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Character Analysis in Hamlet
Hamlet: A deep and melancholic thinker, Hamlet is ever contemplating philosophical questions about life, truth, and the motives of others. He distrusts the marriage between his mother and his uncle, which ultimately creates a distrust of women in general. He frequently states that he despises deception, yet he devises an elaborate plot for revenge. His thoughts border on obsessive, and his soliloquies often lead the audience to question his sanity. For these reasons, Hamlet continues to fascinate readers and viewers for the simple reason that he seems so unapologetically human.
Claudius: Hamlet’s uncle and a power-hungry villain, Claudius murdered his brother for the throne and married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. However, Claudius is a far more complex antagonist than many in other popular Elizabethan plays. Rather than being depicted as pure evil, Claudius at times expresses guilt for killing his brother and does seem to genuinely love Gertrude.
Gertrude: Although a kind and loving mother, Gertrude is easily swayed and impulsive. She is also somewhat of an enigma, in that her motivations are not entirely clear. This has allowed for many different interpretations of her feelings and motives in various productions of Hamlet over the years.
Ophelia: The object of Hamlet’s affection, Ophelia is Laertes’s sister and Polonius’s daughter. Though her character is somewhat enigmatic—and primarily spoken about in terms of her chastity—her kind and obedient nature is unquestionable. She has very little choice or freedom; the men in her life, be they Polonius, Laertes, or Hamlet, essentially govern all of her decisions until she finally breaks.
Laertes: Son of Polonius, Laertes faces the same problem as Hamlet: a murdered father. However, Laertes chooses a way to deal with paternal death. Instead of brooding and questioning, Laertes quickly leaps into action, invading the palace. It is clear that he is meant to be a foil to Hamlet, although their fates are ultimately similar.
Character Analysis Examples in Hamlet:
Act I - Scene I
"being so majestical..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Though the officers are clearly afraid of the Ghost, Marcellus's use of the word "majestical" suggests that there's also an element of awe in their response, likely linked to the fact that the Ghost is wearing armor and looks like the dead king. Marcellus wishes that they hadn't let their fear get the better of them and that they'd instead found a way to talk to the Ghost and learn its true intentions.
"But to recover of us, by strong hand..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Young Fortinbras, unlike Hamlet, hasn't studied at Wittenberg and has no use of formal education. As heir to the throne, he intends to wage war against the Danes in order to regain the lands his father lost in battle (lands which he claims were stolen illegally, though, of course, that's not true). In this, we see the difference between the young Fortinbras and Prince Hamlet, who returns from Denmark after years of study to find his country in shambles. Compared to Fortinbras, Hamlet is, by and large, a timid and ineffectual character, at least at the beginning of the play.
"In what particular thought..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Horatio's attempting to understand the Ghost's reasons for returning. In doing so, Shakespeare aligns him again with the audience, making the appearance of the Ghost less a supernatural oddity and more a question of what dangers lie ahead. Why has he come, Horatio's asking, and what is it about our world that makes it both possible and necessary for him to arrive?
"that fair and warlike form..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Hamlet's father, the former King of Denmark, was known for his prowess in battle, particularly in the war against the former King of Norway, Fortinbras. The Ghost's appearance in a suit of armor suggests to Horatio and the others that his return has something to do with war (perhaps with Norway), but it remains to be seen whether or not this has anything to do with the Ghost's reasons for returning.
"speak to it, Horatio..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Horatio, we later learn, was a scholar at Wittenberg University, the Protestant University that Martin Luther attended, and was a classmate of Prince Hamlet. Noted literary scholar Harold Bloom has pointed out, however, that Horatio, who claims to have been present when Hamlet's father defeated the King of Norway, can't possibly be Hamlet's age, because that battle took place around the time Hamlet was born. That makes Horatio older than the typical student at Wittenberg.
"fortified against our story..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Meaning, Horatio's dead set against believing them. This characterizes him as a skeptic and positions him as a kind of cipher for the audience, who tend to disbelieve until they're shown or told a thing is true. In effect, Shakespeare isn't just convincing Horatio, but convincing us as well.
"He..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
From this exchange, we can conclude that Francisco wasn't expecting to be relieved of his post yet and that he's familiar enough with Bernardo's voice to recognize it without having to see his face. In this way, Shakespeare signals both their level of acquaintance (either friendly or professionally familiar) and their proximity, because Bernardo needs to be close enough for Francisco to hear him yet far enough away not to be seen in the darkness.
"Francisco..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Another officer in the King of Denmark's army, Francisco exits the scene without interacting with Hamlet, suggesting that he might be of a lower military rank and social class than either Bernardo or Horatio. His primary role in the drama is to introduce both tension and military urgency, which we will see later in this scene. In that sense, he functions more as a set piece than as an actual character.
"Bernardo..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
An officer in the King of Denmark's army, Bernardo never speaks directly to Hamlet, instead using Hamlet's friend, Horatio, as a kind of go-between to bridge the gap in social station between him and the Prince. Together, the three men (officer, nobleman, and royalty) represent three social classes present in both Hamlet's and Shakespeare's time.
Act I - Scene II
"I have that within which passeth show,..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
The Queen is annoyed that Hamlet is still grieving his dead father. She suspects his mourning is a ploy for attention. Hamlet concedes that sorrow can be fabricated, but he has "that within which passeth show:" genuine feelings, which cannot be seen.
"A countenance more in sorrow than in anger...." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Horatio's description of Hamlet's father's ghost here clashes with the ghost that Hamlet meets later in the play. Hamlet's father's ghost is enraged when he speaks to Hamlet about his murder. That Hamlet assumes his father's ghost is angry tells us something about the man's countenance when he was living.
"Give it an understanding, but no tongue..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Hamlet means that he wants the men to witness and understand this event with him, but he doesn't want them to tell anyone about it. If there's a Ghost that wants to speak to him then there's likely to be something wrong, and Hamlet might well be in danger. To keep his enemies and the King from learning what that is and taking measures against him, he would need to keep this information quiet. He trusts that these men will be loyal to him. We'll see if this trust has been misplaced.
"I would I had been there..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Hamlet's eagerness to have seen his father's Ghost speaks both to his love of his father and to his generally morbid and brooding character. He hears the description of the Ghost dressed all in armor, walking up and down the ramparts, speaking to no one, and looking fierce, and he longs to have seen it himself. What he intends to do when he meets this Ghost is as of yet unclear, but he certainly intends to take every precaution should the meeting turn sour.
"A truant disposition..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
"Truant," or truancy, refer to a student's absence from school. Horatio suggests that he's truant by nature, that it's in his disposition, but, as Hamlet knows, this isn't true. He says so merely in jest, and in this joke we come to understand that the two men are friends and know each other well enough to read between the lines of what the other's saying. Horatio may well be Hamlet's greatest friend in Elsinore, and the only one he thinks he can trust.
"Marcellus?..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Shakespeare uses the long em-dash here to indicate that Hamlet either has been interrupted by or is surprised to see Marcellus, whom he hadn't noticed before. This, and Hamlet's greeting to Bernardo in the following lines, should indicate that Hamlet has been in a state of reverie or introspection and is a little startled to be thrust back into a social situation, unable to get the timing of his greetings quite right. Shakespeare uses this to build his character and set the tone for this conversation.
"Than I to Hercules..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Hercules, also known as Heracles, was the son of the Greek god Zeus and the mortal Alcmene. He was endowed with enormous strength and is now famous for his Twelve Labors, which included slaying the Nemean Lion, killing a nine-headed Hydra, and capturing the multi-headed hound Cerebrus, who guarded the gates of Hades (Hell). Again Hamlet uses Greek mythology to draw an analogy between ancient heroes and characters in the play.
"Hyperion to a satyr..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
In Greek mythology, Hyperion was considered the "High One," Lord of the Light and the Titan of the East, one of the twelve Titans that ruled the earth before Zeus and the Olympians fought them for control. Hamlet draws a parallel between Hyperion and a satyr (a lustful, drunken god) and between King Hamlet and Claudius, forming an analogy that makes his father look like a saint and Claudius seem depraved.
"Like Niobe, all tears..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
The Queen of Thebes, married to Amphion, Niobe is said to have boasted of having fourteen children to the goddess Leto, who had only two, the twins Apollo and Artemis. In response, Apollo and Artemis killed all of Niobe's children, later turning her to stone on Mount Sipylus, where she continued to weep even in her petrified state. Niobe became the prototype for all grieving mothers in Greek tragedies and is here likened to Gertrude to emphasize the other's surprising lack of grief.
"Frailty, thy name is woman..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
In Renaissance England, as in classical Greek and Roman tragedies, women were believed to be inexhaustible in matters of sex and the heart, which in turn led to much strife (see: the Trojan War) and a sharp divide between the sexes. Hamlet's assertion here (that by their nature women are essentially frail and unfaithful) would've been common in Shakespeare's time, though it appears sexist and simplistic from a modern perspective.
The "[c]onventional wisdom in Renaissance England conformend to the attitude (which can be traced as far back as classical Greek and Rome) that women unlike men, had an inexhaustible capacity for sexual pleasure." Henderson, Katherine Usher and Barbara F. McManus. Half Human Kind: Contexts and Texts of the Contoversy about Women in England 1540-1540. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1985. p.56.
"QUEEN:..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Notice that Claudius has forty lines and Gertrude only has fourteen lines. This disparity speaks to the different gender roles in the play, emphasizing the fact that, though Gertrude is the "imperial jointress," she holds precious little sway over either her husband or her son. In the end, it's the King that Hamlet listens to, in spite of their strained relationship, which tells us as much about Gertrude as it does about Hamlet.
"simple and unschool'd..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
This would've been a particular blow to Hamlet, as a scholar at Wittenberg. The young Prince might not know that much about governing a nation, but he does pride himself on being a thoughtful and intelligent young man. Claudius may have miscalculated here in belittling Hamlet's intelligence and masculinity, as that kind of behavior can make an enemy out of a friend and will put strain on their relationship.
"obsequious..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Meaning, dutiful, required. Like Laertes, Hamlet appears at the castle mostly out of a sense of obligation. He'd rather be in Wittenberg, a fact Claudius knows all to well, as he uses this pointed, unpleasant word. Claudius might also be engaging in some clever wordplay, as "obsequey" means "funeral service."
"cast thy nighted color off..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Here Gertrude makes a pun on the word "nighted," using it to suggest that Hamlet is wearing all black and that this someone makes him a knight, or soldier that has declared his loyalty to the king. There's some anxiety in this, because Hamlet disapproves of the new king for not being his father and doesn't appear willing to accept Claudius as the new ruler of the kingdom. Gertrude may be warning her son to stay in line, but her intentions aren't immediately clear.
"wrung from me my slow leave..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
From this line we can assume that Laertes's request to leave France wasn't originally granted and that he had to ask over and over and over again, not unlike a teenager asking for permission. It's important to note that Laertes, though a college graduate in his early twenties, would still have been considered very young at that time and wouldn't have been given free reign to travel at will. He would've relied on Polonius for money and been forced to beg to leave the castle.
"To show my duty in your coronation..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Laertes here reveals his reluctance to remain in the castle after the coronation and marriage have taken place. It's clear that, while loyal to the King, he begrudges having to leave France and would prefer to return immediately. This might be a backhanded critique of the atmosphere in the castle, which seems to promise war and must've been full of gossip about the King marrying his sister-in-law Gertrude. If Laertes feels uncomfortable, it suggests that something is, indeed, rotten in Denmark.
"Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
In this speech, Claudius reminds Laertes that his father is a nobleman who has the King's ear and that it's not becoming of his station to stutter or to show fear in this situation. His tone as he says this becomes increasingly belittling, until he seems to cajole Laertes into speaking. Under other circumstances, this might rankle some characters, but Laertes, being so timid, mistakes this tone for regal graciousness and doesn't feel slighted.
"His further gait herein..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
In general, "gait" refers to someone's manner or stride while walking. In this case, it refers to Fortinbras' path or his course of action with regards to war. By Claudius' use of the word "further," we can assume that Fortinbras has already taken steps to fight with the Danes, and that Claudius has some sense of his next moves. From this, we can assume that Clausius is, in fact, worried about a war with Norway, otherwise he wouldn't bother to send this message.
"we have here writ..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Though the audience's first impulse is to assume that Claudius has already written to Norway, the use of the word "here" indicates that Claudius is holding the letter in his hand (or that one of his servants is). In general, it would be unnecessary for him to announce that he's sending such a letter, which should suggest to the reader that he's making a point of telling people about it, using this performance to bolster his ego and his reputation.
"So much for him..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
This line perfectly encapsulates Claudius' feelings about young Fortinbras. In four words, he manages to be arrogant, unimpressed, and altogether dismissive, making it seem as though Fortinbras isn't worth his time and won't be a threat. In the next lines, he cements this sentiment by speaking not of Fortinbras himself but of his ailing uncle, whom Claudius actually respects. This is a neat way of both diminishing Fortinbras and making himself seem like a wise and powerful king.
"With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Another line indicating that the marriage took place shortly after King Hamlet's death. It appears at first that Claudius has gotten it backwards, as "mirth" is typically associated with marriages and "dirges" (funeral songs) are played after a death, but this mistake is very telling of Claudius' true feelings and suggests that he is, in fact, happy about his brother's death. It's unclear whether or not Gertrude also feels this way, which will cause tension between her and her son Hamlet later on in the play.
"imperial jointress..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
That is, a woman who holds the right of inheritance. Some critics argue that any jointure agreement in Denmark would raise very real threats to King Hamlet's heirs, and that Shakespeare uses this term both to develop the theme of inheritance in the play and to establish motive for a revenge plot that we'll see later in the play. Though the use of the word "imperial" suggests that Gertrude has all the power over the estate, the reality is that she's helpless and has very little control over what happens.
"our sometime sister, now our queen..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
In Hamlet's day no distinctions were made between in-laws and siblings, and as King Hamlet's wife, Gertrude wouldn't have just been Claudius' sister-in-law, but his actual sister. In this line, "sometime" means "at one time" or "in the past" and "our" means that Gertrude is both Claudius' queen and the queen of the Danish people. By using "our," Claudius invokes the royal "we" in order to position himself as the voice of his people. It's a subtle way of getting his subjects to trust him.
"The memory be green..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Shakespeare used the word "green" to mean young, as in his play *Antony and Cleopatra," when Cleopatra speaks the famous line about youthful "salad days" (salad being green). This word indicates to the reader that King Hamlet's death is very recent, and that King Claudius has only just ascended to the throne to fill that vacuum of power. Claudius has yet to reveal how he really feels about this.
"our dear brother's death..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
The dead King Hamlet. This scene is an explanation of the relationship between Claudius, Gertrude, and Hamlet, as they navigate life without King Hamlet, King Claudius' brother. That makes Claudius Hamlet's uncle by blood and stepfather by marriage, because he's now married to Queen Gertrude, his former sister-in-law, widow of the dead King Hamlet. It's a complex serious of relationships that govern the drama of the rest of the play.
"methinks I see my father..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Here the audience is primed for Hamlet to see the Ghost of his father, who was introduced in Act I, Scene I. That won't happen in this scene, but Hamlet will be stricken by the grief he feels about his father and speak as though he's "seen his father," either in his dreams or in his memories of the castle. Horatio, at first, thinks Hamlet has seen the Ghost, and this provides a comic situation for the audience that Hamlet isn't aware of and Horatio resolves quickly.
"I prithee do not mock me..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Hamlet's bitterness is apparent in this exchange with Horatio. First in his bitter acknowledgement that at Elsinore they teach to "drink deep" of sorrow, and, second, in his bitter ironic retort that he not be mocked for his mother marrying his uncle at this gala wedding Horatio has been forced to attend. Hamlet fully expects Horatio to understand this bitterness, and, thankfully, he does.
"O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
When something is "sullied," it is soiled, tarnished, defiled. Thus, Hamlet's flesh, once pure and innocent, has become defiled and impure because his mother has married her husband's brother and made his uncle into the King. In this, we also find a question of paternity, as it's possible (though never confirmed) that Claudius and Gertrude were having an affair even before King Hamlet's death, and that Prince Hamlet may well be his uncle's son, instead.
Act I - Scene III
"to crack the wind of the poor phrase..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Shakespeare shows us he's well aware of the mileage he's getting out of this phrase and in doing so legitimizes his repeated use of it by making it seem like a part of Polonius' witty, intelligent personality and not just a word game he's playing. It's also a convenient way of explaining that he's engaging in word play to an audience that might not get the wit or the humor of these lines and thereby miss this aspect of Polonius' personality.
"For the apparel oft proclaims the man..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
If we believe Polonius' claim, then Hamlet's insistence on wearing all black becomes all the more telling, proclaiming or advertising his character to anyone who sees how he's dressed. In that sense, Polonius is warning Laertes to take special care of his wardrobe in France, where both men and women are highly fashionable and judge each other based on their appearance.
"Take each man's censure..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Today, the word "censure" generally means the expression of disapproval, particularly in a formal or legal setting. In Shakespeare's time, however, it still meant "advice" or "opinion," making this line and those about it mean, "listen to what other people have to say, remain courteous, and always stay true to your own opinions." This same precept applies to Polonius' advice, and Laertes' non-response to it may suggest that he's taken his father's advice (without necessarily agreeing with it).
"new-hatch'd, unfledged comrade..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Polonius warns Laertes to be wary of friends he makes at Witternberg, many of whom will be noblemen themselves, with questionable motives for starting a friendship. Polonius instead urges him to remember who his real friends are in the castle and to not be distracted from his studies ("dull [his] palm") with these new friends and entertainments. These precepts tie into the theme of deceit in the play and further characterize Polonius as a careful, watchful person.
"O, fear me not..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Ophelia has just suggested that Laertes might've spoken out of turn, as a pastor who's somewhat less than pious has no right to preach to the masses about the proper way to behave. This demonstrates Ophelia's intelligence (as a woman who understands when someone's being hypocritical) while further developing their relationship as brother and sister, which seems close enough for Opehlia to know about Laertes' indiscretions.
"The chariest maid is prodigal enough..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
To be "chary" means to be reluctant or suspicious of doing something, in this case giving up one's virginity before wedlock. To be "prodigal" means to be extravagant and reckless, the exact opposite of "chary." Laertes uses this contrast to suggest how quickly and easily a woman can give in to lust and how damaging this can be for her reputation if someone finds out or if the man abandons her. Note that Hamlet has no formal obligation to marry Ophelia, and that he can dump her even after she loses her virginity. That's reason enough for her to be cautious.
