghost says he was killed while he slept in his orchard so he didn't have the benefit of a death-bed confession – 1.5.9).

As fascinating as all this sounds, there are some major problems with the Ghost's story. First, the doctrine of Purgatory doesn't say anything about murder helping Purgatorial souls get to heaven – prayers on behalf of the deceased help, yes, but not vengeance. Second, after the Reformation, Protestants rejected the idea of Purgatory as a "Catholic superstition." (In fact, at the time Shakespeare wrote the play, practicing Catholics were persecuted in England.) As we know, Hamlet is most definitely a Protestant. You can check out our discussion of "Religion" for more on the play's religious crisis but the point we want to make here is this: in light of the fact that Hamlet is a Protestant, it makes sense that, in Hamlet's mind, the seemingly Catholic Ghost would be totally suspicious. Even though Hamlet says it appears to be an "honest" spirit, the Ghost's shaky credibility seems to be one major reason for Hamlet's hesitancy to kill Claudius for the murder of Old Hamlet.

O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not;
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her.

Even though the Ghost is concerned with Gertrude's "damned incest," he tells Hamlet to keep Gertrude out of the revenge plot and "leave her to heaven." Hamlet agrees and yet, he seems completely incapable of keeping his word to the Ghost. He obsesses over his mother's sexual relationship with Claudius throughout the entire play (while he should be taking action against Claudius). Hamlet's obsession with Gertrude is so problematic that the Ghost returns in Act III, scene iv, to remind Hamlet that his "purpose" is to kill Claudius, not to verbally abuse his mother.

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 wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have?
O, vengeance!
Why, what an ass am I!

After watching one of the traveling players (actors) deliver a moving speech, Hamlet berates himself for his inability to avenge his father's murder. If an actor can move himself to tears (to "weep") for a fictional character ("Hecuba"), why can't Hamlet spur himself into action for a very real and personal figure, his father? Hamlet tries to place himself in the actor's position as he wonders what the actor would do "had he the motive and the cue for passion." Does this mean that Hamlet is also aware of the fact that he must play the "role" of a typical hero from a revenge tragedy?

The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds
More relative than this: the play 's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.

We've already seen how the Ghost is an unreliable figure that seems to dramatize the play's religious crisis (see 1.5.5. above). In this passage, Hamlet confirms that the spirit "[m]ay be the devil," who has lied about Old Hamlet's death in order to lead young Hamlet astray. Hamlet wants to be sure that Claudius is guilty so he devises a plan – the traveling actors will perform a play, The Murder of Gonzago (also called The Mousetrap), which has a plot that's similar to the Ghost's story about Old Hamlet's murder. Hamlet hopes to gauge Claudius's reaction to the play in order to determine if he's guilty of fratricide (killing a brother). This has major implications for the play's ideas about theater so be sure to check out "Art and Culture" if you're interested in this.

This passage, as you can guess, also has serious implications for the theme of "Madness." Hamlet voices a common concern that a "melancholy" disposition (like being clinically depressed) has made him prone to hallucinate, which could in turn, leave him vulnerable to the devil's trickery.

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.

Once again, Hamlet finds a reason to not kill Claudius. His rationale? He says he doesn't want to murder him while the man is praying because he's afraid he'll send Claudius's soul straight to "heaven." Revenge, for Hamlet, is not simply about killing Claudius – it's about making sure he suffers in Hell. So, Hamlet would much rather take him out when he's doing something sinful, like sleeping with Gertrude in "th'incestous pleasure of his bed" (3.3.1).

The thing is, even though Hamlet observes Claudius kneeling in prayer, he doesn't know what we (the audience) have just learned, namely that prior to Hamlet's speech here, Claudius admits to murdering Old Hamlet and that he's simply unable to properly confess his sins to God (since he's not willing to give up his ill-gotten crown or queen.) Claudius says his "words fly up" but his "thoughts remain below" and "words without thoughts never to heaven go" (3.3.4). The question, then, is this. If Hamlet had overheard Claudius (as the audience has), would he have taken immediate action against his father's murderer?

[…] 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. Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. 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 kill'd, a mother stain'd,
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 and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

This is a major turning point for Hamlet. As he watches Fortinbras's army march across Denmark, he contemplates the fact that so many men will lose their lives fighting for an insignificant and tiny piece of territory, which is nothing more than an "eggshell." At the same time, Hamlet feels a sense of shame that he (a man who has a very good reason to fight), does nothing about the fact that his father has been "kill'd" and his mother has been "stain'd." It is in this very moment that Hamlet's thoughts turn bloody as he sets a direct course for revenge.

