Historical Context in Hamlet
The 15th-century Renaissance brought with it a new interest in the study of human experience and awareness. People felt confident in the potential for comprehensive human understanding. Hamlet was written in the early 17th century around 1600 or 1601 and first performed in 1602. By this time, the Renaissance had spread to other European countries and ideas about our ability to fully understand the human experience became more skeptical. Scholars and artists purported that the human understanding of the world was based on appearance, and that it was only with great difficulty (if at all) that humans could see beyond these appearances in order to see the “real.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet explores this struggle. Characters constantly face difficulty in finding the truth about others, whether it be their intentions, their true characters, or even their sanity.
Historical Context Examples in Hamlet:
Act I - Scene I 9
"Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
That is, winter, specifically, Christmas, when the birth of the "Saviour" Jesus Christ is celebrated. Shakespeare uses this line to further establish the setting of the play, which takes place in the winter, when able-bodied men didn't have to tend to the fields and were instead available to wage the war that's being prepared at this time. Shakespeare also uses this line to indicate that these characters live in a world of superstitions and that, for them, myths and legends are often as important as reality.
"when the cock crew..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
In Christian superstitions, an apparition was said to disappear with cock crows, because cocks, being watch-birds, had the power to scare ghosts away. Many churches and Christian households had either live cocks or statues, which were mounted on church spires to deter any demons or spirits that might threaten members of the flock.
"Speak of it! stay, and speak!..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Elizabethans had many conventions about ghosts and their intentions, with the most common of these being: that they come back to seek vengeance for their deaths or for an injustice; that they haunt places where they haven't been properly buried; that if he knew of any dangers to his family or of any money that he'd hidden, it was his duty to tell them. In this sense, Horatio asks all the proper questions, and in so doing eliminates many of the most common answers.
"Neptune's empire..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Neptune, Roman god of the seas, who controlled the waters in and around the Roman Empire. Shakespeare suggests that, while Neptune was certainly very powerful, his empire was still beholden to the moon, "the moist star," who held sway over the tides. This tells us much about Shakespeare's understanding of astronomy in that he mistakenly calls the moon a star (likely for poetry's sake) but correctly states that the moon pulls the tides.
"the mightiest Julius..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Julius Caesar, Roman Emperor, subject of Shakespeare's tragedy of this same name. Caesar was killed on March 15th, 44 BCE, when his best friend, Brutus, in league with his enemies in the Senate, stabbed him a reported 23 times. This line refers to what happened after (ere) Julius Caesar was killed, as the Roman Empire descended into turmoil and civil war.
"Did forfeit, with his life, all those his lands..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
When Prince Hamlet's father, King Hamlet, killed King Fortinbras of Norway, the Norwegian lands mentioned in their "compact" (or contract) were, by law, ceded to Denmark, becoming the property of their nation. This process was fairly common in the Middle Ages and resulted in the frequent redrawing of boundaries between the various nations and states of Europe. Denmark, though not a major military power, had tactical advantages due to its location and terrain that made it a difficult enemy to conquer.
"Fortinbras of Norway..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
The Danes are now in the middle of an on-again, off-again war with Norway, in which their previous king, while he was still alive, killed the Norwegian King, the Fortinbras mentioned here. In later acts, the Fortinbras referred to is his son, the heir to the throne, who's about Hamlet's age. As often happens in Shakespeare plays, the death of one king sparks the death of another, which feeds into an ongoing cycle of revenge.
"the Castle..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Denmark's real-life Kronborg Castle, built as a stronghold by King Eric VII in the 1420s, lies on the northeast tip of the island of Zealand in the Baltic Sea. This location was strategically important because it provided coastal fortification and allowed the Danes to control the entranceway into the Baltic Sea. In the late 16th century, the medieval fortress was transformed into a Renaissance castle, which was later captured by the Swedes.
"Elsinore..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Elsinore is the English spelling for a real place, known in Danish as Helsingør. It's located in the northeastern corner of the Zealand in Denmark and is home to about 50,000 people. Shakespeare's Hamlet takes place in Elsinore in the late 1500s, although the oral tradition inspiring it is older and was first written down in the 12th century, around 1180.
Act I - Scene II 7
"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.
"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.
"'gainst self-slaughter..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
In Catholic belief, suicide is a mortal sin, that is, such an egregious wrong that it cannot be forgiven by God. To commit suicide condemns a person to Hell and reflects poorly on one's surviving loved ones. This exclamation marks Hamlet's first reference to suicide and the beginning of a downward emotional spiral that some scholars have linked to modern conceptions of depression. For Hamlet even to be considering suicide suggests that something is desperately wrong.