"the main voice of Denmark goes withal..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Hamlet's interest in Ophelia is part in parcel with Denmark's interests, so even it if seems, at the moment, that Hamlet really loves her, she has to take into account the fact that he's acting as a future head of state and treating her like an asset, not as a woman. As a nobleman himself, Laertes would've been all too familiar with this kind of behavior and will likely engage in it himself, if he hasn't already done so.
"no soil nor cautel doth besmirch..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
If we take "soil" to mean something dirty or impure, "cautel" to mean a trick or act of deceit, and "besmirch" to sully or dirty, then this line reads that, for the moment, no impure thoughts or crafty schemes have soiled Hamlet's "pure" love of Ophelia, suggesting that Hamlet hasn't made any sexual advances as of yet and that their romance remains a purely emotional one. That may change, as Laertes suggests, which is why Ophelia must be careful.
"Forward, not permanent..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
In this Laertes suggests that Hamlet has embarked upon this relationship in part because he's a young prince and feels the need to court a noblewoman, as is befitting his station. He also suggests that the forward motion or momentum of this relationship has made it seem more serious than it is, and that it will, in time, run its course, coming to its fateful end. In that sense, this speech foreshadows events to come.
"the trifling of his favours..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Laertes not only knows about Hamlet's interest in Ophelia, but he disapproves of it, knowing, as he does, that Hamlet's strange, brooding behavior make him in many ways emotionally unavailable, an ultimately selfish admirer who can't see beyond himself. This is, of course, only Laertes' opinion, but Shakespeare uses it to establish both the relationship and something of Hamlet's character, which seems immature to outsiders.
"My necessaries are embark'd...." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
For Laertes, a wealthy nobleman's son, the necessities (or "necessaries") would likely have consisted of clothes, shoes, personal items, weapons, books, and a servant or two to prepare his meals and wash his linens. These items have been provided for him at his father's expense and leisure, as Laertes himself wouldn't have come into his own money until his father's death. Until then, he's beholden to the family, which it seems he doesn't mind.
"Enter Laertes, and Ophelia, his sister...." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
For modern readers and stage actors, the stage directions here function as a way of establishing they key relationships in this scene: brother, sister, and father. For the audience, however, the stage directions aren't available, and these relationships have to be established in the text through Laertes' and Ophelia's conversation. This is a difficult skill to master, and Shakespeare pulls if off effortlessly, thanks in part to his having established Laertes and Polonius as characters in the previous scene.
"Do you doubt that?..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
This line, Ophelia's first, characterizes her as a naturally loving sister, part of a tight-knit family that includes Polonius, her father, and Laertes, her brother. It's important to note that Ophelia and her brother are expecting to keep in touch, and that, like Hamlet's family, any break in their communication will likely be seen as a sign that something's wrong. Ophelia's question, however sweet and loving, contains a hint of worry: will she be okay without her brother? Does he love her as much as she loves him? Pay attention to Ophelia's mental health in this scene.
Act I - Scene IV
"More honour'd in the breach..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Hamlet thinks that native customs should bring honor to the people, and the King's drunken toasts are hardly honorable. Hamlet thinks it's more honorable to break (rather than observe) the tradition of drunkenness.
"I'll make a ghost of him that lets me..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Hamlet threatens to kill ("make a ghost") anyone who gives him enough power to do so. In this case, "power" might also be understood as "reason" or "cause," implying that if Horatio and Marcellus make him really angry, then he'll use his influence as Prince to destroy them. This threat seems out of character for Hamlet, who has thus far been a brooding young man with no real power. That's about to change.
"the Nemean lion..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
A creature from ancient Greek mythology, the Nemean Lion was said to possess enormous strength, impenetrable fur, and claws that could slice through all armor. Hercules's First Labor was to slay the Nemean Lion, an event alluded to in Act I, Scene ii, when Hamlet draws a parallel between himself and Hercules. By subverting this metaphor and positioning himself as the Nemean Lion, he makes himself more like Hercules in terms of strength, suggesting that his father and his uncle are more alike than he thinks.
"Be ruled..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
This brief command, inappropriate for a nobleman to give a prince, sums up the throne's and, by extension, the nation's position: it wants Hamlet to be "ruled," that is, to allow himself to be controlled, both by outside forces (the officers, not quite his friends) and by his own sense of reason. Logically speaking, it's unwise for Hamlet, the Prince, to disappear with the Ghost, a potential demon, and as the Prince he would know how dangerous this is. And yet he does it anyway.
"And draw you into madness..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
In this extended metaphor of Hamlet as Jesus drawn into the wilderness by the Devil, Horatio likens Hamlet to the Son of God, which reinforces both Hamlet's goodness and his father's saintliness for the audience. Conventional wisdom holds that the closer one gets to God, the greater the temptations of evil are, which makes any madness Hamlet experiences a byproduct of his holiness and his relationship with his father.
"thy canonized bones..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Canonization is the process by which a person in the Christian church becomes sainted. In this sense, it also means that King Hamlet's bones have already been consecrated (buried, but also treated as holy). Hamlet's father would've been far from saintlike in his life (see: the Danes' drinking custom), but in death his son's respect for him continues to grow, until in this scene he becomes a near saintly figure, incapable of wrongdoing.
"to the manner born..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Shakespeare puns on the colloquialism "to the manor born," which refers to the children of nobility who've been raised in the "manor," or the palatial home. To be "to the manner born," however, has a different connotation meaning that, as a native he's familiar with the custom of heavy drinking, but, as he says, doesn't approve of it. He seems to wish to have born to a different time and place, which is in itself a sign of his inherent privilege.
"Is it a custom..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Horatio attempts to minimize the unpleasant and ostentatious nature of Claudius' drinking by asking if it's customary for a king to behave this way (thus drawing a parallel between Claudius, the drinker, and King Hamlet, the somewhat less heavy drinker). It's a kind gesture on Horatio's part, but even as he says it he knows the truth of the matter, making this question, in the end, unnecessary, except to embarrass Claudius.
"The triumph of his pledge..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Claudius' pledge isn't a noble one. He's promised to drink all of his wine in one sitting, not unlike a college student on a dare. Throughout the play, Claudius will be depicted as a heavy drinker, which calls into question his reasons for being such an alcoholic. Is he, like so many drinkers, attempting to drown his sorrow in booze? And, if so, what are these sorrows, and do they have anything to do with Hamlet?
"Keeps wassail..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
"Keeping wassail" means to carouse or drink heavily, suggesting that the King has something of a drinking problem. What's more, he makes a show of his drinking problem by ordering trumpets to call and ordnance (artillery, cannons, catapults, slings) to fire. This implies the King has an audience for his revelries, and that he feels no qualms about being intoxicated in front of his guards. It's at once a sign of self-assurance and an act of great impropriety.
Act I - Scene V
"The time is out of joint..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Hamlet thinks the state of affairs ("time") in Denmark resembles a shoulder that is "out of joint." He thinks of himself as the physician who must restore the crippled kingdom to health.
"O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Hamlet is outraged because the Ghost of his recently-deceased father has revealed that he (the late King) was murdered by his own brother, the new King Claudius.
"I do commend me to you..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Figuratively speaking, Hamlet is giving himself up (or placing his trust) in these men, but an alternately reading of the word "commend" suggests that he's insisting on his worth, both as a person and a prince, and trusting on the strength of that worth to ensure Horatio and Marcellus's loyalty in this matter. He has commended himself to them without receiving their oath, which makes this a foolhardy act on his part.
"To put an antic disposition..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Hamlet reveals something of his plan in this line. Madness or the appearance of madness has already been established in the play through the acts of grieving, which accounts for Hamlet's strange, unsettling behavior. Hamlet will play on this established aspect of his character in enacting his revenge. But madness, like evil, can corrupt a person, and it remains to be seen if in enacting madness he won't himself become mad.
"There are more things in heaven and earth..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Keep in mind that Hamlet is only one step ahead of Horatio here, and that, before Hamlet met with the Ghost, he was in the same position as Horatio is now, not realizing how ignorant he is of the real world and of people's true intentions. His words, then, reveal him as both eloquent and arrogant, and we'll see these two aspects of his personality battle as the play progresses.
"old mole..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Remember that earlier in Act I, Scene VI, Hamlet used the phrase "mole of nature" to refer to a spot on one's character or a negative aspect of one's personality. Here, "mole" refers both to the animal, a creature that burrows underground, where the Ghost appears to be, and to this "mole of nature," which doesn't tarnish the Ghost's character but rather tarnishes Hamlet's, in forcing him to lose himself in revenge.
"you will reveal it..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
This isn't just an assessment of their character, which Hamlet has reason to suspect. It's also evidence that Hamlet is thinking about his safety, now that he knows about his father's murder, and has begun to understand that if word of this meeting gets back to Claudius, the King will know exactly what the Ghost said and will take measures to keep Hamlet from enacting his revenge.
"Saint Patrick..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, said to have spent forty nights praying and fasting in a cave now known as "Saint Patrick's Purgatory." In Shakespeare's time, this legend was well-known, and is used here both to tie into the theme of Purgatory connected with the Ghost and to once again equate Hamlet with a Christ-like figure (Christ himself having spent forty days and forty nights fasting, just like St. Patrick did).
"wild and whirling words..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Hamlet's behavior has become erratic, in the wake of meeting with the Ghost, and he's either incapable or unwilling to respond directly to Horatio's questions. Horatio, for his part, recognizes this and to an extent understands it, because he too was afraid of the Ghost. Nevertheless, he's concerned for the Prince, because if Horatio can see it, so can everyone else (including the King).
"But he's an arrant knave..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
A knave, or a young man, often a page or a servant to a nobleman, capable of being "arrant" (errant, that is, traveling) or of moving between social stations by way of villainy. It would've been simple enough for a young, unscrupulous man, like the former Prince Claudius, brother of the King, to use the information he's gathered in service of the kingdom to his advantage. Horatio and Marcellus could do the same.
"So, uncle, there you are..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Hamlet has very literally circumscribed Claudius, writing down who he is and what he's done as if taking a definitive measure of his character. Claudius, though a cunning, complex, interesting character, will nevertheless never be more than what Hamlet has inscribed him to be: a villain. His character development, in effect, ends here.
"That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
This line retroactively serves as stage direction for the actor playing Claudius, who hasn't been instructed to smile and yet must be throughout the play. This act of guile on his part may be the most powerful representation of the theme of deceit and characterizes him not just as a villain but as a charismatic, emotionally manipulative, violently envious man who would stop at nothing to consolidate his power and ensure his own safety.
"meet it is I set it down..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Like a student, Hamlet's first instinct is to write down what his father has told him. Hamlet sees this as a definitive act, an accomplishment, rather than a mere gesture of loyalty, and in writing down what he knows sets about determining his course of action. Many men would immediately strike out at Claudius, but Hamlet takes a different route, and that reveals his characters more than a swift act of violence ever could.
"this distracted globe..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
"Globe" refers both to Hamlet's head or mind, which has been distracted by his studies and uninterested in memories, and to the globe itself, where "memory" meaning history becomes less and less important as time goes on. Soon, he implies, everyone will forget about his father, like his mother has, and he'll be the only one left holding onto his memories. In that sense, he's the sole bearer of his father's legacy.
"That youth and observation copied there..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
In order to carry out his father's wishes, Hamlet has to rid himself of all his memories ("records") of the past, in effect erasing himself and all the knowledge he's accumulated at university. He's determined to do this out of fealty to his father, but if he were to instead make use of what he's learned at school, he might be able to find some alternate solution to this problem.
"No reckoning made..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
In traditional Christian practice, the faithful are supposed to make a final confession before they die, absolving their souls of sin before they reach the "Promised Land." King Hamlet's wasn't given the opportunity to confess, thus, he was sent to Purgatory, even though his sins, according to him, weren't very serious. Under normal circumstances, it's implied, he would've gone to Heaven.
"whose natural gifts were poor..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Distinct from Claudius' "wicked" wit and gifts, former King Hamlet's natural gifts would've been anything regarding his strength or physical prowess: his skills in battle, his face and appearance, and of course his abilities as a lover. "What a falling off was there!" means, then, that Gertrude took a big step down, in terms of spouse, and that Claudius isn't half the man that King Hamlet was.
"a forged process of my death..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Claudius faked ("forged") King Hamlet's death. To do so, he would've needed a snake to bite the King, a more powerful poison to kill him, and someone who at some point secured the poison for him, as it would've been too suspicious for him to do so himself. While it's possible that he was able to carry out the plot on his own, it's more likely that he had one or two co-conspirators, and that Hamlet is in danger.
"Thy knotted and combined locks to part..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
From this, we can assume that Hamlet, still in mourning over his father's death, hasn't been taking care of his appearance, except to make a point of wearing black. Mourners in this time were known to "rend" or pull their hair as they grieved, and it's possible that Hamlet has been tormenting himself this way for the past several weeks and months, growing progressively paler, thinner, and madder as he goes.
"to sulphurous and tormenting flames..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
In Christian theology, the soul went either to Purgatory, where it awaited final resolution of its fate and finished any business it had on Earth, or to Heaven, provided they'd earned it, or to Hell, where flames engulfed the souls of the dead for all eternity. Hamlet's father doesn't specify here where these "suplphurous and tormenting flames" are waiting for him in Purgatory or in Hell, and this makes the audience question whether he's really as saintly as Hamlet made him out to be.
Act II - Scene I
"I am sorry that with better heed and judgment I had not quoted him..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Polonius believed that Hamlet’s interest in Ophelia was fleeting and would pass, but Hamlet’s grief, which has coincided with Ophelia’s rejection of him, has made Polonius believe that Hamlet truly loves Ophelia. Polonius therefore feels he misjudged Hamlet.
"fordoes itself..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Polonius says that love is such a strong, violent emotion that it can lead people to self-destruct and commit strange and ‘desperate’ acts. It is interesting that Polonius suggests this is the ecstasy (extreme happiness) of love when Hamlet indeed appears to be suffering greatly. Polonius can become wrapped up in his own conceptions of things, ignoring any contradicting evidence.
"encompassment and drift of question..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Polonius asks Reynaldo to casually speak with those who might know Laertes to figure out whether or not the men do, in fact, know Laertes. This is somewhat similar to Polonius’s own approach above, when he indirectly suggests that Reynaldo ought to ask after Laertes. Polonius may feel that he was being subtle, but he is not particularly good at the art in which he is instructing Reynaldo.
"does he this..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Polonius does not credit Reynaldo with much intelligence, feeling the need to explain his plan to Reynaldo down to the very responses these men will be likely to give. Clearly Polonius thinks he is being very artful with the deception he is asking Reynaldo to stage.
"marvellous wisely..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Polonius’s use of language here is quite interesting: his meaning is abundantly clear, and yet he still avoids directly asking Reynaldo if he would speak to others about Laerte’s behavior. This is perhaps Polonius’s way of feeling out Reynaldo’s willingness to do as Polonius wishes. When Reynaldo responds in the affirmative, Polonius becomes more direct and specific about exactly what Reynaldo should do.
"Exeunt..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
What does this scene reveal about Polonius's character?
"He took me by the wrist..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
In terms of drama, why does Shakespeare have Ophelia tell us about Hamlet's actions instead of having Hamlet perform the scene on stage?
"do know my son,..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Who is Polonius's son?
Act II - Scene II
"Though this be madness, yet there is a method in't.—..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Polonius is starting to suspect that Hamlet is being intentionally antagonistic—that there is a method to his madness. This is where the famous expression, "There is a method to my madness," comes from.
"Abuses me to damn me..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hamlet thinks that the devil may be using ("abusing") his melancholy against him, sending him a demon in the shape of his father's ghost to drive him to commit a mortal sin like murder and damn himself to hell. Given his religious upbringing, this isn't just a stalling tactic, but rather a serious concern.
"I'll tent him to the quick..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
"Tent" in this case being a shortened version of attent, attend, intent, or tend, or in other words to pay attention to something. Hamlet will be watching Claudius deeply ("to the quick"), waiting for the king to give himself a way. He suspects Claudius will be doing the same to him, which makes this situation particularly dangerous.
"With most miraculous organ..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hamlet may be referring to the heart, which trembles with fear; to the brain, which knows its guilt; or to the skin, which flushes or blanches, depending on one's feelings. More generally, he's saying that people who have reason to feel guilty or afraid tend to give themselves away when reminded of what they've done, so this is what he'll do to Claudius.
"A scullion..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
A "scullion" is the lowest rank of domestic servant, the kind of person who performs the grunt work in the kitchen. By referring to himself as a lowly servant and a common whore, Hamlet denigrates himself yet again, making his soliloquies (the words he "unpacks") seem trivial.
"by heaven and hell..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hamlet feels that killing Claudius would be righteous, because the king has already committed the mortal sin of killing his own brother. At the same time, murdering Claudius would itself be a mortal sin, so Hamlet's torn between heaven and hell, that is, between doing something good and something that might also be evil.
"With this slave's offal..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
"Offal" meats are internal organs such as the heart, liver, kidneys, and intestines, as well as the brain and tongue. "This slave" refers to Hamlet, and his internal organs are what would be feeding the "kites" or birds of prey in these lines. Essentially, Hamlet's that because he's not mad enough and bitter enough, his enemies think of him as a good meal.
"Am I a coward..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Despite taking specific measures against the king and developing a legitimate (if convoluted) plan, Hamlet feels like a coward because he hasn't taken swift, direct action to avenge his father's murder. Hamlet feels that thinking too much has prevented him from killing Claudius, even though it is, most likely, the only thing keeping him alive.
"A dull and muddy-mettled rascal..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
"Mettle" means strength, and to be muddy-mettled means to have an uncertain or wavering amount of strength. Hamlet also refers to himself as dull or stupid, which we know he isn't, which suggests that his self-esteem has dipped considerably since he learned of his father's murder and found himself unable to act.
"Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
To be "pregnant" means to be full of something (in this case Hamlet's cause or plan of action), so to be "unpregnant" means to be devoid of meaning or reason. Hamlet likens himself to a "John-a-dreams" or a daydreamer who has no real plans, implying that his silence makes it seem like he isn't doing anything, even though he is.
"Make mad the guilty and appal the free..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Though Hamlet pretends to be mad, he has nothing to feel guilty about, which in this construction makes him "free." This suggests that Hamlet isn't mad, just appalled or dismayed at what's happened, and that Claudius, the guilty one, will be driven mad by his actions and his fear of being caught.
