Literary Devices in Hamlet
Irony: Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the characters do not. In Hamlet, one of the major examples of dramatic irony is the fact that Hamlet, the Ghost, and the audience all know the truth about his father’s death, but the other characters do not. Shakespeare uses dramatic irony numerous times throughout the play in order to underscore motifs of mischief, deception, and distrust.
Metaphor: Hamlet is rife with metaphors, the most persistent and notable of which are those about the natural world. Hamlet compares the world to “an unweeded garden” to describe its current problems. Laertes describes Ophelia as a “rose of May” and tells Ophelia to think of Hamlet’s love for her as “A violet in the youth of primy nature”, suggesting that it will be short-lived. By comparing the characters and the state of the world to various parts of nature, Shakespeare gives the audience a deeper understanding of the characters’ beliefs, perspectives, and values.
Symbols: Symbols in Hamlet are used to display the characters’ inner motivations and turmoil. Since one of the main themes in Hamlet highlights the difficulty in understanding the inner thoughts and feelings of others, symbols help give the audience deeper insight. For example, clothing emphasizes the difference between inward and outward appearances, gardens and flowers often symbolize temptation and lust, and the ghost symbolizes haunting memories and emotions.
Literary Devices Examples in Hamlet:
Act I - Scene I 13
"to illume that part of heaven..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Already in Act I we see Shakespeare's characteristic diction begin to confuse the meaning of his lines to the modern audience. Students are often confused by his language, which isn't Middle English like that of Chaucer but isn't what we'd think of as Modern English. Today, the appropriate term is Early Modern English, or perhaps Shakespearean English, as few authors wrote with as dense or florid diction as he. Here, for example, he uses "illume" in place of the simpler word "light," for no other reason than it's prettier.
"Where we shall find him most conveniently..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
These final lines of the scene constitute a small cliffhanger of sorts, leaving the audience to wonder whether or not they'll see these things on stage or if they'll happen in the background. From these lines, we also learn that Marcellus both has access to Prince Hamlet and knows his schedule. It would be fairly easy for an officer, particularly a nobleman loyal to Hamlet, to find him in the place that's most "convenient," that is, safest. Though the Ghost's appearance has national implications, the officers are correct in assuming that the Ghost only wants to speak to the Prince, not the King.
"'tis gone!..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
In this exchange, Shakespeare indicates that the ghost has many of the supernatural features associated with spirits, including the ability to fade in and out and appear in unexpected places. In all likelihood, the officers are spread out on the stage, turned to face different directions where the Ghost might materialize. It's also possible that they have their weapons drawn, though Shakespeare offers no stage direction to that effect.
"Stay illusion..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
This command, though ineffectual, tells the reader that the Ghost doesn't come up to the officers but, instead, passes them. Furthermore, the use of the word illusion underscores the possibility that this ghost is actually a figment of their collective imagination, which then ties into the theme of madness and fear so important later in the drama.
"That was and is..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Even in death, the dead King's actions affect the nation, making his presence in this scene both a literal and figurative one, with his Ghost representing a very real threat to the nation that was and is dictating foreign policy. In this, we see that the real danger isn't supernatural in nature, but hereditary, as war, grudges, and inner turmoil get passed down from generation to generation.
"the sensible and true avouch..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
In this line, Horatio makes a pun on the word "sensible," which here means "of or pertaining to the senses" (sight), but not in this case wisdom or prudence. It also provides the most conclusive evidence yet that this Ghost is, in fact, the dead king. Shakespeare's audience would've taken the declaration "before my God" very seriously, thus believing everything Horatio has to say.
"It is offended...." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
In a suit of armor, it would've been very difficult for an actor to get a reaction as subtle as offense across to the audience. Shakespeare has Marcellus say that the Ghost is offended to cue the actor to a more visible reaction, like turning away. This also establishes the theme of etiquette, broached earlier by Bernardo and Francisco in the first lines and broken here by Marcellus, who has demanded something of a king who doesn't have to answer to him.
"like the King that's dead..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Shakespeare accomplishes several big goals in this one line:
- Establishing that there's been a fairly recent regime change, with one king dying (by what cause, we're not sure) and a new one taking the throne.
- Clarifying that this is the king's ghost.
- Priming the audience for when the dead king's ghost speaks to the prince.
"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.
"this dreaded sight, twice seen of us..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
This establishes a timeline or a pattern of sightings that tells the reader a couple of things:
- that this "thing" (or apparition) has only come at night, when these guards are on watch, and
- that these sightings have occurred regularly enough that Marcellus isn't just afraid of it but can anticipate it. In a few lines, we'll learn what this thing is and why it's so frightening.