"Wittenberg..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Martin Luther famously posted his "95 Theses" on the front door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517, an act that would lead to the Protestant Reformation. Although the time periods don't coincide (the play takes place in either the 14th or 15th Century), Hamlet will struggle with his traditional Catholic belief system throughout the play and wrestle with the new thinking that he's acquired at university.
"unmanly grief..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
In Hamlet's time, masculinity was a far narrower concept than it is today, and being "manly" meant, largely, fighting, conquering, and remaining stoic in the face of grief or danger. Calling Hamlet's grief "unmanly" calls his masculinity into question and undermines his authority in this group of people. This is yet another tactic Claudius uses to sway Hamlet, though ultimately it does more harm than good.
"to be disjoint and out of frame..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Meaning, disorganized or disarranged. In medieval Europe, a power vacuum was particularly dangerous and made countries far more vulnerable to attack. Claudius knows that, without leadership in place, other countries would view the Danes as weak, and plays on this fact in order to appeal to his audience sense of self-preservation. This makes him very persuasive, but that's not, in fact, the same thing as being a good King.
"incestuous sheets..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
In Hamlet's time, unlike our own, for his uncle to wed his mother would've been considered incestuous. This exact topic was hotly debated in English in the 16th Century, as Anne Boleyn, wife of King Henry VIII, was framed for "incestuous" acts with her brother, acts which later led to her beheading. In Shakespeare's time, when England was predominantly a Catholic state, the Church would've frowned upon Gertrude and Claudius' marriage, but would've looked worse upon divorce.
Act I - Scene III 5
"Which are not sterling..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
In Shakespeare's time, "tenders" could refer to a type of coin that wasn't legal tender because it wasn't "sterling" or up to the quality of legal money. It's slightly anachronistic for Shakespeare to speak of money as sterling here, because it's a particularly British term that wouldn't have been used in Denmark in Hamlet's time, as they used the Danish krone, or "crown."
"dulls the edge of husbandry..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
"Husbandry" refers to the management of a household and its financial affairs, a source of great pride amongst men of a certain station. It was customary for a man of means to oversee his finances, and any loan or debt would've "dulled the edge" of this task, making it less of an achievement or more of a source of embarrassment. To be indebted in this way was a sign of irresponsibility and a cause for contempt.
"Neither a borrower nor a lender be..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
One of the most famous lines in the play, it stems from Shakespeare's belief that usurers (people who lend money) are in some way morally bankrupt and that one should never become indebted to someone of poor moral character. In this, there's also an element of anti-Semitism, because at the time most money lenders were Jewish, resulting in sharp backlash against their community whenever a borrower was unable to pay their debt. Notice that Polonius relies on these stock aphorisms rather than offering genuine advice.
"your chaste treasure open..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Laertes refers to Ophelia's virginity. In Hamlet's time, chastity was very highly prized, and a woman's virtue and social status depended largely on her ability to maintain (or appear to maintain) her chastity. By extension, a man's honor was tied to his wife and daughter's chastity, with his blood line and heirs only being assured if there could be no question of his wife's faithfulness. Any indiscretion or gossip would cause serious problems when it came time to inherit the estate.
"For he himself is subject to his birth..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Protocol dictated that royals would marry partners pre-selected for them according to their parents' needs and wishes. Many marriages were in fact allegiances forged in order to consolidate property, assets, and political relations between friendly nations. These kinds of arrangements were common in Europe and led to many members of the aristocracy being related to each (as Queen Elizabeth II was cousin to Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm, a familial tie that nevertheless couldn't stop WWI). For Ophelia and Hamlet, marrying for love was not an option.
Act I - Scene IV 4
"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.
"beetles o'er his base..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
Shakespeare makes use of the obscure verb form of the word "beetle" to imply that the cliff projects over or overhangs the sea. He also draws on imagery from the Bible (the flood, the cliff) to recall a scene from Matthew 4 where the devil leads Jesus into the wilderness, tempts him to stray from God, then tells him to jump from the tallest point of a temple. In effect, Horatio equates the Ghost with the devil, suggesting that it doesn't have good intentions.