"He would drown the stage with tears..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hamlet thinks the players he's just met (and actors in general) are too melodramatic, and that if he were really on the stage his madness would appear over the top; but since he's not, and because he knows that this isn't a performance in the sense that it should be seen, he (rather bitterly) restrains himself from weeping.
"A broken voice..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Recall that in Hamlet's conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he spoke of the young actors whose voices "break" as they reach adolescence. Here, Hamlet's broken voice is meant to be a direct result of his grief, but because of this previous discussion also suggests that Hamlet is growing up in the process of enacting this plan.
"Could force his soul so to his own conceit..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
In other words, that Hamlet, in playing this role of madness, could force himself to behave this way for the sake of his plan and at the detriment of his self or his soul. He's worried about the damage that this performance has already done to him and fears that faking madness may itself lead to madness.
"in a dream of passion..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Remember that in Hamlet's conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, dreams were synonymous with ambitions. Here, the dream of passion can read both as a fantasy (or fiction) and as a life goal or ambition, suggesting that Hamlet aspires to passion, aspires to love and violence, but hasn't yet achieved it.
"Now I am alone..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Notice that Hamlet has been surrounded since he first entered this scene, presumably standing in or near the center of the stage while friends, enemies, and actors maneuver around him. This line reads both literally and metaphorically: he's alone on the stage and alone in spirit, following a plan only he knows about.
"who shall 'scape whipping..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hamlet thinks that treating everyone according to their worth would result in everyone (including himself) being whipped or punished. His view of humanity reveals itself to be very bleak in these lines, and if there was any doubt before of his disdain for Polonius, then there's no question of it now.
"better have a bad epitaph..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hamlet thinks that it's better for people to speak well of you (to give a good rather than an "ill" report) while you're alive than to think well of you after you die. Most people would be more worried about having a bad epitaph, or looking bad in the annals of history, but Hamlet only cares about the present moment, which further enforces his single-minded desire for revenge.
"according to their desert..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Here "desert" refers to their worth or merit, meaning that Polonius will treat them as well as they deserve to be treated. Notice the stark difference between Hamlet and Polonius on this issue: Hamlet treats them well and politely, as someone of his station should, but Polonius doesn't seem to have any regard for such formalities.
"bisson rheum..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
"Bisson" means blind or blinding. Rheum refers to the mucus and secretions particularly of the eyes, but also of the nose or mouth. In this case, "bisson rheum" means "blinding tears," and for Hecuba to be threatening the flames with her tears means that she's blinded herself to the point of not being able to see or avoid them.
"Hecuba..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Queen of Troy, wife of Priam, whom Pyrrhus slaughtered to avenge his father's death. Hecuba famously grieved for the fallen Trojans of the war (a grief recounted in Euripides' play The Trojan Women). It's unclear what happened to Hecuba after the war, with some accounts saying she was taken as a slave by Odysseus and (presumably) died with his men when their boat sank.
"with your beard..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Meaning that if Polonius had his way, the play would be cut (as would a beard in a barber shop). Polonius doesn't appear to take offense at this, at least within the text, so it's possible that he didn't understand this particular jibe. Regardless, it's one of the more obviously rude statements that Hamlet has made and suggests that he's growing impatient.
"thou strumpet, Fortune..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Recall that Hamlet himself referred to Fortune as a strumpet earlier in this scene, while joking with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Given that he saw this play before that conversation, it's very possible that he stole the line from it, which suggests that many of his ideas aren't original but are, in fact, taken from books he studied at Wittenberg.
"Striking too short at Greeks..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Pyrrhus finds Priam surrounded by a band of Greek warriors, trying to strike out at them but always falling short because he's wounded and doesn't have the strength. Likely, these warriors would've finished Priam off, but Pyrrhus decided to kill the king himself, in revenge for his father's death at the hands of Priam's son, Paris.
"eyes like carbuncles..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
A carbuncle is a large precious stone with a fiery red color. In earlier texts, it's unclear whether it refers to a ruby, a garnet, or some other precious gem. In this case, the color again refers to the color of blood, which has coagulated or congealed on Pyrrhus' skin and clothes, like a coat of paint.
"total gules..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
A shade of red, one of the primary heraldic colors used on a coat of arms. Here, the red color refers to the blood of Pyrrhus' enemies, which has covered him head to toe, making him look black and red. This description, though inaccurate in terms of skin color, aligns with the stories of Pyrrhus, who was known to be a particularly cruel and brutal fighter.
"whose sable arms..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
A sable is a small animal not unlike a ferret whose fur was and still is prized for use in the garment industry. Here, "sable" most likely refers to the hair on Pyrrhus' arms rather than the arms themselves. There's no indication in either Homer's The Iliad or other source texts that Pyrrhus was black, which seems especially unlikely given that both of his parents were Greek.
"but wherefore I know not..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he does not know why he feels so despondent, but this is a lie: he knows very well that he is struggling with the knowledge that Claudius killed his father, and the fact that he must avenge him by killing Claudius.
"gentle Guildenstern...." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
The King shows his preference for Guildenstern’s overt deference over Rosencrantz’s (very polite) rebuff. In the next line, the Queen corrects this by referring to Rosencrantz as ‘gentle’. In doing this, Gertrude subtly and implicitly acknowledges that it is wrong to attempt to know Hamlet’s thoughts by deceiving him and turning his friends into spies. Still, she does not attempt to stop this.
"More than his father's death..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Claudius wonders what, ‘apart from his father’s death,’ is causing Hamlet to behave in this morose fashion. We the audience know it is because Hamlet discovered that his father did not die of natural causes, but was murdered by Claudius. Even so, Claudius’s remark comes across as callous: surely he should be more understanding of Hamlet’s deep grief at his father’s deat
"where he speaks of Priam's slaughter..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Priam was the king of Troy during the Trojan War and father to Paris, the prince who seduced Helen of Troy, thus causing the war. In The Aeneid, Aeneas witnesses Priam's death at the hands of Achilles' son Pyrrhus, but can't prevent it and has to flee the city in order to save his father and son. His wife, sadly, doesn't survive. Character
"by the altitude of a chopine..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
A chopine, or a kind of high-heeled shoe that was common in Europe at the time but rarely used in England except on the stage. Shakespeare uses it to establish that time has passed, allowing the character to grow and stand taller than she did with the high-heeled shoe.
"O Jephthah, judge of Israel..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Jephthah, a prominent judge and leader among the Israelites, vowed that when he returned from his campaign against the Ammonites, he would sacrifice whatever was on his doorstep to the Lord. Upon his return, he saw his daughter waiting for him, and sacrificed her as was his vow. The parallel between Jephthah and Polonius doesn't bode well for Ophelia.
"they say an old man is twice a child..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
The old man here is Polonius. He's "twice a child" because old age makes men into babies in need of care, coddling, and (in some cases) changing. This doesn't mean, however, that an old man becomes innocent again or that his mind necessarily goes; Polonius' certainly hasn't.
"I know a hawk from a handsaw..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Meaning, he knows the difference between the hunter (or bird of prey) and the hunted (the "handsaw," or heron). Hamlet reveals to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (though they don't understand it) that he knows very well how dangerous his uncle is, but that he thinks of himself as the hunter, not the hunted.
"should more appear like entertainment..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
In other words, Hamlet doesn't want to make a scene by not seeing to his princely duties (as a host) or being rude to his guests. His use of the word "garb" suggests that this politeness is in fact a costume and that Hamlet feels that his role as the prince is a performance that he puts on for other people's benefit, not unlike an actor.
"was better both ways..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
In other words, the tragedians are very well known in the city, but aren't particularly favored at the castle, where they'll perform for a smaller crowd and thus earn less money because they won't be able to sell tickets. Likely, they only agreed to play at the castle because they want the favor of the new king.
"He that plays the king..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Meaning that anyone who plays or acts like the king on the stage will be welcome. This could also mean anyone who "plays" with the king (that is, pleases or manipulates him, as when you "play" someone like a fiddle, or trick them). Hamlet would gladly welcome this king of entertainment, though he's not likely to get it.
"by your smiling you seem to say so..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hamlet has (we assume unintentionally) made a joke about his sexuality, stating that men don't "delight" or please him. That he has to quickly say that women don't please him either suggests that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are amused and stands as a verbal cue for the actors playing them to laugh.
"I have an eye of you..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
That is, that he can see right through them. Rosencrantz has been prevaricating, asking, "What say you?" to differ having to admit his wrongdoing, but this hesitation in itself tells Hamlet most of what he needs to know: they've been sent for, and they're uncomfortable with it.
"by the consonancy of our youth..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
"Consonancy" meaning consonant, accordant, or in agreement. Hamlet appeals to the fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are his age and that, by virtue of going to school together, they've grown up together, becoming adults in the same way at the same time. Other characters wouldn't respond to such an appeal, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do.
"your modesties have not craft enough to colour..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hamlet realizes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are spying on him because they look guilty (imagine Guildenstern's dismay as he says, "What should we say, my lord?" knowing he's been found out), but he also admits that they're both essentially guileless people, without the malice or the skill to hide their intentions. That makes them some of the most innocent characters in the play.
"Beggar that I am..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Recall that Hamlet has just likened beggars to "bodies" or to people whose ambitions consume them. Remember also that he's said that fishmongers and poor men like beggars are the most honest of men, in that their desires are so pure. By equating himself with this class of people, Hamlet implies that his plan to kill Claudius is righteous and not self-serving.
"sort you with the rest..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
In other words, he doesn't want his friends to "wait" on (or for) him, implying that to do so would class them as servants. In reality, he just doesn't want to speak to his "friends," because he's grown suspicious of their motives. Instead of saying to so outright, he treats them very politely, appealing to their sense of social station and decorum.
"by my fay, I cannot reason..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
That is, by my faith. Hamlet makes an excuse so that he doesn't have to keep talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who've been trying to engage him in the kind of discussion they would've had at Wittenberg. When he says, "I cannot reason," he means he can't reason anymore, suggesting that he's grown tired or his supposed friends.
"so airy and light a quality..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Meaning he barely has any ambition at all, or he can't decide on what his ambition should be, making it "airy" and "light," or without any real substance. A shadow's shadow is then an amorphous thing with no shape or structure and no hope of being realized. Rosencrantz essentially says that he'll never make anything of himself, because he has no ambitions.
"your ambition makes it one..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Rosencrantz means that Hamlet's scholarly ambitions, or his intellect, make Elsinore seem small and beneath him. However, the audience knows that Hamlet's true "ambition" is to kill the king, which would, as it happens, place Hamlet on the throne.
"We think not so, my lord..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
One can imagine Rosencrantz exchanging a nervous glance with Guildenstern here, wondering how to approach this statement. The two have to get along with Hamlet in order to spy on him, but they're worried about his behavior and his intelligence. Hamlet, for example, might be tricking them into saying something treasonous, so they have to be careful.
"more willingly part withal..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hamlet essentially says that there's nothing he would like better than for Polonius to leave (except, perhaps, to die). As it stands, the sentence is constructed so that Hamlet would happily allow Polonius ("you") to take his life, or to kill him. He's lying, of course, and doing it to goad Polonius and fish for information from him.
"a happiness..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Polonius refers to Hamlet's often manic behavior, here typified by his outburst "God-a-mercy" and his spirited jibes at Polonius' character. The reader can imagine Hamlet delivering these lines with a kind of gleeful melodrama, taking care to always seem more serious than he is amused.
"Still harping on my daughter..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
This line, so clearly critical of Hamlet, cannot have been said directly to him, suggesting that with Hamlet's line, "Friend, look to't," the prince began to move away, returning to his reading. Thus Polonius' words are merely him thinking out loud and are not meant for Hamlet's ears.
"—Have you a daughter..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
This sudden outburst, here indicated by the use of the dash, should indicating to the reader that Hamlet's madness (or the appearance thereof) is worsening, and that he can no longer keep track of his own thoughts. His question doesn't seem to follow the previous lines, but does suggest that he was trying to compare Polonius to a dog's carcass.
"God-a-mercy..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hamlet pretends to have been so engrossed in his book that he's startled by Polonius' appearance. This is an exaggerated response and suggests that in fact Hamlet isn't surprised and may well have heard part of their conversation (this may be why he walks the halls four hours a day).
"an arras..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
A rich tapestry or fabric or a screen made of this material, allowing someone to be concealed behind it. Polonius intends to use this arras to spy on his daughter and Hamlet. This further develops the theme of deceit in the play and establishes Polonius as a crafty and untrustworthy person.
"out of thy star..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
In other words, out of her league or beyond her social station. As the daughter of a nobleman, it wouldn't be unreasonable for Ophelia to marry a prince, but it would've required that both the king and queen agree and that they not have other plans to marry Hamlet to a foreign princess or nobleman with connections for political reasons.
"What do you think of me..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
In Hamlet's time, a woman's virtue reflected back onto her parents, particularly her father, who was supposed to guide her and protect her in the world of men. For Claudius to ask how Ophelia "receiv'd" Hamlet's love (whether or not they've had sex) is to question Polonius' abilities as a man and a father.
"But never doubt I love..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hamlet tells Ophelia that she can doubt everything she's ever thought to be true, as she has, but to never doubt his love. As in modern relationships, the fact that he needs to say this suggests that there's been some reason for her doubt, and that either Ophelia has noticed his strange behavior or Hamlet has begun to doubt his love himself.
"More matter, with less art..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Gertrude effectively tells Polonius to get to the point. She asks him to speak with less art (wit and tedious flourishes) and get to the matter, or substance, of what he's really trying to say. It's a shrewd bit of dialogue and suggests that Gertrude, after years of having lived with her son, can tell the difference between poetry and gibberish.
"but to be nothing else but mad..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Notice Polonius' ham-fisted tautology: he defines madness simply as the quality of being mad, which uses a thing to define itself and thus becomes an ineffective description. Polonius has been attempting throughout this speech to be witty and intelligent but instead comes across as a buffoon.
"Upon our first..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
That is, upon their arrival, or as the first order of business. As an ambassador, Voltimand speaks in a stiff and direct manner, answering Claudius' question ("What news?") in a straightforward and unadorned fashion. This displays both Shakespeare's facility with language and his ability to swiftly characterize people through their manner of speech.
"we shall sift him..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
That is, they'll sort through his problems or find out what he knows. Notice that Claudius does the same thing to Polonius, using him for information about Hamlet. Thus we see that Claudius considers Polonius a tool and not really a trusted confidante.
"the fruit to that great feast..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
In the Middle Ages, fruit was often served as dessert, due no doubt to its high sugar content. Polonius means that his news will come after what the ambassadors have to say, but also suggests that it will be "sweet" or that Claudius will enjoy hearing it. Given the context, this says as much about Polonius as it does about Claudius.
"Put your dread pleasures more into command..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Rosencrantz's use of the word "dread" suggests that he's personally opposed to spying on Hamlet, but knows that, because the king and queen are asking, this isn't really a request so much as it is a "command." To refuse would mean severe consequences, but to obey means turning on their friend.
"he hath much talk'd of you..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
It's unclear whether Gertrude is merely being nice to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or if Hamlet has really spoken highly of them in the past. Given Hamlet's taciturn nature, it's unlikely that he's been very forthcoming with his mother about any of his friends, but it's possible that he was more trusting before his father's death.
"the understanding of himself..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
In other words, what's troubling Hamlet. Upon close reading, we see that this "understanding" of himself is really his identity, and that the prince is having an identity crisis that's made him forget how he should behave, given his station. Another way to put this would be that Hamlet has forgotten his manners.
"The need we have to use you..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Claudius pretends that he and the queen wanted to see Rosencratz and Guildenstern as a courtesy, so as not to offend them, but this line makes clear that the only reason the two have been summoned is so that they can be "used" by the throne to spy on the prince. Claudius' niceties are empty but very proper.
"dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
For Shakespeare to have identified Rosencratz and Guildenstern on the stage, the attendants who enter with them would have to move away from the group and position themselves as servants. Thus, the two unknown characters becomes Rosencratz and Guildenstern, though which is which isn't clear until much later.
"Fell into a sadness, then into a fast..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Polonius describes what was then thought to be a real ailment: "love-sickness." What we might now call depression, this state was thought to be a result of too much of one of the "four humors," namely, sanguinity, which supposedly carried in the blood one's passion and lust.
"Within the centre..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Polonius refers to the Earth's center. Under the Ptolemaic system, the Earth was considered the center of the universe, and the Earth's core was considered a great mystery. Polonius' willingness to go so such lengths to find the truth suggests that he's a stubborn person.
"Take this from this..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Polonius refers to the chain he wears around his neck, which indicates his position in Claudius's court. He means that he will stake his job and prestige upon being correct (a dangerous but impressive bet that would've cemented Polonius' theory, if not in Claudius' head, then in Gertrude's).
Act III - Scene I
"If she find him not..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Both Polonius and Claudius feel that Hamlet is "lost" to himself, or in other words that he has forgotten his manners and isn't behaving as a prince should. Polonius hopes that Gertrude will "find" Hamlet and set him straight, but realizes that Claudius should have the back-up plan in case she doesn't. This will lead to more trouble in scenes to come.
"O'er which his melancholy sits on brood..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
This image is of a chicken or a bird sitting on its eggs, or its brood of chicks. Hamlet's melancholy appears to be weighing on him, as Ophelia noted when she said Hamlet was "quiet down, quiet down," as in depressed. Claudius (rightly) thinks that by sitting on this brood Hamlet is also hatching a plot against Claudius, and realizing this has spurred Claudius to take action against the prince.
"Love? His affections do not that way tend..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Hamlet's deliberate mistreatment of Ophelia has convinced Claudius that Hamlet isn't in love with her, but this ploy on Hamlet's part backfires in the sense that it only makes Claudius more suspicious of his intentions and makes the king more determined to get him out of the way by any means necessary.
"The observed of all observers, quite, quite down..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Ophelia knows that Hamlet was once a kind, considered, intelligent scholar with a honeyed tongue and a strong sense of morality. She characterizes him as an "observer," a student of human nature, and says that of all observers he was most observed, because his mind and person were so interesting. Now, of course, he's lost his way, and she doesn't think he'll ever be the same again.
"and you make yourselves another..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
In other words, Ophelia has used makeup to make herself a "new" face unlike the one God gave her at birth. Metaphorically speaking, this new face is a kind of performance, and Hamlet looks down on it as a kind of purposeless deceit that has no real cause other than to catch and deceive a man. He doesn't think nearly so critically of his own performance, of course, which makes this judgment somewhat hypocritical.