"ho..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
This expression, used to call attention to something (for example: Land, ho!), likely originated in Middle English or is of Norse origin. Francisco uses it like a military command, demanding that the newcomers identify themselves to him. In this, you see him parroting Bernardo in the first line of the play, a parallelism that cements the idea that Francisco is here to replace the less narratively significant Bernardo.
"Francisco..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Notice how the characters keep calling out and using each other's names. The audience at one of Shakespeare's plays would've needed these identifying lines to introduce them to the characters and keep track of who's speaking. In fiction, this would all be done through the use of exposition, but in drama, that isn't an option, and Shakespeare had to devise other ways of clarifying the text for his audience.
"Nay, answer me..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Military protocol dictates that the current sentinel (Francisco) demand that the replacing sentinel (Bernardo) identify himself. Bernardo's question breaches this protocol and results in a sharp refusal to answer. That he asks this question in the first place indicates something of his emotional and psychological state, which Shakespeare uses to foreshadow Hamlet's later crisis.
Act I - Scene II 7
"Armed at point exactly, cap-à-pie..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
That is, dressed in armor from head to toe. Shakespeare went to a great deal of trouble in the first scene to establish that this is, indeed, dead King Hamlet's Ghost, and in so doing makes it easier for the audience to understand what's happening. If he had waited to introduce the Ghost until he spoke with Hamlet, we would've had to spent time awkwardly establishing his character, which would've taken away from the dramatic impact of the scene.
"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.
"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.
"things rank and gross in nature..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
In gardening terminology, "rank" things are low-lying vegetation like untended grasses mixed with overgrown weeds. "Gross" things are then tall, individual weeds like milkweeds that grow up in the middle of lawns or walkways. This phenomenon occurs in any untended garden and functions as a metaphor for Halmet's view of the world, in which the masses are "rank," while individuals like Claudius are "gross." Notice, too, how these lines deliberately break the patten of iambic pentameter and contain more than ten syllables, as if to suggest the tangled, disordered, and overgrown condition of a neglected nation or garden.
"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.
"dejected havior of the visage..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
The dejected behavior or the dejected expression of his face. In this passage, Hamlet refers to his black clothes, his heavy sighs ("windy suspiration"), and his tears, their "fruitful river" flowing in the wake of his father's death. His use of the word "fruitful" suggests that the tears are both plentiful and productive, meaning that his grief has a purpose and a meaning. Like many people, he believes that sorrow can teach him something about the world; we'll have to wait and see what that is.
"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.
Act I - Scene III 9
"mere implorators of unholy suits..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Essentially, Polonius has called Hamlet (and, by extension, any suitor) a wolf in sheep's clothing, not revealing his true intent (likely of a sexual nature) until he has thoroughly convinced Ophelia (and, by extension, any potential love interest or girlfriend) of his innocence. The word "implorators" is a portmanteau of "implore" and "orator," suggesting that Hamlet's great gift is his capacity for making great speeches, which he can use to his advantage against Ophelia.
"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.
"And that in way of caution..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Polonius leaves us to speculate about who, exactly, has reported to him about Ophelia's relationship with Hamlet. It's unlikely that he would've spoken to the King or Queen about it, and he hasn't spoken with Hamlet, which suggests that either he heard from another nobleman in the court or from a spy he's planted to keep tabs on his son and daughter. We won't learn the truth about this until later in the play.
"Give thy thoughts no tongue..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
This line closely parallels Hamlet's request that Horatio and the officers give their sightings of his father's ghost "an understanding, but no tongue." The two lines in concert lend themselves to an atmosphere of willful silence and of distrust, which solidifies the audience's suspicion that Elsinore isn't a safe place for Hamlet or for anyone who has reason to suspect the King and his guards.
"steep and thorny way to heaven..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Shakespeare makes an oblique Biblical reference to Matthew 7: 13-14: "Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way..." Shakespeare alters the description somewhat to make the way or path to heaven look more dangerous than it does in the Bible while maintaining the essence of the danger implied by the subsequent line in the Bible: "broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction."
"In thews and bulk..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
That is, the size and power of a man, as measured in his physical strength. Here Shakespeare employs an extended metaphor of the moon (in the words "crescent" and "waxing") to imply that nature itself has a cyclical pattern, and that though it often asserts in physical prowess, it can just as easily be found in the power of someone's mind. This is all to say that Ophelia shouldn't think of Hamlet too much, because this will naturally make her more interested, not less.