How came he dead? I'll not be juggled with:
To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes; only I'll be revenged
Most thoroughly for my father.

Much like Fortinbras's response to his father's death, Laertes's quick and violent reaction to the news of Polonius's death acts as a foil to Prince Hamlet's slow actions. (Compare this to 1.1.11 above.) Laertes returns from France immediately, storms the Danish castle, and promises that he'll be "revenged." Yet, despite this immediate reaction, we should also note that Claudius eventually convinces Laertes to pursue a more roundabout path to vengeance. The intricate plot to lure Hamlet into a "friendly" duel recalls the kind of plotting (which results in more delay) that we've seen from young Hamlet.

Hamlet comes back: what would you undertake,
To show yourself your father's son in deed
More than in words?
To cut his throat i' the church.
No place, indeed, should murder sanctuarize;
Revenge should have no bounds.

Laertes's desire to "cut [Hamlet's] throat in church" recalls Hamlet's deliberate choice to not kill Claudius while he is praying. The play seems to suggest that this is the necessary mindset for a revenge hero.

Does it not, think'st thee, stand me now upon—
He that hath kill'd my king and whored my mother,
Popp'd in between the election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage—is't not perfect conscience,
To quit him with this arm? and is't not to be damn'd,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?

This passage reminds us that after Claudius murdered Old King Hamlet and married Gertrude, he "popp'd in between the election and [Hamlet's] hopes." Translation: Claudius disrupted Hamlet's succession to the throne of Denmark. Claudius, as we know, took advantage of Hamlet's absence (he was away at school) and convinced the noble councilmen to elect him king. Up until this point, Hamlet's never really articulated his desire to replace his father as the Danish monarch but here, it seems that this may also be a primary motive for killing Claudius.

O, I die, Horatio;
The potent poison quite o'er-crows my spirit:
I cannot live to hear the news from England;
But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;
So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence.

A common feature in all of Shakespeare's tragedies is the death of the hero. (The conclusion of Hamlet, as we know, is a major bloodbath.) Yet, despite the death of the individual, Shakespeare's tragedies are also always concerned with reestablishing a sense of political order. Hamlet's dying words and his "prophesy" that Fortinbras will win the next "election" anticipates the Norwegian prince's arrival in Denmark and likely succession to the throne. We're left with a sense that Denmark, as a collective whole, will be in capable hands. Want more about the conventions that govern the genre of tragedy? Check out our discussion of "Genre."











Hamlet Mortality Quotes

How we cite the quotes:
Citations follow this format: (Act.Scene.Line). Line numbers correspond to the Norton edition.

Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him,
Together with remembrance of ourselves.

King Claudius's speech is pretty crafty. He begins by acknowledging Old King Hamlet's death and says it "befitted" the "whole kingdom" to mourn Old Hamlet's loss (emphasis on the past tense.) But, he also asserts that it is "wise" for the "whole kingdom" to move on quickly. Self-interest ("remembrance of ourselves") and self-preservation are both far more important. But why? Well, Claudius, as we will soon learn, is responsible for murdering Old King Hamlet so it's no wonder he wants to sweep the guy's life under the rug. Claudius has also helped himself to Old Hamlet's wife and crown so it's in his best interest if the kingdom moves on and forgets Old Hamlet. This attempt to cut short the process of grief and "remembrance" of the dead has disastrous consequences for young Hamlet, who is told repeatedly to get over his father's death when it seems clear that the prince simply isn't ready to move on.

What, has this thing appeared again tonight?

The Ghost's repeated appearance on the castle battlements suggests that Claudius is wrong when he says the "whole kingdom" has moved on after Old Hamlet's death, wouldn't you say?

Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

Even Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude, tells Hamlet to stop grieving for his father. Death, she argues, "tis common." (A few lines later, Claudius will emphasize the point by saying to Hamlet "your father lost a father; / That father lost, lost his.") But, Hamlet will struggle with the loss of his father throughout the play – he's literally haunted. Hamlet will also struggle to come to terms with the fact that "all lives must die."

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

At the play's outset, Hamlet is clearly suicidal – he wishes his "flesh would melt" because his mother's betrayal of his father has made the world seem like a completely corrupted place. Here, he laments that suicide or, "self slaughter" is a sin. Compare this passage to Hamlet's infamous "to be, or not to be" speech in 3.1.1 below. (Check out "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" if you want to know more about the "unweeded garden" reference)

I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.