"all but one..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
This one is his mother, Gertrude. Recall that in Act I, Scene V, the Ghost of Hamlet's father asked him to spare Gertrude, because she's innocent. Hamlet intends to obey this commend, but nevertheless blames her for marrying Claudius, which he finds to be a revolting and incestuous act. Their relationship will be strained until the very end.
"for thy dowry..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
A dowry was a gift of money, livestock, goods, etc. that a father put up for his daughter to take to her husband's house upon their wedding. Hamlet wouldn't have any reason or right to give Ophelia a dowry, but promises a terrible one in the form of an icy chastity that will ruin her marriage. This is especially cruel, and will effectively end their relationship.
"from what it is to a bawd..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
A "bawd" is someone who trades in the sex industry, as for instance a pimp or a madam of a whorehouse. Hamlet thinks that beauty will sooner make such a bawd honest than make beauty itself honest. In other words, he doesn't think beautiful people are necessarily good or honest people and is questioning whether Ophelia is really worth his love.
"How does your honour for this many a day..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Shakespeare never established how much time passed between Act I and Act II and here implies that it's been a number of days, perhaps even weeks. Ophelia hasn't been talking to Hamlet, per her father's instruction, and wants to know how he (his "honour" because he's the prince) has been. She may also be wondering if he's been honorable or faithful to her since they last spoke.
"in thy orisons..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
In her prayers. Remember that Ophelia has been ordered to read a religious book (if not the Bible than likely a devotional) and that she's pretending to be praying, or perhaps praying that this encounter with Hamlet goes well. Hamlet wants Ophelia to remember him in her prayers (presumably so that God will hear them and forgive him).
"And lose the name of action..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
This is all to say: Hamlet's conscience has made him hesitate, and his great enterprise or plan has lost its momentum ("pitch and moment"). He's afraid, and that has made him look paler (and therefore sicklier) than he already is, being a Dane. His self-esteem has fallen to the point that he can't see how brilliant his plan is.
"With a bare bodkin..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
A bare bodkin is an unsheathed dagger or blade. Hamlet wonders why anyone would suffer the injustices of the world or the reproach ("contumely," scorn, derision) of a proud man when he could simply take his own life ("might his quietus make"). Of course, Hamlet has been doing just that, so one answer to that question is revenge.
"That makes calamity of so long life..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Death's uncertainty rightly gives Hamlet pause and forces him both to rethink death and treat it with respect (or caution). This caution toward and fear of death makes life into a "calamity" or a disastrous misery and makes many people avoid committing sins for fear of the afterlife and what it has in store for them.
"No more..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
That is, nothing more. In this context, Hamlet isn't saying "to exist no more" but rather that death is just another kind of sleep, and nothing more than that. He's trying to minimize the horror of death by turning it into something restful and common and thinking of it as a relief from the sea of troubles.
"Or to take arms against a sea of troubles..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Shakespeare may be using a mixed metaphor here: one cannot take arms against (or fight with) the sea. But if we assume that the "sea" of troubles is actually an onslaught against which he has to defend himself, the image becomes clearer, and we can see that Hamlet is at war with himself and the world.
"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
This soliloquy can be seen as an extension of Hamlet's closing speech from Act II, Scene 2, in which he wonders whether or not he's coward because he isn't acting in a passionate or melodramatic way by weeping for his father and murdering the king. To suffer "nobly" then is to suffer in silence, without melodrama and trapped inside his own mind.
"To be, or not to be, that is the question..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
One of Shakespeare's more famous lines, and the one that most eloquently encapsulates Hamlet's predicament: "to be, or not to be" is the question whether to live or die and whether or not to commit suicide even though it's a mortal sin. In this play, suicide could also be seen as the act of challenging Claudius even though Hamlet knows it could result in his death.
"beautied with plastering art..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Prostitues were often pockmarked by general diseases and forced to wear heavy layers of makeup ("plastering art") to hide the scars. With these lines, Claudius implies that the harlot's makeup is just as ugly as her face because we know what's underneath, just as we know Claudius' true intentions.
"we do sugar o'er..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Polonius admits that they're sugarcoating "the Devil himself" or rather their devilish actions. This suggests that Polonius knows that spying on Hamlet is wrong, but that he does it anyway because he wants to and because this sugaring over is second nature to him.
"That show of such an exercise..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
In this context, a devotional exercise, as from a religious book which Ophelia has here been instructed to read. Notice that Polonius uses the word "show" to reinforce that this is a performance. Her loneliness, then, is twofold: she's technically alone and also spiritually lonely, because she's faking her connection with God and has ruined her relationship with Hamlet.
"That your good beauties be the happy cause..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Gertrude wants Hamlet's love for Ophelia to be the only cause of his madness. This would at once make Claudius' spying unnecessary (thus forcing him to be clandestine in these efforts from then on) and assure Gertrude that Hamlet's unhappiness is only temporary, which, as we see in this scene, is her primary concern.
"and it doth much content me..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Notice that it doesn't entirely content or please Claudius to see that Hamlet wants to engage in a social activity like seeing a play. For him to ask the king and queen to join him suggests to Claudius that Hamlet is reaching out or wants to courteously repair some of their relationship. This alleviates some of his suspicion, but not all.
"it so fell out..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
In other words, Rosencrantz says that they were interrupted by the group of players (actors) that arrived in the middle of the scene. If not for them, he suggests, they would've made plans with Hamlet, but as it stands, he seemed happy enough to make plans for himself, without his "friends."
"Did you assay him..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
In general, "assay" means to challenge or to test, but in this context means to ask or to challenge him to a game or a bit of friendly sport. Gertrude wants to know whether or not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern treated him like their friend, not because this would be a more effective technique, but because she's worried about her son being too much alone.
"Did he receive you well..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Notice that Gertrude doesn't want to hear about Hamlet's madness or Claudius' plan to spy on him. Instead, she distances herself from the plot, falling back on manners and decorum by asking whether or not Hamlet received (or treated) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern well. In this line, we can clearly see a mother worrying for her child.
"to be sounded..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
"Sound" in this case refers to the process of "sounding," or measuring the depths of a body of water or an abyss, literal or metaphorical, by means of dropping a weighted rope into the water. Guildenstern says that Hamlet refused to be "sounded" because he wouldn't reveal the true nature of his intentions or the depths of his disdain for Claudius.
"why he puts on this confusion..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Without any evidence Claudius already suspects that Hamlet's madness is a performance or a "put on" which he's using to confuse everyone around him, but he can't be entirely sure why and can't act until he's certain. If Hamlet were to die so soon after his father, it would call both of their deaths into question, so Claudius must be careful.
"Get thee to a nunnery..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
In Shakespeare's time, a "nunnery" could be either a convent for nuns or a brothel for prostitutes. Either way, Hamlet tells Ophelia she shouldn't have children (she couldn't be a mother if she's in a nunnery) because she would only breed sinners. The double-meaning of "nunnery" suggests that Hamlet's anger centers upon seemingly virtuous people (nuns) who ultimately become sinful and debased (prostitutes).
Act III - Scene II
"my heart of heart..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet tells Horatio that he will hold any man who is "not passion's slave"—meaning a man who isn't easily overcome by strong emotions—not just in his heart, but the heart of his heart. Hamlet might value emotional constancy because he tends to get carried away by strong emotions.
"To give them seals never..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Note that Hamlet earlier claimed that his soul had "sealed" itself off from other people. Here, he asks his soul, which knows so well how to seal itself, not to restrict his words, while at the same time making sure that his words don't become actions. It's a delicate balance, and he wants to make sure he gets it right.
"she be shent..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
"Shent" meaning to be disgraced or ruined, in this case perhaps also to be stupefied. Hamlet doesn't intend to speak kindly to his mother, but also won't hurt her, despite his desire to, and these conflicting passions make both his tongue and soul hypocrites (because their thoughts and actions are inverted).
"I will speak daggers to her, but use none..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet doesn't want to hurt his mother. Shakespeare can't stress this enough. In Act I, Scene V, the Ghost explicitly told Hamlet not to hurt his mother, telling her that she's not his real enemy. Here, Hamlet keeps his word to the Ghost, but can't promise that his mother won't think, because his words are so sharp ("daggers"), that he wants to hurt her.
"The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Nero was a Roman Emperor well- known for both his corruption and debauchery. It's believed that Nero himself caused the Great Fire of Rome in order to clear land for his palace and that he poisoned his own stepbrother. Here, Hamlet compares himself to Nero because the emperor purportedly ordered the execution of his own mother (an act Hamlet wants to avoid, despite his feelings for his mother).
"though you can fret me..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet puns on the word "fret," referring both its verb form (to "fret" or worry) and to one of its noun forms (as a ridge or bar built into the fingerboard to help regulate the musician's playing, as with the "fret" of a guitar). Hamlet says Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can worry or bother him, but can't play him.
"yet cannot you make it speak..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet likens himself to the recorder, using the language of music ("stops," "note," "pluck," "sound") to indicate that he knows very well that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are trying to play on his affections as their former friend to more effectively spy on him. He asks Guildenstern to play on the recorder to prove to him that he's no good at "playing" people or instruments.
"It is as easy as lying..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Here we discover the true meaning of Hamlet misunderstanding Guildenstern's love and duty: he knows Guildenstern has been lying and doesn't understand why he's trying to be friends when Hamlet's treating him (rightfully) like an enemy. Hamlet thinks that playing the recorder should be as easy as lying for Guildenstern. That is, it should come naturally.
"drive me into a toil..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
A "toil" in this case refers to a net or a snare and not to a struggle or a bit of hard work. "Recover the wind," then, is another hunting term, meaning to recover or catch the scent of the hunter. Hamlet figures his former friends as hunters and himself as prey to indicate that he thinks of them as his enemies now because of their spying.
"To withdraw with you..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet uses the noise of the players with recorders to hide what he's talking about with Guildenstern. He wants to know why they've been spying on him and pressing him not to joke around when it's clear he doesn't want to be their friend anymore. Essentially, Hamlet's asking Guildenstern what his problem is.
"while the grass grows..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
"While the grass grows, the horse starves." Hamlet likens himself to a horse who, in waiting for the grass to grow (waiting to become king), starves or dies because he wasn't able to eat (or, in this case, take his rightful position on the throne). Hamlet might think the proverb's a bit musty, but he nevertheless feels that it's an accurate description of his situation.
"Sir, I lack advancement..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet feels stifled in his position as prince, uncertain that he will in fact ascend to the crown. Claudius has assured him that he's next in the line of succession, but that can change. For instance, if Gertrude has a son with Claudius, or if Gertrude dies and Claudius remarries and has a son with his new wife, that son would be the heir. There are many scenarios in which Hamlet doesn't become king, and few in which he does.
"bar the door upon your own liberty..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Rosencrantz thinks that by closing himself off to people, Hamlet has made it impossible for him speak at liberty with anyone (and also, it seems, to move freely around the castle without being watched). This line directly relates to Hamlet's line about how his soul "sealed thee for herself" and to the theme of imprisonment built throughout the play.
"were she ten times our mother..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet would obey Gertrude "were she ten times" the person she is, that is, if she were worth obeying. Hamlet makes clear that he thinks very little of his mother now and that he wishes she were someone else and better. To be clear: he still intends to go; he's just not happy about it.
"is there no sequel..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
In modern parlance, Hamlet is saying that he can feel a "but" coming. Hamlet knows very well that he has surprised Gertrude, and that her "admiration" here means wonder or amazement, not respect or love. He feels a kind of bitter glee at having provoked such a response in his mother, which just goes to show how far their relationship has deteriorated.
"not of the right breed..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet has shown Guildenstern only the minimal amount of courtesy required for the situation. Were they still in Wittenberg, Hamlet would treat him like a friend and not like the butt of a joke. In that sense, for Hamlet's courtesy to be "not of the right breed" means both that it isn't based on friendship and that it doesn't suit someone of Hamlet's breeding.
"but to the matter..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Recall that in Act II, Scene II Gertrude told Polonius "More matter, with less art." Both that line and this one mean to get to the point. Hamlet unwittingly echoes his mother, revealing how much closer they are in intelligence and temperament than either will ever know.
"put your discourse into some(295) frame..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Guildenstern asks Hamlet to put some things into perspective and to reconsider his responses to Guildenstern. In doing this, Guildenstern cautions Hamlet to behave more like a prince should in this situation while also revealing how hurt he is by Hamlet's behavior.
"put him to his purgation..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
In other words, to exonerate him of any crime, or to put him through a kind of purgatory where he will answer for his sins. Hamlet suggests that telling Claudius he's being choleric (or even suggesting this to a doctor) would only anger him further and that Guildenstern should be careful (rely on "[his] wisdom") when he tells anyone about this.
"The King, sir—..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Shakespeare interrupts Guildenstern here to give his words a sense of urgency. He and Rosencrantz have just come from Claudius' side, worried about what effect the king's distemper will have on Hamlet. Guildenstern rushes to tell him because he still thinks of Hamlet as a friend and wants to warn him of the danger. Hamlet's interruption, then, is very rude.
"Ay, sir, what of him..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
In this line, delivered with amused disdain, we see how much Hamlet has changed in the course of the play. Now that he knows Claudius is guilty, he isn't brooding or indecisive but rather sure of himself and of his own power: he's made Claudius afraid; he'll probably keep doing it; why not? When he asks, "What of him?" he appears to be gloating.
"Of Jove himself..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Jove, the Roman epithet for Zeus, the king of the gods, likened here to King Hamlet, who used to reign over this realm until a peacock (a "pajock") dismantled it. Claudius then becomes the peacock, a term that criticizes him for his ostentatious lifestyle and his fashion choices.
"O Damon dear..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
From an ancient Greek legend. After Pythias was arrested for plotting against his king, he was allowed to settle his affairs on the condition that he leave his best friend Damon behind as collateral, so that if he never returned, Damon would be executed. Pythias returned, and in honor of their friendship, both were set free. Hamlet likens Horatio to Damon because Hamlet's put his friend in danger, but doesn't intend for him to be hurt.
"What, frighted with false fire..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet mockingly suggests that someone in the audience has falsely shouted, "Fire!" (as was common in Elizabethan times). That Claudius appears frightened suggests to Hamlet that he is in fact guilty, while the other characters in the play, who don't know about the murder, draw an uncomfortable parallel between his marriage to Gertrude and the marriage in the show.
"So you must take your husbands..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet puns on Ophelia's words, taking them to mean "for better or worse" or "in sickness and in health," as in a marriage vow. He uses the plural of "husbands" to imply that Ophelia, like Gertrude, will have multiple husbands. This may also imply that he's disappointed in her response and has decided that he doesn't care if she takes husbands or if she's the kind of woman who would.
"Still better, and worse..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Ophelia seems amused with Hamlet's antics, having been shushing him unsuccessfully throughout the show. "Still better" means that his puns are getting sharper, and "and worse" means that they're getting even more inappropriate. Even so, she seems to enjoy this banter, in so far as she knows she's never going to give in to his advances.
"free souls..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Notice that Hamlet excluded Claudius from the category of people who have free souls. Instead, he says that Claudius isn't touched (or affected) by the content of the play because he doesn't have any reason to feel guilty. Hamlet of course knows the reverse to be true, but says this to mollify Claudius so that the king doesn't suspect that Hamlet was the one who set up this play.
"The lady doth protest too much, methinks..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Gertrude thinks that the Player Queen has been laying it on too thick and that the actress is being melodramatic. More specifically, though, she's judging the performance based on her own experiences as a widow and a remarried woman and saying that the Player Queen is being unrealistic; she's going to have to swallow her own words when she ends up remarrying.
"If, once a widow, ever I be wife..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
The Player Queen vows that if she ever remarries, she shouldn't be allowed food, light, entertainment ("sport and repose"), or even her freedom, but should instead by locked away as in a prison, where she can't feel joy or love without its opposite "blanking" or erasing that joy immediately. It's a powerful oath that Gertrude clearly didn't make.
"But die thy thoughts when thy first lord is dead..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
While the Player King's still alive, it's easy for the Player Queen to say that she won't marry again, because she doesn't know what it's like to be a widow. Once he dies, however, she'll probably reconsider. Hamlet might suspect that this is what happened to Gertrude: that she never intended to remarry, but was tricked into it by Claudius.
"Directly seasons him his enemy..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
In other words, when you try to make friends for the sake of making a friend (or with some secret purpose), it's obvious that you don't really want to be friends with that person, and that's more than likely to turn that "friend" into an enemy with good reason not to like you. Hence, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern became Hamlet's enemies, though he still uses them to his advantage.
"But what we do determine oft we break..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
In this context, "what we do determine" refers to our personal beliefs, which we might break or lose confidence in as we start to question or second-guess ourselves, as Hamlet does. It also reminds us of Hamlet's situation and the vow to kill Claudius that he's "breaking" by being indecisive instead of taking action.
"base respects of thrift, but none of love..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
The Player Queen thinks that second marriages are never made out of love, but rather as a means of reestablishing financial security after the first husband's death. She says that marrying again would be like killing her husband twice, because it would be an insult to their love and his memory.
"My operant powers their functions leave..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
In other words, the Player King's bodily functions ("operant powers") have started shutting down, and he's going to die soon. He wants to tell his wife before he dies that she should be happy and remarry so that she won't be sad and afraid anymore. It's clear that the Player King and the Player Queen are still deeply in love after thirty years.
"None wed the second but who killed the first..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
The Player Queen's husband has told her to remarry after he dies so she can be happy and beloved. The Player Queen refuses, saying that only women who kill their first husbands marry again. This line directly condemns Gertrude for remarrying and suggests that she may have had something to do with the murder plot.
"'tis brief, my lord..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
In these lines, we can see that Ophelia has grown tired of Hamlet's innuendos and unnecessary jokes and wants him to be quiet so that she can watch ("mark") the play. When she tells him that the prologue is brief, what she's really saying is that it shouldn't bother him because it's short and essentially meaningless.
"he'll not shame to tell you..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet turns Ophelia's innocent question about the play's meaning into another sexual innuendo, suggesting that the player will gladly tell Ophelia the meaning of any show, including any suggestive show they might want to engage in together. Ophelia, of course, doesn't like this suggestion and calls Hamlet "naughty" because of it.
"a suit of sables..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Recall that when the players were first introduced, Hamlet recited for them a piece of a play about Pyrrhus, Achilles' son, whose arms were black as sable (or fur). By likening himself to Pyrrhus, Hamlet implies that he's a fearsome warrior and that he'll soon be covered, as Pyrrhus was, in the blood of his enemies.