"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.
"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.
"[A room in the house of Polonius.]..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Given what happened in the last scene, the audience might reasonably expect the action to jump right to Hamlet meeting the Ghost, but Shakespeare instead provides a chronological account of the day, which emphasizes the point that Hamlet isn't the only important character in the play. This scene, like the one before it, establishes some of the key relationships in the royal court and holds our attention precisely because we're expecting the Ghost to appear. Shakespeare used this to his great advantage.
Act I - Scene IV 2
"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.
"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.
Act I - Scene V 4
"Swear..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Notice that, in spite of all this, Horatio and Marcellus never swear, at least not out loud. It's possible that in his state of agitation Hamlet didn't realize that they didn't swear, or that he believes they did simply because he's demanded it so many times, but, regardless, the two men haven't been bound to any oath, and it remains to be seen what they'll do with their relative freedom.
"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.
"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.
"with wings as swift As meditation..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Keep in mind that this is Act I, Scene V, and there are still four more acts in this play. Though Hamlet professes that his thoughts are swift, the audience knows from experience that he spends a lot of time brooding and that his meditations are in fact slow and measured. Curious that he would also call his "thoughts of love" swift, which would appear to give credence to Laertes' earlier assertion that Hamlet's interest in Ophelia is just a passing ("swift") fancy.
Act II - Scene II 8
"the spokes and fellies..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
"Fellies" are sections of a wheel's rims. Fortune was often depicted in art and literature as a woman who controlled fate by spinning an enormous wheel. In the play within the play, the character here performed wants to break the Wheel of Fortune in the hopes that this will destroy (or "take away") her power.
"As hush as death..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Shakespeare refers to the calm before the storm, or to the eye of the storm, where the winds die down and all appears to be calm, at least for the moment. These lines likens Pyrrhus' fury to a storm and gives the reader the impression that it's uncontrollable and that there can be no defense against it.
"senseless Ilium..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Ilium, another name for Troy and the source of the title of Homer's The Iliad. Here, Ilium begins to fall around Pyrrhus as he strikes at Priam, causing him to pause and listen. The word "senseless" directly contradicts the next line, in which the city seems to "feel" that Priam's hurt, which provides further evidence of Shakespeare's skill, in that he's able to alter his writing style to seem so comparatively terrible.
"to gather..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
“to gather/So much as from occasion you may glean”. The King’s request here bears a great deal of similarity to the exchange we just observed, in Act 2 Scene 1, between Polonius and Reynaldo. Just as Polonius asked Reynaldo to bring back information about Laertes, so the King asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to bring back information about Hamlet.
"moult no feather..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hamlet kindly allows his friends to keep their promise to the king and queen by not forcing them to tell him why they're spying on him. Instead, he tells them what he's already figured out, allowing their oath (here personified as a bird) to remain intact without molting or losing a feather.
"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.
"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.
"This business is well ended..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Note that this "business" with Norway and Fortinbras has been over for the audience since Act I, Scene V, when the Ghost revealed that he wasn't here to talk about an upcoming war. Shakespeare used the threat of war to pique the audience's interest but then resolved the conflict once they were emotionally invested in the true subject of the play: Hamlet's madness and revenge.
Act III - Scene I 7
"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.
"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.
"what monsters you make of them..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Here, Hamlet uses the plural "you" to refer to all women, who make men into "monsters" or cuckolds (men whose wives have cheated on them) in the end. Hamlet may also be speaking metaphorically, saying that women make men into monsters or terrible people with their dishonest ways and their deceptive beauty. Given the time period, it's likely that all the other male characters in the play share the same beliefs.
"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.
"No traveller returns..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Shakespeare uses a familiar metaphor of death or the afterlife as a place that people can travel to, and from which no traveler returns. Many writers have written of this "undiscover'd country," including most notable Dante in his Inferno, in which the narrator travels through the underworld, guided by the Roman poet Virgil.
"fardels bear..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Bear a burden, where "fardels" means bundles, parcels, or baggage (of the literal and emotional kind). Hamlet answers his question with another question, asking if anyone would bother to work so hard or grunt and sweat if they weren't afraid of what would happen to them after they die.
"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.
Act III - Scene II 8
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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).
"let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
In other words, let a pompous or pretentious person sugarcoat whatever they want. Recall that Polonius expressed much the same sentiment in Act III, Scene I, when he said that words could "sugar o'er" the Devil himself. This repetition draws an uncomfortable parallel between Hamlet and Polonius, who are each, after all, trying to maneuver against the other.