"burst their cerements..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
"Cerements" or grave-clothes were wrapped around the body when it was buried or interred. For a ghost to rise, it would need to break through its grave-clothes and leave its sepulchre or tomb to walk the earth. Since Hamlet's father appears on stage in his armor, there's a tension here between whether or not the Ghost appears in corporeal form, as a solid figure, or in translucent form, like ghosts in films. Different productions of the play have answered this question differently.
"the o'ergrowth of some complexion..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
In Hamlet's time, if one's complexion was "o'vergrown," one of their four "humours" was out of alignment. The four "humours" were bodily fluids (blood, phlegm, black and yellow bile) and were said to govern one's personality. Too much or too little of any one "humour" could result in one being sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, or melancholic (generally undesirable characteristics that needed to be corrected). Hamlet himself appears to be melancholic, suggesting that he has too much black bile in his system.
Act I - Scene V 10
"Upon my sword..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
In medieval Europe, swords, with their long blades and sturdy hilts, resembled and were associated with crosses. Thus, they were often sworn upon as if they were crosses, making this oath, in effect, the most binding one, an oath to God. It's no wonder that Marcellus and Horatio hesitate, because, while loyal to the prince, it's in their nature to gossip, and there's no better gossip than the appearance of a dead king.
"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).
"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.
"lazar-like..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Lazar, meaning a poor or diseased person, is derived from the name Lazarus, known in the Bible as the man Jesus raised from the dead. King Hamlet may be suggesting that these "tetters," while instant, may in fact be a recurring issue, returning "like Lazarus" after they have appeared to die or resolve themselves. Then again, he may be referring to the speed at which Lazarus rose from the dead—that is, instantaneously.
"a most instant tetter..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
An eruption of the skin, as in eczema or ringworm, resulting in dryness, flaking, itching, and pus. Again, Shakespeare's knowledge of botany and medicine are called into question, as there seems to be no known poison that would cause all of these symptoms. Skin lesions are a common symptom of chronic arsenic poisoning, but it appears that there was only one instance of poisoning, so that might not be the cause.
"A serpent stung me..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Here the serpent has been identified as the direct cause of King Hamlet's death but should also be taken as a symbol of evil and cunning. King Hamlet's orchard alludes to the Biblical Garden of Eden, where the devil in the form of a serpent tricked Eve into eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (often depicted as an apple). Again, the analogy positions King Hamlet as a holy character (in this case Eve) and his enemies as the devil.
"on Lethe wharf..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Lethe is the river of forgetfulness, one of five rivers in Hades, according to ancient Greek mythology. It's said that anyone who drank from Lethe's waters would have their memories erased. The Ghost personifies the fat weed on the wharf, which, as a plant, wouldn't have a mind or memories beyond its basic biological function, but would still be subject to the same forgetful properties of the river's water.
"as in the best it is..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
In Shakespeare's time, murder was both reviled (as a sin against humanity) and revered (as inspiration for some of the finest and most popular dramas). To suggest that the foulest murders are the best murders is, in some ways, to glorify the act of murder and everything it entails (a strange thing for the "saintly" King Hamlet to do, especially when he knows that these are the kinds of sins that sent him to Purgatory in the first place).
"harrow up thy soul..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Harrow, meaning, to torment or to tear apart. Shakespeare may be alluding to the Harrowing of Hell, a scene depicted in Dante's Inferno (a major source of inspiration for Shakespeare), in which Jesus descended into Hell in the days between his Crucifixion and his Resurrection and brought salvation to the souls that had been suffering there. In that sense, this line means both to torment and to set free from torment.
"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 II 12
"The rugged Pyrrhus..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Pyrrhus, another name for Neoptolemus, Achilles' son. After Achilles was killed, Neoptolemus killed King Priam of Troy and then enslaved Andromache, Priam's daughter-in-law, the widow of Hector, a Trojan prince. Later, Neoptolemus became the king of Epirus, a region now known as the southeast part of Greece and Albania.
"like th' Hyrcanian beast..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hyrcania was a region roughly coinciding with parts of modern day Iran and Turkmenistan. The Greeks referred to the Caspian Sea as the Hyrcanian Sea, and the region was well-known for its ferocious tigers, here referred to as the Hyrcanian beast. Shakespeare uses the beast as a symbol of violence and cruelty.
"'twas Æneas' tale to Dido..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Æneas and Dido are legendary figures described in Vergil's Æneid, an epic poem written by the Roman poet in the first century BCE. In the poem, Æneas is a hero whose descendants will destroy the city of Carthage, where Dido reigns as Queen. Æneas and Dido become lovers, but this doesn't save the city from destruction.