"O God, your only jig-maker..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet suggests that Ophelia's religious devotions makes God the only man who can incite her passion or cause her to dance (do a jig). This is yet another sexual innuendo. He's decrying her chastity, saying that it's unnatural and pointing out that his mother seems perfectly happy not to be chaste.
"I mean, my head upon your lap..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet's original question was far more suggestive in nature and was taken as a sexual overture. His second question, though more polite, builds on this rudeness, making us wonder why Hamlet has decided to treat her so badly. It's possible he's still mad at her for helping her father spy on him, or perhaps he's decided to make her stop loving him to save her from what's going to happen.
"Here's metal more attractive..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet likens himself to a magnet attracted to certain metals. In this case, his mother doesn't hold a strong pull over him, but Ophelia does, and he makes a very blatant and embarrassing ploy for her affections in front of everyone (probably to throw them off).
"Brutus killed me..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Notice that Polonius related only the most obvious pieces of the plot, the parts that Hamlet's likely to already know. This suggests that, while Polonius attended university, he wasn't a particularly good student (and probably not a very good actor, despite his claims). More likely, he was there for the political connections, and we can see what's come of those.
"capons..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
A castrated cock, or rooster; in some cases also a eunuch. Hamlet says that you can't feed castrated roosters or eunuchs air, implying that because he can eat air, he's neither one of those things. In other words, he's saying that he's not powerless (castrated) and should be feared.
"of the chameleon's dish..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet puns on Claudius' use of the word "fare," responding to both its verb form, meaning "to feel," and one of its noun forms, meaning "food." That he's "of the chameleon's dish" means that he hasn't been eating much (that "food" might mean literal food or food for thought) and that his feelings are constantly changing, like a chameleon's skin.
"so well commeddled..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
"Commeddled" means "commingled" or mixed. Hamlet says Horatio's life has been pretty even-keeled, blessed with neither great hardship nor great wealth, in part because his breeding ("blood") and manners ("judgment") have made him into a wise, honest man whom Fortune has decided to overlook or not make an example of for others.
"Sh'hath seal'd thee for herself..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet has made the choice not to trust anyone and to "seal" himself off or make himself emotionally unavailable to everyone. He decided to engage (or "elect" to interact) with only the most righteous of men, but, finding none, withdrew into himself. He's telling Horatio this because he's one of the few honest men that Hamlet's met.
"That no revenue hast..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
In this context, "revenue" refers to wealth or income. Hamlet implies that Horatio, despite being an officer, has no money, and as a poor man has nothing to his name but his good spirits. In an earlier scene, Hamlet equated poor men with honest men, so even though Hamlet seems critical, he's actually praising Horatio.
"a most pitiful ambition..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Notice that Hamlet forgoes referring to ambitions as "dreams" here in favor of speaking plainly about the actor's intentions (to laugh or fill a silence where a character like Hamlet would otherwise be contemplating something serious). This is one of the only times that Hamlet equates people who don't act like him as villains and tells us a lot about how he views the other characters, particularly Claudius.
"not to speak it profanely..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Think of these words as an aside: that he really thinks (and isn't trying to be profane about it) that some actors don't deserve the praise they get and that they don't "act" so much as strut around the stage, making themselves look ridiculous. Hamlet's not only showing his preference for a restrained style of acting but judging those who act this way.
"to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet claims that the whole point of acting or putting on a show is to reveal something about human nature (or to hold it up to a mirror). This emphasizes the complexity of human interactions and the psychological depth of Shakespeare's characters, who can be held up to a mirror without appearing flat or one-dimensional.
"beget a temperance that may give it smoothness..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
We can assume from these lines that Hamlet isn't just speaking about the actor's performance, but also about his own, and that he believes that his acting has the temperance and the smoothness he demands here. This may be arrogance on his part, or it may be his survival mechanism.
"as I pronounced it..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Recall that at the end of Act II, Scene II, Hamlet recited to one of the players a brief passage from a play and that he did so very seriously, following the natural rhythm of the words, without gesticulating wildly or becoming melodramatic, as he warns the players not to do here. It may be arrogance on Hamlet's part to believe he's a better performer than these actors. Then again, maybe he is.
"to take off my edge..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet puns on Ophelia's accusation that he's being "keen" (sharp), suggesting that his "edge" is a result of his pent-up sexual frustration and that to relieve it would require that they have sex. He turns the verb "groaning" into a noun that refers to the act of intercourse itself, but doesn't guarantee that it's pleasurable ("groaning" certainly suggests otherwise).
"chorus..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
In ancient Greek plays, a chorus was a group of characters who told the audience what was going to happen in the play. By likening him to a chorus, Ophelia isn't praising him so much as politely telling him that he's talking too much and spoiling the show.
Act III - Scene III
"O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Just as Hamlet had hoped, the play did expose the conscious of the King. Claudius confesses to his deed and uses this metaphor to explain the stain that his deed has placed upon his kingship. The murder was so evil, so vile, that it has created a rank oder that wafts up to heaven where God himself can smell it. In imagining the smell reaching heaven, Claudius recognizes that he will be punished in the afterlife. However, he refuses to repent because it would mean giving up his earthly spoils. This soliloquy represents the moment at which Claudius recognizes what he has done and chooses his sin over repentance.
"This physic but prolongs thy sickly days..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
A "physic" refers not to a physician but to a medicine. The "medicine" Hamlet speaks of is Claudius' continued existence, which prolongs his mother's sickness (incestuousness in marrying her brother-in-law). In other words, Hamlet is giving his mother her medicine, and he isn't going to feel bad about it. He's waiting for the perfect moment to kill Claudius.
"He took my father grossly, full of bread..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
A reference to Ezekial 16:49: "Pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness." Hamlet thinks Claudius struck King Hamlet down out of pride and a kind of arrogance born out of privilege and well-being. Only someone in as secure a position as Claudius was would think of murdering his own brother and marrying his sister-in-law.
"this is hire and salary..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
In one sense, this line means Claudius should be held accountable for his crimes, because as a villain he hasn't yet been repaid in kind for his sins. In another sense, Hamlet has been hired by the Ghost to avenge his death, and thus this revenge isn't so much for Hamlet as it is for his father. Thus, Hamlet becomes a mercenary, hired to do a job and paid a salary for his services (in the form of becoming king).
"heart with strings of steel..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Recall that in Act III, Scene II, Hamlet likened himself to an instrument with strings and notes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were incapable of playing. Shakespeare repeats the image to show that Claudius can be played like an instrument, unlike Hamlet, and that he already has been, in responding so dramatically to the play within the play.
"To give in evidence..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
In Heaven, we can't shuffle or try to hide our crimes, but are instead required to give evidence or testify against ourselves before God. To pretend that he's been absolved would give Claudius a false sense of security and make him think that he'd gotten away with his crime.
"Offence's gilded hand..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
"Gilded" meaning golden. Claudius speaks both generally (in saying that the world's corrupt and people often get away with their crimes) and personally (referring to his own hand as gilded because now he's the king and presumably wears rings and carries a golden scepter). It makes Claudius' sins seem at once common and singularly offensive.
"My fault is past..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Notice that Claudius wants to claim the benefits of prayer (absolving one sin and stopping someone before they commit another) without actually praying. He's trying to rationalize his behavior to soothe his conscience, telling himself that what's done is done, but the fact that he feels the need to do this proves that his guilt will not be so easily assuaged.
"And both neglect..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Claudius says he can't pray because he feels guilty, and he can't fully feel guilty because he knows he wants to pray and absolve his sins (proving that he still has some good in him). However, by neglecting both his guilt and his desire to pray he places himself in an even worse position where his failure to pray is as damning as his guilt.
"To wash it white as snow..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Claudius' speech mirrors that of Lady Macbeth in Act V, Scene I of Macbeth, in which she attempts to wash her hands clean of King Duncan's blood but feels she can't because she's guilty. Both lines speak to the extreme guilt caused by committing a murder (of a king in particular).
"Since nature makes them partial..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Polonius believes that mothers are naturally partial to or protective of their children and more likely to overlook certain things that Polonius himself might not. Therefore, he's going to spy on Gertrude's conversation with Hamlet, just in case he says something to her that she doesn't worry about because she's his mother.
"we will fetters put upon this fear..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
"Fetters" are chains or shackles meant to hold or imprison someone. It's unclear whether "this fear" refers to Hamlet or his madness, which can in itself be figured as a "fear" or a "fright" in the sense of it being a kind of monstrous enemy. More likely, Claudius think of the fear as Hamlet, whom Claudius thinks has been allowed to walk too freely.
"upon whose weal depends..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
"Weal" being short for "wealth." Rosencrantz essentially says that, as king, Claudius has to act against Hamlet in order to protect himself and the country, and that his ability to govern depends on his treating Hamlet's madness like an annoyance that keeps him from doing his job (regardless of what his real intentions are).
"Most holy and religious fear it is..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
In Hamlet's time, kings were considered to have a divine right to rule and weren't subject to the laws of the land, instead drawing their authority directly from God. Thus, if Claudius wants to spy on Hamlet, there's nothing anyone can do to stop him, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are required to tell him that he's being a good king.
"And he to England shall along with you..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Claudius has decided to commission Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as ambassadors to England, and Hamlet will accompany them as the royal attache on their diplomatic mission. Of course, Claudius would rather kill Hamlet and be done with it, but on the surface he must appear to be handling the problem of Hamlet's "madness" in a way befitting both a king and a prince.
"It hath the primal eldest curse..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Claudius refers to the first biblical curse on Cain, who was cursed for the murder of his brother Abel, of whom he was jealous because God favored his offerings better. For his crime, Cain was compelled to live the rest of his life as a "fugitive and a vagabond." Genesis 4:10-12
Act III - Scene IV
"To flaming youth let virtue be as wax(90) And melt in her own fire...." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Hamlet refers to the flames of youthful passion. He criticizes his mother for marrying her brother-in-law, whom Hamlet considers a very low specimen of humanity. Hamlet argues that, to be tempted into marrying such a person, his mother's virtue must "be as wax;" it melts in the presence of fiery passion.
"This man shall set me packing..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Shakespeare wasn't the first writer to use the phrase "send someone packing," but he certainly popularized it and brought it into our modern lexicon. Hamlet knows that killing Polonius has escalated the drama and that once he's discovered he'll be "sent packing" (which in this case likely means killed or imprisoned).
"to draw toward an end with you..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
It's very likely that Hamlet will already be dragging the body or trying to get a good grip on it when he says good night to his mother. If so, he'll necessarily be leaning over the body, looking up from his work at his mother, who of course still thinks that he's mad (though she can see that there's more to it than insanity).
"And marshal me to knavery..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
A "knave" is a particularly disagreeable and dishonest person, often contrasted with the fool, who has no knowledge of how they come across to other people, unlike the knave, who knows all too well. That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will "marshal" Hamlet to knavery means that they intend to make him look bad in front of the English nobility and give Claudius reason to act against his madness.
"as I will adders fang'd..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
An "adder" is a snake or a serpent-like creature and is often used to describe a deceitful or untrustworthy person, like Claudius. Hamlet compares his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to adders so Gertrude will know that he's already figured out Claudius' plan and is making moves against it.
"'Twere good you let him know..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
This line would seem especially sinister to Gertrude, who knows that he's telling her what not to do and warning her that if she breaks his confidence there will be consequences. When he says, "It's good that you tell him," he's daring her to try it, pretending momentarily that it would be fine when in reality they both know she mustn't say a word.
"What shall I do..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Hamlet takes this question to mean that Gertrude is looking to him for guidance, asking what she should do next. It's possible, however, that she's wondering what to do with him, given that she thinks he's mad, or perhaps even wondering what he expects her to do with the body of Polonius, which has been bleeding there this whole time.
"I must be cruel, only to be kind..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Hamlet thinks his cruelty (in demanding that Gertrude abstain from sleeping in her marital bed and in frightening her so) is another form of kindness, because he's cleansing her soul, like a minister. From his perspective, he's doing it for her benefit. To the audience, he's trying to get his way by any means necessary.
"To the next abstinence..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Hamlet wants Gertrude to refrain from sleeping in her martial bed and instead invoke her right as a woman to sleep in her own room (a practice fairly common amongst the nobility). He assures her that abstaining one night will make it easier a second night, but doesn't, notably, care to speculate on how Claudius will respond to her sudden coolness.
"yet all that is I see..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Meaning, everything that's there or corporeal. Gertrude subtly asserts that there's nothing else to see and that Hamlet shouldn't be able to see or speak to anything or anyone but her. She's convinced now that Hamlet is mad, but, like a good mother, she wants to understand the nature of her son's madness, presumably so that she can help.
"—Do not look upon me,..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Note the violence of this dash, which cuts between two actions. In the first lines of this passage, Hamlet points to the Ghost, in effect saying, "He's here! Right here, Mom! Can't you see him?" When he realizes that she can't, he snaps at her, telling her not to look at him that way (with such sadness). In all likelihood, this only makes her feel sorrier for him.
"Alas, how is't with you..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Gertrude sounds dismayed, having given up hope that Hamlet isn't mad. In this passage, we'll see her come to terms with what appears to be Hamlet's madness and attempt, in her own way, to soothe him, as he attempted to rid her of any shame she might've felt about sex. Gertrude's sadness here should indicate just how much she loves her son.
"Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
In Hamlet's time, women were considered the weaker sex, and thus susceptible to persuasion and outside influence. The word "conceit" here means an idea or thought that the Ghost wants Hamlet to feed to Gertrude, because if it comes from him (a well-educated man) it's supposed to work well on her (a "weak" woman).
"the precious diadem stole..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
A "diadem" is a crown typically worn by royalty, and a "cutpurse" is a thief. Hamlet calls Claudius a thief who stole from the kingdom to rule the kingdom, making him perhaps the worst kind of villain. Note that someone who plotted against the king like this would be considered an enemy of the state and that Claudius was very lucky to have gotten away with it thus far.
"not twentieth part the tithe..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
A "tithe" is a 10% portion of one's income which is paid to the church or a government as an expression of piety. Hamlet calls Claudius one twentieth of one tenth (or, in other words, one half of one percent) of the man King Hamlet was. Now that he's finally put a number on Claudius' worth, we can see how much Hamlet really hates his uncle.
"cozen'd you at hoodman-blind..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
To "cozen" means to deceive or beguile, whereas "hoodman-blind" refers to the game of blind man's buff, wherein a blindfolded player tries to the touch the others. Hamlet sexualizes the game by implying that Gertrude has been tricked into touching (or having sex with) her brother-in-law. Unfortunately, Gertrude agreed to the game in the first place, which still makes her culpable for her choice to marry him.
"But it reserv'd some quantity of choice..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Regardless of whether or not Gertrude was involved in the murder plot, she still had a choice to make: to marry Claudius or not to marry him. From what we've seen thus far, it seems as though Gertrude has fallen in love with Claudius, so it's unlikely that she suspects him of faking his love for her in order to secure his position, and if that's true, then Gertrude's situation is incredibly sad.
"for madness would not err..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Hamlet thinks madness wouldn't "err" or stray from its intentions, but instead stick doggedly to its course. He knows this from experience, having portrayed the part of the mad man for the last two acts of the play. It's important to note, however, that while Hamlet has spent the last acts waffling and taking advantages of opportunities that came to him, rather than creating them for himself. This alone proves he's not mad.
"And batten on this Moor..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
"Moor" in this context most likely refers to a piece of marshland, but its capitalization in the middle of a line implies that Hamlet may also be using the words in its derogatory sense to suggest that Claudius has darker skin than his brother, like a Moor (Shakespeare's Othello was called a Moor because his skin was black). In either case, Hamlet intends this word to denigrate Claudius, who's nothing compared to King Hamlet.
"Hyperion..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
A Titan from ancient Greek mythology. Hyperion was known as "the High One" and was said to have fathered the sun, Helios. Hyperion is here suggested to have been very beautiful and powerful, like Jove, king of the Roman pantheon; Mars, the Roman war god; and Mercury, the messenger of the gods. Equating King Hamlet to all of these gods elevates him and suggests that he was a much better king than Claudius will ever be.
"With tristful visage..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
A "visage" or face appears "tristful" when it's sad or feeling dreary. In this case, the visage belongs to Hamlet, whose entire body ("solidity and compound mass") feels the effects of the terrible act of murder. Hamlet in this case refers to the murder of his father, King Hamlet, but may also be speaking more generally about murder itself, which leaves him upset ("thought-sick").
"I'll set those to you that can speak..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
As queen, Gertrude relies on her marriage to Claudius for her power, making her technically no more powerful than Hamlet, whose power also comes from his relation to the king. Since Hamlet doesn't think much of her power, Gertrude threatens to send someone in who can wield their power over him (in this case likely not the king but guards who can fight him).
"No, by the rood, not so..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
"Rood" refers to the cross and to Jesus Christ's crucifixion. Saying "by the rood" is equivalent to swearing on the cross, which would've been an even more powerful oath then than it is today. Hamlet swears that he hasn't forgotten Gertrude, meaning that he hasn't forgotten her place in society. Of course, he doesn't think much of her place, and therein lies the problem.
"Why, how now, Hamlet..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Up until this point, Gertrude has had no reason to believe her son's madness would turn against her. She went into this conversation with high expectations, telling Polonius not to worry, but fears that it was a mistake to confront Hamlet this way. Perhaps if she'd approached it more delicately, this conversation would've gone well, but now that Hamlet's angry things will devolve pretty quickly.
"you answer with an idle tongue..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
In other words, Hamlet has been evading her unstated question (why has he been treating Claudius so badly?) and Gertrude wants him to stop dodging and get to the point. She said something similar to Polonius earlier, when she said, "More matter, with less art." Hamlet, of course, has all the art but no real matter (that he wants to reveal to his mother, anyway).
"his pranks have been too broad to bear with..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
At this point, Gertrude hasn't been the butt of any of Hamlet's pranks or jokes (that she knows of), so she has no real reason to tell him to stop picking on Polonius. Hamlet's disdain for Polonius has clearly irritated him and bruised his ego, and now he's complaining to Hamlet's mother instead of talking to Hamlet himself. Of course, this isn't going to work.
"screen'd and stood between Much heat..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
"Heat" here refers to danger that Gertrude has "screen'd" or protected Hamlet from by virtue of her being the queen and him being the prince. If Hamlet weren't a prince, Polonius implies, he'd never be able to get away with such terrible behavior. Polonius, of course, has no right to say this to a queen and should be more worried about the "heat" he's bringing on himself.