The Ghost seems to have returned from Purgatory, where he must suffer until his sins are "brunt and purg'd away." In Hamlet in Purgatory, literary critic Stephen Greenblatt argues that the Ghost represents a common fear (among the living) of being completely forgotten after death. We talk about all of this in more detail in "Religion" so, be sure to check it out when you're done here.


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 heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. 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: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
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 pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Earlier in the play, we saw that Hamlet wished for his "too solid flesh" to "melt," a clear indication of his suicidal tendencies (1.2.6). But, literary critics are notoriously divided over this infamous passage, which occurs about mid-point in the play. On the one hand, some critics say that Hamlet is (still) contemplating his own suicide ("to be, or not to be"). On the other hand, other critics argue that Hamlet's not considering whether or not he should kill himself. Rather, he's merely exploring the reasons why people in general don't commit suicide. (Notice Hamlet doesn't ever use the words "me" or "I" here.)

Either way, Hamlet concludes that most people reject suicide, not because of religious beliefs, but because they have no idea what comes after death. Death, says Hamlet, is the "[t]he undiscover'd country from whose bourn / No traveller returns." This is not a very Christian line of argument, since Elizabethan Christians ostensibly knew what awaited them in the afterlife: heaven or hell (or Purgatory, for Catholics). Hamlet seems to be agnostic here but later in the play, he'll embrace the idea of divine fate. (See 5.2.37 below. In case you haven't noticed, Hamlet changes his mind a lot.)

We're also interested in the fact that Hamlet seems not to remember that his father has "return[ed" from the "undiscover'd country" in ghost form. It seems that Hamlet's forgotten all about his father's little visit and his request for Hamlet to take action against Claudius.

Now, Hamlet, where's Polonius?
At supper.
At supper! where?
Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain
convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your
worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all
creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for
maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but
variable service, two dishes, but to one table:
that's the end.
Alas, alas!
A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a
king, and cat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
What dost you mean by this?
Nothing but to show you how a king may go a
progress through the guts of a beggar.
Where is Polonius?
In heaven; send hither to see: if your messenger
find him not there, seek him i' the other place
yourself. But indeed, if you find him not within
this month, you shall nose him as you go up the
stairs into the lobby.

Hamlet describes Polonius's death in mocking terms when he tells Claudius the old man is "at supper" (his dead body is being eaten by worms), which seems particularly callous. Is this part of his "antic disposition" or is this really how Hamlet sees things? Either way, he's keenly aware that all humans share the same fate – "fat kings" and "leans beggars" alike eventually become food for "maggots" and "worms." Compare this passage to 5.1.30 below.

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

Audiences always wonder about whether or not Gertrude actually witnesses Ophelia's death first hand. (The answer is never made clear in the play and we're also never sure about whether or not the drowning is accidental.) But, we're more interested in something different. Death, as we know, is not glamorous. Yet, here, Gertrude describes Ophelia's drowning as though it were a very peaceful and lovely sight to behold – "Her clothes spread wide; / And, mermaid-like" before "her garments, heavy with their drink" weighted her down. Where is this coming from? The death of a young woman isn't romantic but, even in death, Ophelia is described in rather erotic terms. Why is that?

Is she to be buried in Christian burial that
wilfully seeks her own salvation?
I tell thee she is: and therefore make her grave
straight: the crowner hath sat on her, and finds it
Christian burial.
How can that be, unless she drowned herself in her
own defence?
Why, 'tis found so.
It must be 'se offendendo;' it cannot be else. For
here lies the point: if I drown myself wittingly,
it argues an act: and an act hath three branches: it
is, to act, to do, to perform: argal, she drowned
herself wittingly.
Nay, but hear you, goodman delver,—
Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here
stands the man; good; if the man go to this water,
and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he
goes,—mark you that; but if the water come to him
and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he
that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.
But is this law?
Ay, marry, is't; crowner's quest law.
Will you ha' the truth on't? If this had not been
a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o'
Christian burial.

According to the two gravediggers or "Clowns," Ophelia has committed suicide, a mortal sin that typically affects the kind of burial service that's performed. Since Ophelia's a "gentlewoman," some strings are pulled and she's given a "Christian burial." Though, the priest gives a shoddy service, which you can read more about by checking out "Quotes" on "Religion." What interests us here is the way the discussion about Ophelia's death is handled with comedic dialogue that's likely to incite laughter in the audience. The witty dialogue is humorous, which makes the weighty matter of their discussion of life and death all the more compelling (and perhaps pessimistic).