"there were no sal- lets in the lines..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
That is, no salty or salacious bits using vulgar or off-color language. In Hamlet's time, and particularly in Shakespeare's time, stage plays often needed to be vulgar to hold the attention of the very rowdy audiences they attracted. A modest play like the one Hamlet refers to wouldn't have done well in this environment.
"poem unlimited..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
In classical plays, writers often aspired to the Aristotelian unities, wherein all the action takes place in one place and time (typically a single day) and with minimal diversions into subplots. "Unlimited" poems (or plays written in verse) are then dramatic works that don't adhere to these unities.
"Roscius..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Quintus Roscius, a famed Roman actor from the first century BCE. Born a slave just outside Rome, he became one of the most well-respected actors in the Roman Empire, excelling particularly in comedy and tragedy. We're not sure what Hamlet was trying to say about Roscius because Polonius cuts him off.
"ducats..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
From the Latin ducatus, meaning the duke's coin, a ducat was a gold or silver coin used in Europe from the Middle Ages into the 20th Century. Ducats became the standard gold coin used in Europe after it was officially sanctioned in 1566 and remained so until it was de-sanctioned in 1857.
"the late innovation..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, the practice of replacing accomplished adult actors with newly trained children has recently gained popularity because the children could draw crowds with their cuteness. Thus, these characters are probably expressing the views of Shakespeare's own company.
"firmament..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
In the Middle Ages and in Elizabethan England, when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, the heavens were believed to form a vaulted ("o'erhanging") arch over the earth, which was often depicted with fire and celestial objects, with the assumption that the Earth was the center of the universe. That arch was known as the firmament and is now only referred to in the poetic sense.
"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.
"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.
"Hercules and his load..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hercules was an ancient greek hero tasked with Twelve (seemingly impossible) Labours. Rosencrantz alludes to this by way of saying that he never would've expected the boys to be victorious. What's more, there was a sign outside of the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare's plays were produced, depicting Hercules holding up the world, further cementing the idea that Rosencrantz' opinions are actually Shakespeare's.
Act III - Scene I 2
"O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown! The courtier's, scholar's, soldier's, eye, tongue, sword,(160) The expectancy and rose of the fair state, The glass of fashion and the mould of form,..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Here, Ophelia mourns not only the loss of her love Hamlet but the loss of his example for the rest of the men in Denmark. Courtiers and noblemen would model their behavior on that of the royal family. In going insane, Hamlet robs the courtier his eye, or perception, the scholar is tongue, or discourse, and the soldier his sword, or prowess. He is no longer the paragon, or glass of fashion on which others can model their behavior, but a fallen man. Ophelia mourns both for herself and for all of Denmark.
"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.
Act III - Scene II 10
"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).
"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.
"With Hecate's ban thrice blasted..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hecate is the Greek goddess of magic, witchcraft, the moon, and certain poisonous plants, like the one that Lucianus (a character in the play within the play) has used to extract his poison. Hecate's "ban" in this context means a curse or spell that's given the poison its potency.
"Hymen did our hands..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hymen in this context refers to the ancient Greek god of marriages, who would've blessed their union and joined or united their hands at the ceremony (figuratively speaking). There's a subset of Greek poetry called hymenaios that's sung during the procession of the bride to the groom's house.
"Neptune's salt wash and Tellus' orbed ground..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Neptune is the Roman god of the sea (the "salt wash," or ocean), and Tellus (or Terra) is the Roman god of the earth, where "orbed ground" refers to the shape of the planet. Phoebus' cart has gone around the entire globe, flying over all the seas, for thirty years (and presumably also for all eternity).
"Phoebus' cart..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Phoebus was the Roman epithet for the Greek god Apollo, the god of the sun, music, truth, healing, and poetry, among other things. He's said to have driven a chariot ("cart") that pulled the sun behind him across the sky, creating the dawn and the sunset. If Phoebus' cart has gone around thirty times, thirty years have passed.
"Termagant. It out-Herods Herod..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Termagant was a god that people in medieval Europe confused with Allah, the god in Islam. Similarly, Herod is a character from the Bible, a king in Judea who plotted to kill Jesus Christ when he was born, because Christ was supposed to become king of the Jews (and thus dethrone Herod). Both were violent rulers, and as characters on the stage would've been wildly overdone.