"Alas, he's mad..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
It's obvious from Gertrude's response that she can't see the Ghost. Yet, in Act I, Shakespeare went to great pains to show the audience that the Ghost wasn't just in Hamlet's head. It's possible that Gertrude doesn't see the Ghost because he doesn't want her to, or maybe this time Hamlet really is seeing things.
Act IV - Scene I
"may miss our name..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
What is it that King Claudius hopes "may miss" his name, and what does this thing do?
"this vile deed..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
What vile deed is King Claudius referring to and why must they "countenance and excuse"?
"lawless fit,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
What did Hamlet do in "his lawless fit"?
Act IV - Scene II
"Hide fox, and all after..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
This is a phrase from a children's game similar to hide-and-seek. The "fox" hides and all other children chase after in pursuit. Hamlet uses this line to suggest that he didn't kill Polonius on purpose, but rather thought it was a game. Accordingly, within the game, Polonius isn't dead but rather just hiding. Hamlet of course knows perfectly well what he did and is just feigning madness so he isn't thrown in jail.
"A knavish speech sleeps in a foolish ear..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
A knavish speech is a disagreeable or deliberately cruel one, which thankfully hasn't offended Rosencrantz too much because he didn't understand it. It's possible that Hamlet simply doesn't care what his former friends think, but more likely he feels guilty for being so mean to them.
"you shall be dry again..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
Hamlet has been haranguing Rosencrantz in this speech, but in these last words relents and says that some day Rosencrantz will be dry (or free of the secrets and lies he's had to tell) again. In this way, Hamlet finally admits that his friends have been put in an impossible position and that it's not their fault Claudius asked them to spy on Hamlet.
"to be demanded of a sponge..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
Hamlet explains this metaphor more fully in his next passage, where he states that as servants to the king Rosencrantz and Guildenstern suck up his attention (and suck up to him). In the line, sponge seems like a sneering insult, and one can imagine Hamlet delivering it with such disdain.
Act IV - Scene III
"Go seek him there...." See in text (Act IV - Scene III)
Claudius essentially tells Hamlet to go kill himself, as Hamlet told him to do. The two have progressed from an outwardly polite but clearly condescending conversation to an outright hostile one, and now the king is treating the prince with all the animosity he's always felt.
"seek him i' the other place yourself..." See in text (Act IV - Scene III)
Though it appears at first that Hamlet's referring to Hell here, he's most likely speaking of Purgatory, where one has the opportunity to pay for one's sin and handle any unfinished business before one can go to Heaven. Hamlet politely suggests that Claudius might go up to Heaven and "nose" or brush Polonius on the stairway, but probably thinks that Claudius will be going to Hell.
"A man may fish with the worm that hath eat..." See in text (Act IV - Scene III)
In general, Hamlet means someone can use the worm that eats a dead body to catch a fish, thus completing the circle of life. In this context, however, "fish" should also be taken to mean fishing for information, which implies that Hamlet is using Polonius' death to figure out more of Claudius' plan.
"At supper? Where..." See in text (Act IV - Scene III)
Notice that Claudius adopts a forgiving and somewhat condescending tone in these lines, as we see when he says, "Now, Hamlet," as if speaking to a child. He's trying to coerce Hamlet into telling him the truth, and though he doesn't actually believe Polonius is at dinner, he's puzzled by Hamlet's answer. This might worry him briefly, but that worry would be quickly assuaged when Hamlet explains what he means.
"the offender's scourge is weigh'd..." See in text (Act IV - Scene III)
That is, when people love someone as much as they love Hamlet, they tend to judge their punishment ("scourge") far more harshly than the crime ("offense"). This is true even today, when celebrities and politicians receive more lenient sentences than those who aren't in the public eye.
"The present death of Hamlet...." See in text (Act IV - Scene III)
Here is the evidence (often veiled to a first-time reader) that Claudius has ordered the death of Hamlet at the hands of the English king. Claudius has delivered the letter into the hands of both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. However, Hamlet is too quick for them. Hamlet has switched the letters and orders the death of his two cronies instead.
Act IV - Scene IV
"Of thinking too precisely on the event..." See in text (Act IV - Scene IV)
Hamlet worries that he is over-thinking avenging his father's murder. He refers to lingering over objections, the interference of conscience, etc., to the extent that the action itself (killing King Claudius) is put off or missed altogether.
"My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth..." See in text (Act IV - Scene IV)
Hamlet has talked himself into pursuing his revenge by any means necessary, regardless of who dies in the process. We know that he intends to kill Claudius, and it seems likely, from this line, that more will die, and he won't mind this happening.
"Even for an eggshell..." See in text (Act IV - Scene IV)
This "eggshell" refers to the small piece of land which Fortinbras has decided to "conquer," even though the Poles have no real intention of defending it, because it's worthless. He sees a certain nobility in this futile march, which Fortinbras leads not out of anger but ambition. Hamlet respects this and wishes he too could be great.
"How all occasions do inform against me..." See in text (Act IV - Scene IV)
Hamlet feels that everything he does gives away his intentions to his enemies. In this way, all his actions "inform" against him by making it obvious that he's moving against the king. He wants Rosencrantz to go ahead of him to give the appearance that he's walking in a simple procession and has no hidden agenda.
Act IV - Scene V
"No noble rite nor formal ostentation..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
As a nobleman and a trusted confidante of the king, Polonius would've been entitled to a lavish funeral, not unlike King Hamlet's in terms of ostentation. That he was buried quietly underscored the fact that Claudius and Gertrude are trying to cover up Hamlet's culpability (though not, in Claudius' cause, absolving him of guilt).
"They find us touch'd..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
Claudius speaks merely of himself and not of himself and Laertes, using the royal "we" to say that if he is touched (or has had a hand in Polonius' death, directly or otherwise), he will give his kingdom to Laertes. This would be a strange regime change, given that Hamlet's the next in line for the throne, but Laertes doesn't yet pick up on the strangeness of this or suspect that Hamlet is the murderer.
"All flaxen was his poll..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
"Poll" refers to the part of the head where the hair grows. "Flaxen" refers to the color of flax or of wheat, in this case probably a sandy blond. This is all to say that he (Polonius) was quite old when he died, but not so old that the hair on his head had turned gray (even though his beard had).
"like the kind life-rendering pelican..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
Pelicans were then believed to feed their young with their own blood. Laertes thus figures himself as an altruistic person willing to "feed" or protect his father's friends by taking up their cause. In this way, he also presents himself as a wise and powerful man with the status to treat his father's friends like children. Given that he intends to kill the king, this arrogance isn't surprising.
"But not by him..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
Notice that Gertrude doesn't reveal Polonius' true killer. Given license to speak, it's possible that she would've given Hamlet up in order to save her husband, but it isn't clear. This abrupt cry would seem to confirm that Gertrude does, in fact, love Claudius and doesn't think he deserves to be killed, regardless of the promises she's made to Hamlet.
"you must wear your rue with a difference..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
If "rue" symbolizes pity, then it seems most likely that Ophelia gives the rue to her brother, who looks on her with more pity than any of the others, who already know about her madness. If we assume that Laertes, Claudius, and Ophelia are all standing together, then the next flower, daisy (false love) goes to either Claudius or Gertrude, as a symbol of her disillusionment with the crown.
"I would give you some violets..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
Given that violets mean faithfulness, and that she says "my" father instead of "our" father, we can assume that Ophelia gives the violets to either Claudius or Gertrude, who would be entitled to her love and faithfulness by virtue of being the king and queen, and who wouldn't receive it, after what happened to Polonius.
"There's fennel for you, and columbines..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
Ophelia has begun throwing flowers, each of which have symbolic meanings: fennel means flattery, columbines mean cuckoldry, rue means pity, daisies mean false love, and violets mean faithfulness. From this, we can assume that Opehlia has been walking around with a bouquet of flowers, both like a woman in mourning and a bride to be.
"This nothing's more than matter..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
Laertes thinks Ophelia's nonsense says more than actual speech, or "matter." Likely, Laertes thinks that the steward and the master's daughter refer to other characters in the play, and he's trying to determine exactly who and what she's talking about. Though the lyrics don't quite coincide with any situation in the play, it's possible that she's referring to herself and Hamlet.
"some precious instance of itself..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
An "instance of itself" means a sample of nature's refinement. Here, that "sample" is Ophelia's sanity, which has gone after her dead father Polonius and has, in some ways, honored him with its grace. Laertes thus characterizes Ophelia's beauty and goodness as a thing that can be lost under dire circumstances.
"How now? What noise is that..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
From these lines, we can assume that Laertes has heard a woman's voice and has most likely recognized it as his sister's. Thus, these two questions are spoken tenderly, affectionately, as if to soothe a weeping child. Laertes will soon see that his sister has gone mad, but in this moment, we see plainly that he's a very loving brother.
"swoopstake, you will draw both friend and foe..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
"Stake" and "draw" are both terms from the gambling world, where one bets or stakes money when one is willing to take their chances with the cards and, hopefully, draw a winner. "Swoopstakes," then, means that one bets indiscriminately, taking out anyone in his path, regardless of whether or not they're friend or foe. Claudius may also mean that Laertes will draw a sword against anyone.
"That both the worlds, I give to negligence..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
In other words, Laertes doesn't care what happens to him in this world or the next; he just wants to avenge his father's death. Contrast this with Hamlet's soliloquies, which dwell heavily on heaven, hell, sin, and whether or not vengeance is worthwhile, and you can see how differently Laertes and Hamlet approach the same problem.
"between the chaste unsmirched brows..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
Laertes scoffs at the idea of being calm, stating that if he were calm, Polonius would have to be a cuckold and Laertes' mother a "harlot," making Laertes' someone else's son. Or else why wouldn't he grieve for his father? He points to his brows as proof that he isn't a bastard, because the brows were said to be proof of a person's good breeding.
"The rabble call him lord..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
In the wake of Polonius' death, the general population (or "rabble") has started to consider a coup led by Leartes that would overthrow Claudius. In doing so, they're breaking the laws of "antiquity" and "custom" wherein kings inherit the throne and demanding that their leader be accepted as the true king.
"And wants not buzzers to infect his ear..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
Claudius (perhaps accidentally) gives himself away, evoking King Hamlet's murder by referring to an ear infection that is not unlike being poisoned. Gertrude witnessed a similar poisoning in the play within the play, but either doesn't make the connection to Claudius or chooses to look away. Knowing this, it's hard for the audience to justify her taking his side now.
"or mere beasts..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
Notice the similarities in this line and Hamlet's speech about "bestial oblivion." Shakespeare draws this parallel to underscore the fact that Hamlet and Claudius are both intelligent men and that, unlike Polonius, Claudius may be a match for the prince, if not in lyrical skill than in murderous cunning.
"but know not what we may be..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
In other words, there's no way to predict the future. Ophelia seems dismayed by the loss of her father, unable to work through the grief and the shock of knowing that he was there one day and then gone the next. Shakespeare uses this line as a chilling reminder that we're not sure what will happen to these characters or how these events will affect them.
"They say the owl was a baker's daughter..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
An allusion to a folktale about a girl who was turned into an owl after she rebuked her father for baking a free loaf of bread for Christ, who had disguised himself as a beggar. Polonius would've told Ophelia this story to instill filial loyalty in her (which may itself had led to this breakdown).
"Yet the unshaped use of it doth move(10) The hearers..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
Polonius' death has driven Ophelia slightly mad, and she's becoming paranoid and unpredictable. Though "her speech is nothing," or mad and meaningless, there's something in the way she speaks that gives other people pause (or "moves" them to collection). In her ravings, people find their own suspicions confirmed and draw conclusions Ophelia herself hasn't.
"I will not speak with her..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
It isn't clear from this line, but we'll soon learn that Gertrude is talking about Ophelia here. Horatio and the Gentleman have evidently been asking her to speak with Ophelia, and she's been walking away from them, refusing. This obstinance underscores Gertrude's impatience and suggests that she's recovering fairly well from the fright Hamlet gave her.
"To be your Valentine..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
From the ancient superstition that the first girl a man see on St. Valentine's Day is destined to be his true love. In this song, the man opens his bedroom door to let the girl in, and when she leaves she's no longer a virgin. That Ophelia sings this after talking about her father suggests that his advice not to talk to Hamlet came too late and that it ruined an otherwise beautiful relationship.
Act IV - Scene VI
"but they knew what they did..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VI)
That is, they knew who Hamlet was and thought it would be prudent to take care of the prince and ransom him for a hefty sum. No doubt the "letters" these men carry are in fact ransom demands that Hamlet has forged in order to confuse Horatio and lay the foundation for his early return.
"if not from Lord Hamlet..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VI)
Notice how this construction figures Hamlet as a "part of the world," like Denmark. Horatio means that he can't think of anyone who would write to him except Hamlet and that, because Hamlet is on his way to England, the letter must come from that part of the world, but equating Hamlet with a place has the (perhaps unintended) effect of enhancing his isolation.
Act IV - Scene VII
"When these are gone, The woman will be out...." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
"These" are Laertes' tears, which he's tried and failed not to shed. He's ashamed of crying, because he thinks that makes him weak or feminine, like Ophelia, who had too much water (or cried too much). When he's finished crying, he says, he won't be "feminine" anymore, and then the fire in his words will be put into action. Note that this is the weakest we'll ever see Laertes.
"chaunted snatches of old lauds,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
To "chaunt" or chant means to sing, and "lauds" are hymns of praise, often religious in nature but not necessarily so. Ophelia sings these hymns instead of pulling herself out of the water, which is what leads some readers to the conclusion that she commits suicide rather than merely drowns.
"As one incapable of her own distress,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Notice the contrast with Hamlet here: Ophelia is incapable of feeling distress as she drowns, whereas Hamlet revels in his distress, making eloquent speeches to that effect in almost every other scene. Ophelia's deranged singing, then, feels especially chilling, a product of a mind so broken that it can't properly recognize its own despair. Ophelia drowns because she's incapable of understanding that she's drowning.
"on the pendant boughs her crownet weeds..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
"Pendant boughs" are hanging or pendulous branches that sway as Ophelia clambers or scrambles to place her "crownet" (or crown of) weeds on the branches, as if they were a lovely maiden. Ophelia in her madness ignored the danger inherent to climbing such pendant boughs and fell because of it.
"hot and dry..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
According to the theory of Humorism, to be "hot and dry" means to have too much yellow bile, which makes one choleric (ambitious and easily angered). Remember that Claudius himself was described this way in Act III, Scene II, when Guildenstern said he was mad with "choler." Thus, Claudius unwittingly equates himself with Laertes, who might not be as easy to control as Claudius thinks.
"Should have a back or second..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
In other words, they should have a back-up plan in case this one fails or someone finds out about it. Likely, Claudius already has a back-up plan in mind, and indeed that would seem prudent given that Hamlet isn't likely to be "free from all contriving," as he said. Claudius will need a plan to get rid of both Hamlet and Laertes in order to cover his tracks.
"no cataplasm so rare,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
A "cataplasm" is a poultice or healing ointment that's lain on a wound as it heals. Laertes's poison, however, is so potent that no cataplasm currently exists that would draw the poison out of Hamlet's blood and save his life. That Laertes already has such a poison in his possession suggests that he either bought it to kill Claudius or keeps it at the ready, for reasons he never explains.
"Most generous and free from all contriving,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
This is a lie, or at the very least an exaggeration. Hamlet's letter was, on the surface, very humble, but Claudius has reason to suspect that Hamlet has been plotting against him, so this line, though expedient for Claudius in his manipulation of Laertes, appears disingenuous to the audience, who knows better.
"set a double varnish on the fame..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
That is, Claudius will bring even more people to talk about Laertes and give a double "varnish" (or lay on another coat of praise) so that Hamlet will become jealous and agree to a sparring match. Claudius himself is already laying on this double varnish to ensure that Laertes follows this plan exactly, without deviating. Claudius wants to control the entire plot, both in the murder scene and the play in general.
"Revenge should have no bounds..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Claudius thinks revenge should have "no bounds," meaning no limits on where it can be exacted, regardless of whether or not that place is a sanctuary. Thus, Laertes can slit Hamlet's throat in a church without reproach (from Claudius, at least). This kind of revenge further highlights the differences between Laertes and Hamlet, who refrained from killing Claudius in a church because it's inappropriate.
"But to the quick o' the ulcer..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
An "ulcer" is a hole in the stomach lining, which has been eaten away by an excess of acid, typically caused by worry and stress. He calls Hamlet "the quick" or cause of the ulcer, backhandedly denigrating him while also admitting that he has caused Claudius stress. The use of the conjunction "but" at the beginning of the sentence functions to change the subject from disease to Hamlet.
"growing to a pleurisy,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
A "pleurisy" is an excess of something which grows to be harmful or problematic, as in this case where goodness, in becoming too large, becomes impossible for a person to sustain, until finally it withers and dies. Claudius may also be playing on an alternate definition of "pleurisy," meaning an abscess on the chest, which would make goodness a kind of disease (and thereby justify him in being evil).
"the painting of a sorrow,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Notice that a painting is a form of art, and that Laertes' swordsmanship was previously referred to as in some ways artful. After buttering Laertes up, Claudius questions whether Laertes is really the man everyone says he is, forcing Laertes to defend his sorrow, which isn't just a performance or mask ("painting") but is instead a very real grief.
" to play with you...." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Notice that Claudius doesn't say "fight" or "spar" with you, as would be the appropriate term for a scrimmage in fencing. He instead uses the word "play," which subverts the earlier musical metaphor into one that makes Hamlet and, by extension, Laertes into children playing at being warriors. Claudius says all this to make Laertes think Hamlet will be easy to kill in battle.
"The scrimers of their nation..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
A "scrimer" is a "fencer" or swordsman, in this case one who doesn't have the defensive skills ("guard") or the accuracy ("eye") of Laertes, who has been described as an artful fighter, particularly with a rapier (a kind of sword). Lamond purportedly said Laertes had no equal, and Claudius repeats this to stroke Laertes' ego and manipulate him into killing Hamlet (who likely isn't jealous of his youth or swordsmanship, after all).
"Come short of what he did...." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
In other words, Claudius was so stunned by the bravery and grace of this centaur-like creature and so misled by his own dramatic ideas of it (his "shapes and tricks") that he failed to see exactly how great the Frenchman's actions were (he came "short" of or missed "the truth"). One could argue that Claudius did the same with Hamlet, thinking he was more especially devious, yet failing to see his true plan.
