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Themes in Hamlet
The Futility of Revenge: At first glance, Hamlet may look like a traditional revenge play. Hamlet seeks revenge against Claudius for killing his father and marrying his mother; Laertes wants revenge for his own father’s death; Fortinbras, for the land his father lost. However, the straightforward concept of revenge is complicated by considering each character’s eventual fate. Though he does kill Claudius, Hamlet’s indecision indirectly causes not only his own demise but also the deaths of many close to him; Laertes is sidetracked by Hamlet and eventually slain by him. Out of the three, only Fortinbras survives the play, having won back his father’s lands due to quick action and perfect timing. Both Laertes and Hamlet, motivated by retaliation, achieve their goals but do not live long enough to bask in their triumphs.
The Merits of Decisive Action vs. Considered Contemplation: Much of the play revolves around Hamlet’s inner struggle about whether or not to act on his desire for revenge. Action versus inaction, or the question of whether acting on our emotions is valid or useless, thus becomes another important theme. Hamlet waits for proof of Claudius’s wrongdoing before punishing him for it, though his father’s ghost does provide compelling evidence. Further, characters’ plots for revenge often fail to work or to award the satisfaction imagined whether carefully considered (Hamlet) or brash (Laertes).
Insanity vs. Reality: This theme is complicated by characters’ physical appearances often being linked with reality and consequently using appearance for lies and deceit. Characters deceive one another in their plots for revenge, often allowing lies and appearances to govern their decisions. This is most prevalent in Hamlet’s frequent changing of clothes and the sighting of his father’s ghost. Both Hamlet and the audience question his mental state, wondering if the ghost was a projection of Hamlet’s troubled mind. Just as the audience must decipher between the real and the unreal, they must also figure out whether or not characters are truly insane, or merely feigning madness, and what “insanity” really means in the first place.
Themes Examples in Hamlet:
Act I - Scene I
"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.
"divide the Sunday from the week..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Marcellus has witnessed some military preparations (such as cannon fire, arms purchases, and increased shipbuilding) that suggest that the country's readying to go to war. Preparations are so intent, in fact, that the shipbuilders have been working non-stop, without taking (or in this case "dividing") Sunday as a day of rest separate from the work week. This doesn't bode well for the future, and establishes the theme of inner turmoil that will develop throughout the play.
"struck twelve..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Midnight has been long associated with ghosts, the time when magic is said to be at its most powerful and ghosts, demons, and witches are active. Because of these associations with the supernatural, midnight later became known as the "witching hour," a term first used in print by the American author Washington Irving in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in 1820.
Act I - Scene II
"Frailty, thy name is woman..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
In Renaissance England, as in classical Greek and Roman tragedies, women were believed to be inexhaustible in matters of sex and the heart, which in turn led to much strife (see: the Trojan War) and a sharp divide between the sexes. Hamlet's assertion here (that by their nature women are essentially frail and unfaithful) would've been common in Shakespeare's time, though it appears sexist and simplistic from a modern perspective.
The "[c]onventional wisdom in Renaissance England conformend to the attitude (which can be traced as far back as classical Greek and Rome) that women unlike men, had an inexhaustible capacity for sexual pleasure." Henderson, Katherine Usher and Barbara F. McManus. Half Human Kind: Contexts and Texts of the Contoversy about Women in England 1540-1540. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1985. p.56.
"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.
"'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.
"actions that a man might play..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Hamlet refers to his mourning clothes and his fruitful tears as actions that he can play, meaning, the performance of sorrow rather than the sorrow itself. In this, Shakespeare plays on the fact of this being a tragedy performed in a theatre and emphasizes the difference between pretending to be something and actually being it. This question of performativity will continue throughout the play and become one of Hamlet's primary concerns.
Act I - Scene III
"with a larger tether may he walk..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
This line has two significant meanings. One, that Ophelia might expect Hamlet to be faithful ("tethered" to her), but that doesn't necessarily mean that he will or that he won't stray (with a larger tether). Two, it speaks to the different levels of freedom afforded to men, who can walk freer (on a larger tether) than a woman in the Middle Ages can. As a nobleman, Polonius would've seen this behavior in the court and would take measures to prevent his daughter from falling victim to it.
"Set your entreatments at a higher rate..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
"To entreat" means to beg or beseech or to enter into a negotiation, often of a financial nature. Here, Polonius uses it to mean both that Ophelia shouldn't beg for attention and that she should set her standards higher in her dealings with Hamlet. Thus far, she has allowed him a lot of leeway, as the Prince, to visit her and make proclamations which he may or may not mean or hold to in the near future. In that sense, Polonius is trying to protect Ophelia from the very real possibility of being jilted.
"extinct in both..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
To Polonius, Hamlet's love for Ophelia will unquestionable fade, rendering it in effect dead ("extinct") on arrival, having no real aim or intent other than to distract the Prince from his ruminations. His metaphor about light and heat builds on the notion of passion as a fire or flame and takes inspiration from the physics of fire, in which the thing aflame will inevitably be consumed.