"inexplicable dumb-shows..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
The "groundlings" or members of the pit were a notoriously rowdy bunch, prone to violent and ridiculous outbursts ("dumb-shows") that were often crude and sexual in nature. Some even went so far as to jump up on the stage. To subdue them, Shakespeare had to keep the action tight, but that didn't keep him from poking fun at the pit a little.
"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 4
"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.
"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).
"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.
"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 2
"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.
"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.
Act IV - Scene II 2
"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.
"Compounded it with dust, whereto 'tis kin..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
Recall that in Act II, Scene II, Hamlet asked what this "quintessence of dust" means to him. It's an allusion to Genesis 3:19: "For dust thou art, and unto dust though shall return." Shakespeare repurposes this line to suggest that Polonius was never anything more than dust, and now that he's dead he's where he always belonged.
Act IV - Scene III 1
"I see a cherub that sees them..." See in text (Act IV - Scene III)
A "cherub" is a divine being typically represented as a winged baby with a round, rosy-cheeked face. Hamlet likens Claudius to a cherub because he's always smiling (and likely because his face is also red from drinking). He's subtly telling Claudius that he knows exactly what he's up to and is fairly amused by it.
Act IV - Scene IV 1
"Craves the conveyance of a promised march..." See in text (Act IV - Scene IV)
Fortinbras asks leave of Claudius to march across his kingdom to Poland, where he wants to wage war. This kind of "conveyance" was common during warfare and would need to have been formally requested of the king and queen. Here, there might be some suspicion that Fortinbras still holds a grudge, so Fortinbras is careful to say that he's willing to talk with Claudius and put their problems to rest.
Act IV - Scene V 3
"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 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).
"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 VII 3
"That liberal shepherds give a grosser name..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Here, "liberal" shepherds are men who are free in their speech, or in other words foul-mouthed. They've given a grosser (and likely sexual) name to the "long purples" Ophelia collected, which are likely some form of orchid or lilac. This grosser name was likely well-known to Shakespeare's audience, but has become obscure now.
"A sword unbated..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
In fencing, swords are "tipped" or capped so they can't inflict any real damage. Thus, when someone makes contact in a sparring match, it's only by touching or tapping the sword on another's clothing. An "unbated" sword, however, would have no such cap, and Laertes would be able to kill Hamlet and pretend that he didn't know. (These kinds of accidents were fairly common.)
"the star moves not but in his sphere,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
This is an allusion to Ptolemaic astronomy, which postulated that each planet (or "star") was carried around Earth in its fixed orbit in a crystalline sphere. Claudius implies with this figurative language that he could no more go against Gertrude's desire than a "star" could go out of its fixed, predetermined orbit.
Act V - Scene I 10
"Make Ossa like a wart..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Mount Ossa, another mountain in Greece. Hamlet picks up on Laertes' allusion to Pelion by referring to the myth in which the Aloadaes, twin sons of Poseidon, attempted to overthrow Mount Olympus by piling Mount Pelion on top of Mount Ossa. Hamlet calls for gravediggers to bury them both until they're even taller than these mountains, i.e. until they make the myth ridiculous.
"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.
"To o'ertop old Pelion or the skyish head(250) Of blue Olympus..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Pelion and Olympus are both mountains in Greece. In ancient Greek mythology, Pelion was the birthplace of Chiron, the wise centaur and tutor of heroes like Jason and Achilles, while Olympus was the home of the gods. Laertes wants Ophelia's grave to be an even greater mountain than these, if not in size than in its place in his heart.
"Alexander looked o' this fashion..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Alexander the Great, a student of Aristotle and commander of a great empire stretching from the Ionian Sea all the way to the Himalayas. In his time, Alexander the Great was the most powerful man in the world and is still considered one of history's greatest commanders. So one can imagine Hamlet's dismay in thinking that Alexander the Great would end up being just another skull.
"many pocky corses nowadays..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
A "pocky" or pocked corpse was one afflicted with the pox, or, in this case, the Bubonic plague, which killed millions of people in Europe and decimated Denmark's population. This might explain Hamlet's line about the age being "picked," meaning that people had been picked off in droves by the plague.
"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.
"jowls it to the ground, as if 'were Cain's..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
In the Bible, Cain killed his brother Abel because he was jealous that God preferred Abel's offering over his. Cain thus became the first murderer, according to Christian mythology, and an often reviled figure. That the First Clown "jowls" or dashes the skull against the grounds underscores both the carelessness with which he works and the gruesome nature of the job.
"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.
"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.
Act V - Scene II 2
"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.
"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.