"Yet needful too..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Claudius says that Laertes' greatest strength is his youth. Or, rather, his kind of youth, which doesn't sacrifice ambition (being "needful") to the light and careless livery (garb or disguise) that youth so often wears. Hamlet would be jealous of this because his youth has been spent studying, being dull and serious and lacking in any ambition (that others know of, at least).
"pluck such envy from him..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Claudius picks up on the metaphor of being an instrument and says that Hamlet was "plucked" or played into being envious of Laertes by a quality that Claudius hasn't yet stated, but which has been spoken of very highly in court. Hamlet wasn't envious of any other "part" or characteristic of Laertes, but is envious of this.
"tell him to his teeth,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Modern readers would rephrase this as "tell him to his face." Laertes wants to tell Hamlet, "You did this. It's your fault my father's dead and my sister's crazy," and then, presumably, kill him. Laertes is glad he'll get to see the day when Hamlet pays for his crimes. It remains to be seen whether this will work out as he planned.
"Can you advise me?..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Claudius thinks he understands what Hamlet is saying: that he comes humble and unarmed and, as he writes, alone, which he added to put Claudius at ease. He asks Laertes to "advise" him to bring Laertes in closer and subtly position them both against Hamlet.
"Are all the rest come back..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
The rest being the people on the boat to England, specifically, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Claudius wants to know if the ship had a problem at sea, causing it and everyone on it to turn back, or if Hamlet has convinced his former friends to come back and take revenge on Claudius for King Hamlet's murder.
"am set naked on your kingdom..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Hamlet wants Claudius to think he's humble and vulnerable ("naked") and is returning to Denmark not to seek revenge but to find a sort of absolution. He preys on Claudius' vanity by referring to Denmark as Claudius' kingdom and promises that he's unarmed ("naked") so that the king's suspicions will be allayed.
"From Hamlet? Who brought them..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Keep in mind that Claudius has sent Hamlet away to England to kill him and that he doesn't think he'll ever hear from the prince again. A letter to the opposite effect would make him vulnerable, so naturally his first response is to question its veracity (and then, quickly, to find out who's helping Hamlet, because that person would be an enemy).
"Claudio; he receiv'd them..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
This messenger has been misinformed. We know from the last scene that Horatio was the one who received the letters, but evidently he didn't want anyone to know that they were sent to him and realize that he's colluding with Hamlet. Instead, Horatio handed the letters off to another guard, most likely, who passed them on to Claudio.
"And that, I hope, will teach you to imagine..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Claudius gets interrupted by the messenger here, but based on his profession of his love for Polonius, we can assume that Claudius is trying to teach Laertes a lesson about assuming that a king's actions could be anything other than just. He doesn't get to make his point, however, so any interpretation of the line is necessarily speculative.
"But my revenge will come...." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
This line seems especially sinister when you remember that Laertes originally intended to exact his revenge on Claudius. Now that he knows the "truth" about Polonius' murder, he's just as likely to kill Claudius as he is Hamlet, making this line dark and foreboding.
"Whose worth, if praises may go back again,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Laertes wishes that his praises of Ophelia, whose "worth" and sanity (and no doubt her virtue) were incontestable and could stand above anyone else's, could go back in time, where they're still accurate. In doing so, he emphasizes not only Ophelia's madness but how far she has fallen thanks to Claudius and Hamlet.
"And so have I a noble father lost;..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Taken in a literal sense, this line simply means that in this way Laertes has lost his father. However, given the use of the conjunction "and" at the beginning of the sentence, we can assume that Laertes is really saying, "Because of you, my father is dead," with as much contempt and derision as he can possibly show the king.
"Lives almost by his looks;..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Today, to "live by your looks" means to making a living on your looks, but Claudius means that Gertrude's emotional state (or life) is highly affected by Hamlet's emotional state (as visible in the look on his face). That she lives "almost" by his looks suggests that, while she's affected by her son's madness, she isn't entirely moved by it.
"your conscience my acquittance seal..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Claudius feels confident that when Laertes hears his side of the story, the young man will acquit him of Polonius' murder and turn his attention instead on the real culprit. Of course, the audience knows that Polonius' murder was really brought about by their spying on Hamlet, but Claudius conveniently leaves out his culpability.
"seem much unsinew'd,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
To be "sinewy" means to be strong or to have a lot of sinews, which connects our muscles. To be "unsinew'd" then means to be weak or to not have a lot of sinews, making Claudius seem cowardly and feeble because he doesn't pursue Hamlet. Claudius says that Laertes might think him weak because of this, but he actually had very good reasons.
Act V - Scene I
"to the present push..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Here Claudius speaks in a confidential tone to Laertes, asking him to be patient with Hamlet for now and reminding him of what they conspired to do in Act IV, Scene VII. By putting the matter to the "present push," Claudius means that he will immediately arrange a fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes, in which Laertes will kill Hamlet with a foil dipped in poison.
"Hear you, sir..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Given that Gertrude was the last character to speak and that Hamlet has never loved either Claudius or Laertes at all, we can assume that Hamlet is actually speaking to God in these lines, asking Him why He has treated him this way, not unlike Christ asking, "Why have you forsaken me?" Hamlet acts like a martyr even as he plots like a murderer, which underscores the changes he's gone through in the course of the play.
"When that her golden couplets are disclosed..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
In this context, we should read "disclosed" as "hatched" or opened, as when the dove's chicks hatch from the egg and reveal their fluffy yellow (golden) feathers. Gertrude asks to be as patient as the dove he waits for her children to be born, suggesting that she herself has to wait until her son Hamlet returns, or is born again. He has become such a different person in the course of the play that she hardly feels she knows him anymore.
"Dost thou come here to whine..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Remember that Laertes was technically at the graveside first and that Hamlet burst in to do the very same thing that he's accusing Laertes of doing: making a show of his grief. He does so rather cruelly, as if no one else is entitled to their emotions--indeed, as if no one else matters. His arrogance has reached new heights, and this rudeness at Ophelia's funeral prepares us for his inevitable fall.
"Until my eyelids will no longer wag..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Once again, Hamlet reacts to Horatio's polite suggestion to be quiet by becoming even louder, requiring that Gertrude stand between him and Laertes just as she stood between Claudius and Laertes. Unfortunately, Gertrude doesn't seem to notice this parallel or suspect that Claudius has manipulated Laertes into wanting to kill her son. Instead, she pleads with him the same way she did in Act III, as if he really is mad.
"though I am not splenitive and rash..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
"Splenitive" means spleenful or hot-tempered, the spleen being the source of the yellow bile that's said to make one choleric and easily angered in the theory of Humorism. Hamlet implies that, unlike both Laertes and Claudius, who has twice been described as choleric, he isn't a rash person, but that he should be feared because his anger is much colder and more deliberate.
"This is I..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Up until this line, we assumed that Hamlet was talking about Laertes, whose grief seems strong enough make even the stars pay attention ("conjures" them and "makes them stand"). Now we see that he was actually speaking about himself, as if his grief, as Ophelia's boyfriend, could be deeper and stronger than her brother's grief. Again, Hamlet reveals himself to be arrogant and, in this case, myopic.
"on that cursed head..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Laertes thinks that this cursed head is Hamlet, but he doesn't have all the information. Had Claudius and Polonius refrained from spying on Hamlet, and had Claudius not killed King Hamlet in the first place, Hamlet would've had no reason to kill Polonius. Hamlet may have been the sword, but Claudius and Polonius himself were the force behind it and are as guilty as Hamlet is.
"thy bride-bed to have deck'd..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
In the same way that we "deck" the halls at Christmas, so bride-beds are decked out with flowers and garlands on the night of a maiden's wedding. As queen, Gertrude would've had the responsibility to do so for her son's wife, but now feels obligated to do so at Ophelia's grave out of guilt for what's happened to her. This inversion emphasizes the suddenness of Ophelia's death and its unusual circumstances.
"For charitable prayers..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
"For" meaning "instead of" or "in place of" in this context. The priest tells Laertes that Ophelia has already had more funeral rites than she deserves, given the questionable nature of her death. She should've been buried in unhallowed ground with sticks and stones instead of flowers and bells, but the king and queen gave a "great command" or order that she should get a proper burial because they felt guilty for her death, which could've been avoided had they not been spying on Hamlet.
"That is Laertes, a very noble youth..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Hamlet and Horatio are standing back and have yet to join the crowd at Ophelia's funeral. Hamlet whispers to Horatio that this is Laertes, who's asking the priest why he hasn't performed the whole ceremony (all the funeral rites). Hamlet doesn't know yet that this is Ophelia and likely thinks that Laertes has returned to bury Polonius, his father.
"And with such maimed rites?..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Though Ophelia will indeed receive a Christian burial, her funeral isn't as grand or as ostentatious as it would've been had she died in some other manner. The king and queen don't want to say outright that she killed herself, but can't in good conscience afford her the same funeral rites as other people. Hence, the "maimed" rites, which tell Hamlet everything he needs to know, except the corpse's identity.
"'Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Horatio politely tells Hamlet that he's thinking too much (too curiously or deeply) about Alexander the Great's noble dust and about death in general. Notice that what follows is the single longest passage in this scene, and that Hamlet doesn't stop thinking about death, but dwells ever deeper on it, in defiance of Horatio's statement.
"your gambols..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Recall that in Act III, Scene IV, Hamlet used the line, "Which madness/ would gambol from" to mean that madness would appear to gambol or make exaggerated leaps during his conversation with Gertrude. Here, Hamlet aligns his performance of madness and its gambols with the jester's gambols, unwittingly making himself a jester, like the First Clown.
"My gorge rises at it..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
In this context, "gorge" means the contents of one's stomach, which "rises" in revulsion and disgust when he looks at Yorick's skull. Taken literally, Hamlet is saying that he's going to throw up, but in general, he's expressing his disgust, rage, and resentment that Yorick died, even though Hamlet loved him well. He's channeling his anger over his father's death and Ophelia's death into this scene with Yorick's skull, expressing feelings he has never been able to express before.
"why was he sent into England..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Hamlet asks the First Clown about this because he's curious what the public does and doesn't know and what they've been told about this trip to England. He doesn't think they know about Claudius' plot to kill him, but given how beloved he's said to be, it's not unreasonable for him to want to see where he stands with the public if he does attempt a coup (as killing Claudius would be).
"he galls his kibe..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
A "kibe" is a sore on the heel of the foot, where an unbroken-in shoe would rub the skin raw. For a peasant to "gall" or make this kibe worse by agitating the sore, he'd have to be right on the courtier's heels or, in other words, coming up behind him in terms of wealth and social class. This seems unacceptable to Hamlet, and he laments as such to Horatio to emphasize the First Clown's insolence.
"We must speak by the card..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
The idiom "to speak by the card" means to speak with an authority based on facts and information, not just puns and innuendos. Hamlet has grown tired of kidding around with the First Clown and wants to know whose grave this is. Note that he's just returned from his aborted trip to England and doesn't yet know of Ophelia's death.
"for thou liest in't..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Hamlet puns on the word "lie," which means in this context both "to lie in" and to lie or tell lies in the grave. In the next lines, the First Clown either doesn't understand or deliberately misinterprets Hamlet's pun, which should regardless be taken as a threat, as in: "This will be your grave, because you just lied to me." Hamlet would normally just make fun of a man like this, but he's grown violent in his "madness" and isn't above killing this clown.
"Mine, sir..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
The First Clown, despite being rude, brutish, and indelicate, makes an insightful joke here, stating that the grave he's digging is his own because he'll be working as a gravedigger until he dies. This use of gallows humor proves that while he's uneducated and absurd, he's not entirely unintelligent, though he will seem so in this conversation with Hamlet.
"his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
"Quiddities" and "quilets" are both subtleties in a lawyer's argument, whereas his "tenures" would be his various positions and his "tricks" the ones he uses in court in order to win his cases. These five things encompass the whole of a lawyer's work and, by extension, his self, but have been stripped of him in death. Hamlet sees this loss of self as a great tragedy, and may be thinking specifically of his father and Ophelia in this passage.
"but to play at loggets with 'em..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
"Loggets" was a game played in England where players threw pieces of wood at a stake driven into the ground. It's anachronistic of Hamlet to refer to this game, because he wasn't likely to have played it, but Shakespeare uses it to emphasize that the bones of nobility aren't treated any better than those with lesser breeding or social station. Hamlet's probably thinking of his own death and shuddering to think what will happen to his body when he dies.
"which this ass now o'erreaches..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Notice that Hamlet calls the First Clown an "ass" mere lines after the First Clown called the Second Clown the same thing. Thus, we can see the hierarchy inherent in the play: nobles, then goodmen, then the supposedly less intelligent rank of men who work for or with the goodmen without themselves being considered of that class. This makes Hamlet's opinion of the First Clown the final opinion.
"hath the daintier sense..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Hamlet speaks both generally and personally: people who don't work approach jobs like grave digging very seriously, whereas people who actually have those jobs take it in stride and don't see any reason not to sing while they're working. Hamlet himself, we know, has this "daintier" sense, having spent so much time at Wittenberg. Whether he's happy about this, however, remains unclear.
"get thee in Yaughan..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Though its exact meaning has been lost over time, "Yaughan" likely refers to a nearby inn or innkeeper from whom the Second Clown can procure the First Clown a "stoup" (a bucket, or perhaps a large jar) of alcohol. We can see from this exchange that the First Clown isn't just the first to speak but also higher in rank, making the Second Clown a helper or lackey.
"will not mend his pace with beating..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
A stupid donkey ("dull ass") won't move any faster when you beat it in the way the Second Clown racks or beats (cudgels) his own brain to find the answer to the First Clown's question. The First Clown has, in effect, called the Second Clown a donkey. What's worse, this isn't the first time he's denigrated the Second Clown. It's clear that these men don't have a healthy working relationship.
"Mass, I cannot tell..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
In this context, "mass" is an abbreviation of the phrase "by the mass," an oath that suggests the speaker's ignorance. The Second Clown thought he'd found the right answer to the question, but lost it at the last second, embarrassing himself in front of the First Clown. Throughout this conversation, he's proven himself to be the wittier and more gullible of the two clowns, which accounts for his inability to counter the First Clown's faulty logic.
"does well. But how does it well? It does well..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
In its first use, the phrase "does well" means "a good answer," which, though expectedly witty, isn't correct. In its second appearance, "does well" means "is successful," which for a gallows means to be often used. Finally, "does well" means to give someone who does ill what they deserve, or to bring them to justice. The First Clown alters the meaning like this to make the Second Clown feel bad about his joke, which reflects poorly on his character.
"bore arms..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
The right to "bear arms" means the right to carry a weapon. The First Clown uses this phrase to mean that Adam was the first man to have arms, but the Second Clown understandably interprets this to mean that Adam carried weapons, which of course he never did. Shakespeare uses this comedic understanding to lighten the mood after Ophelia's death.
"Adam's profession..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Adam from the Genesis story in the Bible. God appointed Adam the caretaker of the Garden of Eden, where he was to oversee the plants and animals, not unlike the gardeners and ditchers of which the First Clown speaks. The First Clown calls him a "gentleman," meaning a good or godly person, not a noble, as the Second Clown interprets it.
"great folk should have countenance..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
The First Clown seems to be using the word "countenance" to mean bearing or manner rather than facial expression or look (as it's most commonly used). Thus, this line reads that it's a pity that great folk or nobles carry themselves like people who choose to commit suicide, or that they're more inclined to commit suicide than the working class. This is, of course, just a clown's theory, and not sociologically sound by modern standards.
"will he, nill he, he goes..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Notice how the First Clown prevaricates here: in his mind, someone who's considering suicide will hesitate, thinking, "Will I? Won't I?" in much the same way that Hamlet asked, "To be, or not to be?" Thus we see the act of suicide aligned with Hamlet and not with Ophelia, who never asked the question of whether or not to commit suicide; she simply drowned, leaving us to decipher her intentions.
"goodman delver..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
"Goodman" is a title or form of address for a man of the working class, such as a "delver" (traditionally a tiller of the ground, but in this case a gravedigger). The Second Clown uses this form of address to show respect for the First Clown before he contradicts him, pointing out the fallacies in his argument. Unfortunately, the Second Clown will soon allow himself to be taken in by the argument, proving that he's a big a clown as the First.
"perform; argal..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
The First Clown butchers "ergo" by pronouncing it "argal." He's trying to examine Ophelia's death logically, stating that she drowned herself wittingly (or in her right mind). To him, an act such as suicide requires three things to have been done wittingly: to act, to do, and to perform. Note that these all essentially have the same meaning, and that the First Clown's argument isn't philosophically sound. Ergo, he's a clown.
"The crowner hath sat on her..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Shakespeare appears to have been the first person to use the word "crowner" to mean "coroner," or someone who examines bodies for the cause of death. This exchange is especially important, because it establishes that (for the purposes of the burial) the "crowner" and, by extension, the royal court, have deemed Ophelia death an accident and not a suicide. Had it been suicide, a sin, she wouldn't have been allowed a Christian burial.
"Of bell and burial..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Ophelia will lie in her last home at the sound of the church bell, which traditionally only rang for the godly people given a proper Christian burial. If they were able to say with certainty that Ophelia had killed herself, she wouldn't be allowed this privilege, but since they can't be sure, the bell will ring for her, anyway, and God will decide what to do with her soul.
"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Some of the most iconic lines in the play. When we think of Hamlet, we tend to think of him holding up Yorick's skull, musing on life and death. It's grim to see Hamlet address his old playfellow this way, and Shakespeare may be using Yorick's skull to imply that the First Clown will meet the same fate. If the First Clown notice his similarity to poor Yorick, he doesn't say so.
Act V - Scene II
"Let four captains Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage; For he was likely, had he been put on, To have proved most royal; ..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Notice that Fortinbras immediately acts when confronted with death and tragedy. Fortinbras acts as a foil to Hamelt's character. Fortinbras is also the son of a murdered king and deceitful uncle. However, while Hamlet was stuck in indecision and melancholy, Fortinbras reclaimed his right to the throne. Fortinbras represents action, while Hamlet represents inaction. For this reason, Fortinbras is able to restore order to Hamlet's kingdom and bring about the redemptive ending to this tragedy.
"Not a whit, we defy augury; there's a special Providence in the fall of a sparrow..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
While Horatio cautions Hamlet not to fight Laertes when the King so obviously wants him dead, Hamlet uses these lines to dismiss Horatio's worries and accept the challenge anyway. He declares that omens mean nothing to him and that God will decide his fate. This is the final change in Hamlet's character. Whereas at the beginning of the play Hamlet might have over thought this decision and weighed the options through a psychoanalytic soliloquy, here he recognizes his fate is out of his hands and accepts it for whatever it might be.