That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once:
how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were
Cain's jaw-bone, that did the first murder! It
might be the pate of a politician, which this ass
now o'er-reaches; one that would circumvent God,
might it not?
It might, my lord.
Or of a courtier; which could say 'Good morrow,
sweet lord! How dost thou, good lord?' This might
be my lord such-a-one, that praised my lord
such-a-one's horse, when he meant to beg it; might it not?
Ay, my lord.
Why, e'en so: and now my Lady Worm's; chapless, and
knocked about the mazzard with a sexton's spade:
here's fine revolution, an we had the trick to
see't. Did these bones cost no more the breeding,
but to play at loggats with 'em? mine ache to think on't.
First Clown
A pick-axe, and a spade, a spade,
For and a shrouding sheet:
O, a pit of clay for to be made
For such a guest is meet.
There's another: why may not that be the skull of a
lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets,
his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? why does he
suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the
sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of
his action of battery? Hum! This fellow might be
in's time a great buyer of land, with his statutes,
his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers,
his recoveries: is this the fine of his fines, and
the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine
pate full of fine dirt? will his vouchers vouch him
no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than
the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The
very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in
this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?
Not a jot more, my lord

Hamlet is mesmerized by the power of death to transform a living human being into an object he can hold in his hand. Life, in the face of death, seems pointless.

No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with
modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as
thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!

Hamlet is fascinated by the physical process of decay, but he is also intrigued by the commonality of death. Here, he seems to finally understand the philosophical implications of the fact that every human is mortal. Even Alexander the Great "died," "was buried," and "returneth into dust." Hamlet has made a similar point earlier in the play when he mockingly jokes about Polonius's dead body being food for "worms" (see 4.3.1 above). But here, the tone is quite different and this seems to be a whole new and more mature attitude for Hamlet.

Not a whit, 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: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.

This is another major turning point for Prince Hamlet. After all his musings about his fascination with and horror of death, Hamlet ultimately accepts that he will die, and says that "the readiness is all." His reference to the "fall of the sparrow" is from Matthew 10.29 – "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father" – which is taken to mean that God oversees and determines the life and death of every single creature, even the sparrow.





Hamlet Religion Quotes

How we cite the quotes:
Citations follow this format: (Act.Scene.Line). Line numbers correspond to the Norton edition.

Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet:
I pray thee, stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.

Although the play's story is set in the late middle ages (before the Protestant Reformation), critics tend to agree that Hamlet is a quintessential "Protestant son." Not only does he live in Denmark, a Protestant nation by the time Shakespeare wrote the play, but he also attends school in Wittenberg, Germany. This, as we know, is where Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-five Theses in 1517 (considered to be the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation). Why does this matter? Well, the play can't seem to make up its mind about whether or not the play is set in a Catholic or Protestant world, which seems to register the kind of religious and spiritual anxiety and confusion that was brought on by the Protestant Reformation and England's official break with the Catholic Church under Henry VIII (1534).

I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.

Hmm. This is interesting. The Ghost not only claims to be Hamlet's "father's spirit," it also suggests that it's a Purgatorial ghost. (Purgatory was often imagined a fiery place where souls "purged away" their sins before going to heaven. Purgatorial spirits returned to ask loved ones for prayers that could help them to reach heaven faster.)

The problem with this is that Protestants (and we've already established that Hamlet's a Protestant) don't believe in Purgatory. At the time Shakespeare wrote the play, England was a Protestant nation that persecuted practicing Catholics. So, it's a big deal that the Ghost seems to be a Catholic.

In terms of plot, this partially explains why Hamlet is so skeptical of the Ghost's claims (that it's the spirit of his father and also that it was murdered by Claudius). This has some major consequences for the way the action of the play unfolds – Hamlet spends much of his time trying to figure out if the Ghost is trustworthy and whether or not Claudius is guilty of murder, which is one of many things that delays Hamlet's revenge.

Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

The fact that the Ghost appears to be Catholic (while Hamlet appears to be a Protestant) isn't the only thing that makes the spirit a suspicious figure in this play (see discussion above). We should also keep in mind that Purgatorial spirits weren't in the habit of asking living relatives to murder other people (murder being a major sin for both Protestants and Catholics) to help them get to heaven. At the same time, Hamlet belongs to the generic category of "Revenge Tragedy," which doesn't exactly square with the kind of Christian ideologies that are registered in the play. All of which is to say that Shakespeare is working within and weaving together multiple literary and cultural traditions. If you want to think about this some more, check out "Genre" and also our discussion of "Tragedy."