"Suit the action to the word..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
This line doubles as Shakespeare's own thoughts about acting and playwriting: that the words are more important, and that the actions should be suited to them, not the other way around. This gives precedence to what the writer intended rather than to the actor's interpretation, which suggests that everything you need to understand the play is right here on the page.
"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.
Act III - Scene III 3
"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.
"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.
"With all the strength and armour of the mind..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Rosencrantz inverts a sentiment expressed by Hamlet in his "To be, or not to be?" soliloquy in Act III, Scene I: that it's nobler in the mind to suffer in silence. Rosencrantz instead says that we shouldn't suffer and that we're bound to rid ourselves of any annoyances ("noyance") like Hamlet and his madness.
Act III - Scene IV 8
"When in one line two crafts directly meet..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Hamlet means that it's particularly gratifying when two plans at cross-purposes meet and only one is successful. On a metafictional level, Shakespeare uses this line to speak to the joys of verse dramas, in which two major "crafts" or plot lines can meet in a single line of poetry.
"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.
"That not your trespass but my madness speaks..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
In other words, don't think that I'm mad when really it's your fault that this happened. It would be a lie (or "flattering unction") to believe that Gertrude's marriage to Claudius (her "trespass") hasn't had any effect on what's happening. What follows is an extended metaphor about wounds, unctions (anointing oils or medicines), and infections.
"And makes as healthful music..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Hamlet puns on the idea of a heartbeat as music, suggesting that a healthy or normal heart "keeps time" like an instrument maintaining a rhythm. He insists that he isn't mad at all and that his pulse is completely normal (which is unlikely considering how angry he's been with Gertrude throughout this scene).
"—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.
"Since frost itself as actively doth burn..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Like fire, frost or snow burns to the touch, because it's so cold that it hurts. Hamlet tells Gertrude not to be ashamed of desire or the loss of virtue, because being virtuous (or cold) burns just as terribly, as we see with Ophelia. Likely, Hamlet says this to console his mother and try to get her to confess.
"apoplex'd..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Meaning, suffering from apoplexy, a debilitating illness that arrests or halts sense and motion. Hamlet has punned on the word "sense," first saying that Gertrude must have her senses in tact, otherwise she wouldn't be able to move, then saying that her senses have been apoplex'd, meaning that she doesn't have good sense or faculties of reasoning.
"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.
Act IV - Scene II 2
"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.
"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 V 4
"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.
"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.
"they come not single spies..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
It's funny that Claudius would say this, given just how many spies he's enlisted to keep tabs on Hamlet. In addition to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he's used Polonius, Gertrude, Ophelia, and of course himself, which makes a small battalion of "sorrows" for Hamlet, who's been stripped of all his dearest relationships because of it.
Act IV - Scene VI 1
"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 14
"an envious sliver broke,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Most likely, this sliver or branch is envious of the higher branches, which receives garlands that the sliver itself doesn't. This sliver may also be envious of Ophelia herself, who, before she went mad, was extremely beautiful, innocent, and pure (enough so that even nature would be jealous of her beauty).
"like a spendthrift sigh, That hurts by easing..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
In Hamlet's time, sighs were thought to cause injury by drawing heart from the blood. Thus, a spendthrift (or wasteful) sigh needlessly hurts and makes the idea that we "should" have done something we didn't end up doing especially painful, because it's both physically and psychologically injurious.
"Time qualifies the spark and fire of it...." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
In general, to "qualify" something means to describe it or to attribute a certain quality to it. In this case, that quality is brevity or, in other words, the capacity to fade like a flame over time. Claudius uses the metaphor of a candle with a wick to mark an exact beginning and end to love, thus making it possible for Laertes to stop loving his father in a natural way and through no fault of his own.
"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 brooch indeed..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
A "brooch" is an ornamental piece of jewelry fasted by a pin, with the brooch itself usually taking the shape or a ring, a shield, or whatever the artist desires. Brooches are typically jewel encrusted and appear to be large clusters of gems, making Lamond the jeweled brooch fastened to the lapel of his country's jacket.
"incorpsed and demi-natured..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
"Incorpsed" means to have been made into a body, where "corpse" is a body, but in this case not a dead one. "Demi-natured" means to be double natured, where "demi" means half. In this case, the French gentleman has been made into a new creature, half man, half horse, not unlike a centaur.