"A hit, a very palpable hit...." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet has declared that he scored a touch, but Laertes denies it. Hamlet appeals to Osric, the usually sycophantic judge, who confirms Hamlet's "very palpable hit." Laertes concedes.
"Where is this sight?..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
In this context, the "sight" means the horror of the battle or the scene of the crime, not "sights" as in tourist attractions or forms of entertainment. Remember that Fortinbras had recently stopped in at the castle on his way to Poland and that there was no indication then of something going wrong. His question isn't born so much of disbelief over what's happened as surprise (and, perhaps, self-interest).
"Good night, sweet prince..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Notice that of all the characters in the play, only Gertrude and Horatio think of Hamlet as lovable or sweet. All of his so-called "friends" have abandoned him, and everyone in the castle thinks of him as mad, and yet, both Gertrude and Horatio are willing to forgive him. This is a testament both to the strength of those bonds and to Hamlet's essential goodness: he didn't want to be a killer; it was just the situation.
"with the occurrents..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
"Occurents" meaning occurrences or events. Hamlet wants Fortinbras in particular to know of what happened because it seems most likely, given the power vacuum, that Fortinbras will now make a play for the Danish throne and take over the castle. Hamlet wants the new king to think well of him, which suggests that, though he hated Claudius, he still has great respect for the throne.
"Absent thee from felicity awhile..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
"Felicity" meaning happiness or joy. Hamlet wants Horatio to give up on his own happiness for a while in order to tell Hamlet's story. This is the second time he has asked, and it's beginning to feel unlikely that anyone will truly understand what has happened. If Horatio doesn't explain it to the others, the truth of King Hamlet's murder will never be known, and Hamlet will forever be remembered as a mad prince.
"As th'art a man, Give me the cup. Let go!..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet and Horatio struggle over the poisoned cup, from which the latter has attempted to drink in order to avoid the aftermath of this scene. Hamlet appeals to Horatio's sense of honor and masculinity, saying, "As thou art a man," as if to say a real man would give him the cup. Hamlet's adherence to gender norms should be understood as a product of the times and as a kind of sexism that every single male character almost certainly espoused.
"as a woodcock to mine own springe..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
A woodcock is a migratory bird known for its large eyes and long bill. In literature, writers often play on the fact that the woodcock can be easy to snare, as Shakespeare does when Laertes has been caught in his own "springe" or trap. In this scene, bird metaphors have been used to indicate that a character is foolish, and Laertes is no exception.
"I am afeard you make a wanton of me..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Typically, the word "wanton" refers to someone undisciplined, unruly, unscrupulous, and, at times, overly lustful and sexual. In this case, it means someone who had been pampered or treated with too much deference, so that they've become spoiled. One could argue that this is true not just of this fencing match but of Hamlet's upbringing in general, which has been especially coddling.
"Give me the cups..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Claudius uses the promise of a strong drink as cover to take Hamlet's cup and poison it like the tip of Laertes' foil. If Hamlet weren't busy preparing for the match, he would likely be able to see through Claudius' pompous ostentation, but because he's distracted, he doesn't think to watch his cup or fear for a second danger in addition to Laertes' sword.
"Or quit in answer of the third exchange..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
"Quit" should be understood here as "requite," or to pay Laertes back for making a hit. Claudius arranges it so that if Hamlet does well (making a hit early in the match, or winning outright), the soldiers on the "battlements" or parapets will fire a round to announce his victory. This would be expected of a king whose prince was involved in a duel, and Claudius wants everyone to think that he's nothing if not proper.
"That I have shot my arrow o'er the house..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Recall that in Act IV, Scene VII, Claudius told Laertes that if he had attempted to punish Hamlet for Polonius' murder, that arrow would have "reverted to [his] bow." Shakespeare uses a similar image here to underscore the similarities between Claudius and Hamlet, who have become more and more alike as the play has progressed.
"Never Hamlet..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet cleverly begins to speak of himself in the third person, suggesting a literal divide between his self and his idea of himself. This alone would make him seem mad in an otherwise so proper and officious environment and would be reason enough for Laertes to forgive him (if not because they're reconciled, then because Laertes can't bring himself to blame someone who seems out of his mind).
"I here proclaim was madness..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet has never before and will never again say that he's mad as if he truly believes it. From the start, Hamlet intended to use his false "madness" as a failsafe should his plan backfire, and for the past five acts he has merely been laying the groundwork. Now, he finally puts that failsafe to use, manipulating Laertes into forgiving him for things that shouldn't be forgiven.
"we defy augury..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
An augury is a prophecy, particularly one divined from reading the flight patterns of bears. Osric was compared to two different birds (the "chough" and the lapwing) and has thus become the "augur" from which Hamlet divines that they're danger. He now knows that he's not supposed to survive this fencing match, but intends to defy the prophecy anyway.
"as would perhaps trouble a woman..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
If we retrace our steps to find the antecedent of "it," we find that "it" refers to the ill around Hamlet's heart. He says here that it was just a joke or a bit of "foolery," but that even so it's serious enough that he has misgivings ("gain-giving"). He tries to be brave and say that the misgivings would only be a problem for a "woman" (in this context, a weak person), but he's beginning to realize that there's something wrong.
"in continual practice..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
It's unclear how much time has passed in the play, but one can safely assume that it has been a mere matter of weeks. In all that time, Hamlet has been plotting against Claudius, trying to save his own life, and hasn't appeared to have any time to spar. Shakespeare knew that Hamlet wouldn't be a match for Laertes otherwise and included this line so the audience wouldn't think his defeat was a foregone conclusion.
"I am constant to my purposes..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet made it very clear to Osric that they should start preparing for the fencing match immediately, but this appears to have been lost in translation to this Lord. Hamlet says he's "constant to [his] purposes" (his mind hasn't changed) out of both pride and irritation: Claudius' messengers are hounding him needlessly, and Hamlet want them to stop so he can start the match.
"This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
A lapwing is a kind of bird in the plover family well-known for its way of drawing visitors and predators away from its next. Here, Horatio refers to a myth that used to circulate about lapwing chicks, who were believed to run around with their eggshells on their heads, like helmets. Horatio has picked up on Hamlet's animal imagery and extended the metaphor of Osric as a little annoying bird.
"it is the breathing time of day with me..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet still doesn't know about Claudius' plot and is convinced that he has time to carry out his own plan before news about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern comes from England. "The breathing time" means the time when he's free to be alive, which Hamlet intends to enjoy. In fact, he thinks the fencing match will be fun, regardless of whether or not he wins. The audience, of course, knows better.
"more German to the matter..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
More germaine, or pertinent. Hamlet bristles a little at Horatio's joke and sneers at Osric's phrase, saying that it (and, thus, not knowing it) isn't in the least bit important. If Hamlet weren't quite so arrogant, this little misunderstanding could've been avoided, but he enjoys playing with Osric, and that audience needs some comic relief after the previous scene.
"I knew you must be edified by(155) the margent ere you had done..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
To "edify" means to teach or instruct, whereas "margent" means "in the margin" of a page or marginal. Horatio jokes that he knew Hamlet would get tripped up someday if he kept teasing people like this, and now it's finally happened. The irony is that it happened over something so small and worthless.
"it would not much approve me..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet doesn't think Osric is intelligent to understand or determine whether or not Hamlet is indeed ignorant. He would like the courtier to be smarter because then this conversation would be worthwhile, but then again, if Osric were able to tell if Hamlet was ignorant, that wouldn't reflect very well on Hamlet (or "approve" him). Once again, he's talking circles around Osric, showing off because he can.
"His purse is empty already..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Horatio expresses disappointment in this aside that Osric wasn't able to stand up longer to Hamlet's word play. He started out showering Laertes with all those "golden words" (praise), but now he's worn out and just says things like, "Sir?" that could be translated as, "Huh?" Horatio knows that Hamlet's going to embarrass Osric.
"The concernancy..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Shakespeare appears to have been the first writer to use "concernancy" in place of "concern" or "interest." Hamlet appears to be asking what the point of all this talk of Laertes is, but his use of an invented word (understandably) confuses Osric. Hamlet seems to have done so deliberately, knowing that Osric wouldn't be able to keep up.
"to divide him inventorially would dizzy the arithmetic of memory..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
To list or take inventory of all his fine qualities would be too taxing on one's memory, because there's just so much to say about Laertes. In these lines, Hamlet makes use of hyperbole to both humiliate Osric and subtly undercut Laertes, who can't possibly be as good as Osric says he is.
"his definement suffers no perdition in you..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Laertes' description (or "definement") isn't misrepresented here and isn't ruined ("suffers no perdition") by lies or mischaracterizations. Hamlet has a high opinion of Laertes, given everything, but finds Osric's high praise amusing, because it's spoken in such an earnest and simplistic way. In the next lines, Hamlet will mock Osric's manner of speech, exaggerating Laertes' good qualities to great effect.
"for mine ease, in good faith..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet has made Osric uncomfortable by reaching out and trying to force him to put on his hat. It's unusual for a prince to ever touch or be touched by a member of the lower classes, and reaching out to one was extremely rare. Osric practically begs Hamlet not to when he says, "For mine ease." One can imagine him getting very flustered and having to get his bearing afterward. Of course, he's still holding his hat.
"I beseech you remember—..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Without the context of the fencing match, Claudius' wager seems like reason for alarm. It could be read as Claudius putting a bounty on his head, but Hamlet doesn't seem to think much of it, instead leaning in to put Osric's hat on his head. In this line, he doesn't beseech him to remember the bet so much as ask him to remember Hamlet's request that the wear his hat. Hamlet appears to do this to amuse himself.
"chough..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
A species of bird in the crow family, also sometimes applied to a loud bird like a Jackdaw, whose chattering annoys Hamlet. Shakespeare mixes metaphors here, describing Osric as both a water-fly (a small insect) and a bird (with an irritating voice). He does this to diminish Osric and succeeds without the audience much caring about the mixed metaphor.
"Let a beast be lord of beasts, and his crib shall stand at the king's mess..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet tells Horatio that anyone with land and some money can buy his way into the king's court and sit as his table. Hamlet finds this contemptible and associates Osric with a class of courtier that isn't worth his time or consideration. Of course, as prince, Hamlet would be obliged to know of Osric, which seems to have made him especially bitter.
"water-fly..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
A water-fly is a bright, iridescent insect that seems to walk on water. This metaphor implies that Osric is a slight and insignificant man, and that Hamlet doesn't really understand why someone so lowly dares to speak to him. Shakespeare uses this aside to give the audience information about Osric character, social status, and importance, and prepares us for brief, amusing exchange that will lull Hamlet into a sense of security.
"I see The portraiture of his..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet sees himself in Laertes. Their fathers have both been killed, their hearts are set on revenge, and it's only because Claudius got to Laertes first that the two aren't currently united against the king. Unfortunately for Hamlet, he doesn't know that part yet and thinks that Laertes lunged at him because of his relationship with Ophelia, not the murder of Polonius.
"To let this canker of our nature come..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet feels that it's righteous to kill Claudius. He's said this before, with various supporting arguments, and here likens Claudius to a canker or sore to make it seem like he's obligated to get rid of this disease. That he feels the need to justify his actions so underscores the fact that he's had to think his way out of feeling guilty of murder.
"And with such cozenage..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
"Cozenage" means to cheat or deceive. Hamlet feels that Claudius has stolen his rightful life, curtailing the usual process of inheriting the throne from one's father by cutting Hamlet off right before he was ready to become king. "And with such cozenage" should be read with incredulity, as if he can't believe that the fiend has gotten away with it thus far.
"Between the pass and fell incensed points..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
In other words, it's dangerous to come between two parties that have stopped being kind (or letting things pass) but haven't yet started an outright war (or come to the point of no return). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's deaths are just collateral damage in the fight between Hamlet and Claudius. What's worse, they were on the wrong side, so naturally Hamlet feels no remorse for them. They weren't really his friends.
"I had my father's signet in my purse..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
A "signet" is a small seal used for signing official documents (typically by pressing the signet into hot wax and leaving its impression). King Hamlet's seal would be identical or near identical to Claudius', and would've served to make Hamlet's letter an official order. Hamlet in all likelihood kept his father's signet for sentimental purposes, not intending to use it, and then happily having it on his person when he needed it most.
"How to forget that learning..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet has been taught to write (and speak) in these poetic lines, but had to stop doing so to fake the letter from Claudius to the English and write it "fair" (or without flourishes and meter) like a statesman. In some ways, this entire play has been a process of unlearning for Hamlet, as he's had to strip away his scholarly ambitions and beliefs in order to devote himself to his revenge and avoid being killed.
"They had begun the play..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet notes that he wasn't the one who started this. Picking up on the theme of acting and performance, he says that they (the villains) started the "play" of murderous deceit and revenge by plotting to kill King Hamlet, and that they've all just been playing their roles so far. Another way to put this would be that they started it, but Hamlet intends to finish it.
"benetted round with villainies..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
"Benetted" means to be caught in a net or snared, in this case by the villains in his life (those "bugs and goblins," Claudius and his friends) and their villainous acts. Hamlet has found himself caught in their web, shackled as if by bilboes, but able to maneuver all the same. It would be interesting to see what Hamlet's capable of when he's not constantly in danger.
"read it at more leisure..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet appears to revel in having bested Claudius' plan and saved himself. Shakespeare repeats the word "leisure" to indicate that his protagonist has bought himself more time by averting his own death. Hamlet not only enjoys being alive now, but enjoys living in spite of Claudius. He tells Horatio, "Take all the time you need," because he feels no particular rush.
"on the supervise, no leisure bated..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
"On the supervise" should here be read as "on the first reading" of the letter, with no time wasted (or "leisure bated"). Claudius needed the English court to kill Hamlet immediately, before he had any time to defend himself or convince them that he wasn't crazy. The speed at which he was to be killed appears to offend Hamlet as much as the fact that his death was ordered, suggesting that even in death he expected to be treated like a prince.
"Groped I to find out them..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet sneaks into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's cabin in the dark to find them out or discover their true mission. Remember that at that point in the narrative Hamlet wasn't sure how and if he would ever get back to England, and that this plan to return only forms after he finds his former friends out. Thus, we can see that his "rashness" in sneaking into their cabin paid off, just as he described.
"Rashly—..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Notice the irony in this swift aside: Hamlet very rashly got out of bed, but we don't learn about this until after Horatio's line of dialogue, because Hamlet gets caught up in a semantic analysis what it means to be rash and how this either affects or doesn't affect his plan. Thus, we see that even when he does behave impulsively, his intellect keeps him from being entirely spontaneous.
"Worse than the mutines in the bilboes..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
"Bilboes" are long metal bars with shackles on them that lock around a prisoner's ankles and fix them to the ground. To sleep with bilboes would be very uncomfortable, resulting in mutinies ("mutines") or the body as it struggles to get to sleep. Thus, Hamlet implies that he was tossing and turning in his sleep, thinking about his plan. It's unclear whether this is an indication of fear or a symptom of mania.
"If aught of woe or wonder..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
"Aught" meaning to possess or to own. Having struggled with Hamlet, Horatio may be kneeling beside him or even holding his dead body, so that he would have to look up to answer Fortinbras' question. In the line, "What is it you will see?" the audience sees that Horatio is completely devastated by Hamlet's death and can hardly believe it himself (hence, the "woe or wonder" he feels for what's happened).
"The ears are senseless..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
The ambassador from England think that Claudius was the one who ordered the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and have come to tell him his order has been carried out. He finds Claudius's ears "senseless" in death, but may also be suggesting that the deaths were senseless in and of themselves.
"I am more an antique Romanthan a Dane..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
In ancient Rome, a group of philosophers known as the Stoics believed that it was nobler to face death and commit suicide than to compromise himself in the way Hamlet asks. These Stoics accepted their lack of control over external circumstances and made up for it with a strong sense of morality and bravery. Thus, though Horatio is Hamlet's friend, he refuses to help in order to save his own skin.
"we have therefore odds...." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Laertes has bet on Hamlet to win and staked much more on him than Laertes has staked. Since Laertes is known to be the better swordsman, odds have been placed so that he has to make three times as many "hits" (or points of contact) in order to win the match. Claudius has done this so that the match will appear even and so that no one will suspect him if something goes wrong.
"I'll be your foil, Laertes..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Recall that a "foil" or "rapier" is a thin blunted fencing sword, unlike a real sword with a broad blade. Hamlet says that he's such a terrible swordsman that Laertes will be able to use him like a foil, or in other words beat him easily. He may also be suggesting that Laertes can use him like a weapon to get at their real enemy, Claudius.
"To keep my name ungor'd..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
"Ungor'd" here means unblemished or untouched by defamation or dishonor. Hamlet's apparent madness makes Laertes want to forgive him, but Laertes can't possibly do so until some council of his elders decides that there's a way to do so without ruining his name or his honor. Thus, Laertes would appear very reasonable in an uncomfortable situation, while at the same time plotting Hamlet's death.
"Rapier and dagger..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
In fencing, rapiers lead a charge and daggers fended off an attack. That Laertes is skilled with both the rapier and the dagger means that he's good at both attack and defense, which makes him a hard opponent to beat. Hamlet's only hope is to outthink Laertes, who, in spite of his skill, isn't the greatest strategic thinker and has allowed himself to be taken in by Claudius.
"who else would trace him, his umbrage, nothing more..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
An "umbrage" is a shadow (in this case, Laertes' shadow). Hamlet is being sarcastic, saying that Laertes can only be matched by his own reflection in a mirror and that anyone who tried to be like him ("trace him") would be nothing but a shadow of Laertes, or that they would pale in comparison to the great nobleman. Osric doesn't understand that Hamlet's being sarcastic, however, which makes it all the funnier.
"Put your bonnet to his right use..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
In Hamlet's time, hats were often worn indoors but were removed in the presence of the higher classes and royalty. Osric has therefore removed his hat and will continue to hold it even though Hamlet tells him to put it back on his head. Hamlet may be testing him and his manners, just as he tested Polonius in Act III, Scene II when asking him about the clouds.
"Rough-hew them how we will..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet says that no matter how badly we "hew" or destroy our plans by being too clever for our own good, there is someone looking out for us. Otherwise, how could his plan still be in motion, even after he rashly killed Polonius? "Indiscretions" or mistakes sometimes work in his favor, which is both a testament to his tactical skill and the failure of his enemies to properly anticipate it.