"this gallant..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
As an adjective, "gallant" describes someone who's brave, courteous, and often showy. In its noun form, it stands in for that person, who in this case would be considered a gentleman or a noble. Here, Claudius uses the word "gallant" to indicate that the gentleman and his horse are as one, and that the creature they form is brave (preternaturally so, given that it has "witchcraft" in it).
"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.
"That I might be the organ...." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Here "organ" means "instrument," in the sense that Laertes wants to be the instrument in Claudius' plan to kill Hamlet. Though he's asking for the opportunity, it should be noted that Claudius has manipulated him into doing so, and that in reality Laertes has already been "played" like an instrument in a way that Hamlet can't be.
"It warms the very sickness in my heart..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Note that Laertes doesn't say that Hamlet's return warms his heart, but rather that it warm the sickness in his heart, which we can here assume to be his hatred and thirst for revenge. The knowledge that Hamlet will return has spurred him on and "warmed" (or heightened) his desire to kill Hamlet.
"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.
"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.
"Too slightly timber'd for so loud a wind,..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Claudius uses an extended archery metaphor to refer to his intended punishment for Hamlet as arrows which are made of too weak a wood ("slightly timber'd") to stand up to such a "loud" wind as the public's love. He claims that their love for Hamlet would've turned the wind against him, reversing the arrow's course and sending it back to its bow (and, therefore, to Claudius himself).
Act V - Scene I 12
"Cudgel thy brains no more about it..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
This insult underpins the main action of the scene so far: the clowns mock death as they dig graves in order to push thoughts of mortality away. The Second Clown cannot think of the answer to this riddle, even though he is in the process of digging graves, because his mind suspends thoughts of his own death.
" Lay her i' the earth; And from her fair and unpolluted flesh May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,(235) A ministering angel shall my sister be When thou liest howling..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
While the Priest refuses to say Christian burial rites for Ophelia because she appears to have committed suicide, Laertes is indignant, insisting that his sister's purity will turn her into an angel. A "ministering angel" is one thought to help individuals find salvation. With this rhetoric, Laertes swaps Ophelia and the Priest's roles: Ophelia will become an angel and save souls while the Priest howls in hell as punishment for his sins on earth. Ironically, this outburst of emotion calls attention to the reality that Ophelia would be the one "howling" in hell because of her suicide.
"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.
"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.
"Might stop a hole to keep the wind away..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Notice that Hamlet picks up an AABB rhyme scheme in these lines, making these lines seem sing-songy and immature by comparison. He appears to be doing this to make fun of Horatio, who criticized him for thinking too much about death. By speaking in such melodic, rhyming couplets, he attempts to appear logical and precise even as he speaks with a kind of manic intensity.
"let her paint an inch thick..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Recall that in Act III, Scene I, Hamlet chided Ophelia in particular and women in general for using "paint" or makeup to attract men. He says it in such a way that makeup becomes in itself a "face" that hides the real one underneath, making the "paint" a kind of performance. Thus, this line reads, "You can pretend all you want, but no matter how much makeup you wear, you're still going to die."
"the age is(135) grown so picked..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Hamlet has noticed a trend in the last few years of noblemen losing their riches and becoming almost as poor in the peasants. It's unclear whether he means this in a literal sense (as in financial distress) or a spiritual sense (as in being morally and emotionally bankrupt). Either way, the age feels "picked" because all of the goodness and wealth seems to have been taken out of Denmark.
"Is this the fine of his fines..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Hamlet puns on the French "fin," meaning end, and the English "fine," meaning in this context either a fine he exacts on his tenants as a great landowner or his fine qualities as a man, which are no longer relevant now that he's dead. Hamlet has already made this point several times, and that he continues to do so implies that he's having a hard time wrapping his head around it (perhaps because he's afraid).
"and now my Lady Worm's, chapless, and knock'd about the mazard with a sexton's spade..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Shakespeare's use of the conjunction "and" indicates that Hamlet has picked up another skull, which he assumes to be a woman's, and which appears to have a worm inside it. The skull itself is "chapless" (has lost its jaw) and has been knocked on the head ("mazard") by a spade or shovel belonging to an officer of the parish ("sexton"). This is all to say that the bones of a noblewoman lose some of their grace once they're buried.
"and unyoke..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
To "unyoke" means to relieve one's self of one's yoke or burden. In the context of this scene, that burden means his shovels and digging tools, with which the Second Clown will help dig Ophelia's grave. Shakespeare uses this command like stage direction to inform the Second Clown and the audience alike of where Ophelia will be buried.
"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.
"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.
Act V - Scene II 12
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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 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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.