"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.
"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.
Act I - Scene IV
"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
An iconic line, it's come to mean that there's inner turmoil in Denmark. The singular "something" may refer to a single person or "thing" (the Ghost, King Claudius, Hamlet himself) or to an abstract concept like a nation, a custom, or a relationship (between Hamlet and one or more characters, for instance). Marcellus delivers the line with both trepidation, in that he's worried for the future, and curiosity, which makes him follow Hamlet and the Ghost.
"Be ruled..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
This brief command, inappropriate for a nobleman to give a prince, sums up the throne's and, by extension, the nation's position: it wants Hamlet to be "ruled," that is, to allow himself to be controlled, both by outside forces (the officers, not quite his friends) and by his own sense of reason. Logically speaking, it's unwise for Hamlet, the Prince, to disappear with the Ghost, a potential demon, and as the Prince he would know how dangerous this is. And yet he does it anyway.
"a questionable shape..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
If the Ghost had appeared in any other shape or form, Hamlet implies, then he wouldn't feel the need to speak with it, but since it has come in the face of his dead father, he's willing to risk it. Here, the word "questionable" means both to be of uncertain origin and to be worthy of further questioning. Hamlet suspects that this Ghost might not have his best intentions at heart, and that it may not even be his father, further developing the theme of deceit in the play.
Act I - Scene V
"To put an antic disposition..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Hamlet reveals something of his plan in this line. Madness or the appearance of madness has already been established in the play through the acts of grieving, which accounts for Hamlet's strange, unsettling behavior. Hamlet will play on this established aspect of his character in enacting his revenge. But madness, like evil, can corrupt a person, and it remains to be seen if in enacting madness he won't himself become mad.
"truepenny..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
A trustworthy or honest person, likened to a coin made of genuine metal, not a counterfeit. Shakespeare again builds on the theme of money established in Act I, Scene III, when Polonius spoke of Hamlet's "tenders" or affections as coin or "sterling." The parallel here is telling: Hamlet's father, the dead King, is a truepenny, while Hamlet himself, the Prince, is not.
"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.
"wild and whirling words..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Hamlet's behavior has become erratic, in the wake of meeting with the Ghost, and he's either incapable or unwilling to respond directly to Horatio's questions. Horatio, for his part, recognizes this and to an extent understands it, because he too was afraid of the Ghost. Nevertheless, he's concerned for the Prince, because if Horatio can see it, so can everyone else (including the King).
"That youth and observation copied there..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
In order to carry out his father's wishes, Hamlet has to rid himself of all his memories ("records") of the past, in effect erasing himself and all the knowledge he's accumulated at university. He's determined to do this out of fealty to his father, but if he were to instead make use of what he's learned at school, he might be able to find some alternate solution to this problem.
"posset And curd..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Posset, meaning to curd or to curdle, as milk curdles when it sours. This suggests a thickening of the blood, a clumping of blood cells in the arteries, or "alleys," of the body. Such prolonged thickening of the blood can lead to blood clots and strained blood flow, all of which can be symptoms of poisoning and cause heart failure or death. In Hamlet's time, it would've been very difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of these symptoms.
"And prey on garbage..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
In this construction, Claudius would be the "predator" and Gertrude the "prey," making her "garbage" in King Hamlet's eyes. While there's some debate as to whether or not Gertrude was involved in Claudius' plot, the text doesn't seem to care whether she was or she wasn't, condemning her outright for not remaining faithful to King Hamlet's memory. This is a particularly gendered condemnation and says a lot about Shakespeare's views on women.
"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).
"Thy knotted and combined locks to part..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
From this, we can assume that Hamlet, still in mourning over his father's death, hasn't been taking care of his appearance, except to make a point of wearing black. Mourners in this time were known to "rend" or pull their hair as they grieved, and it's possible that Hamlet has been tormenting himself this way for the past several weeks and months, growing progressively paler, thinner, and madder as he goes.
"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.
Act II - Scene II
"O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
With this famous quote, Hamlet moves the space, Denmark, into his mind; it metaphorically ceases to be a place and instead becomes a state of mind. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can only fathom that Hamlet is upset for tangible, shallow reasons, like his uncle's rise to power or a problem with the physical space he is in, Hamlet demonstrates one of the plays main themes by using the tangible to explore his psychological interior. The kingdom, Kingship, prison, and paradise are all merely ideas that are effected by changes within the mind.
"by heaven and hell..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hamlet feels that killing Claudius would be righteous, because the king has already committed the mortal sin of killing his own brother. At the same time, murdering Claudius would itself be a mortal sin, so Hamlet's torn between heaven and hell, that is, between doing something good and something that might also be evil.
"Could force his soul so to his own conceit..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
In other words, that Hamlet, in playing this role of madness, could force himself to behave this way for the sake of his plan and at the detriment of his self or his soul. He's worried about the damage that this performance has already done to him and fears that faking madness may itself lead to madness.
"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.
"an honest method..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Recall Polonius' line from earlier in this scene: "Though this be madness, there is method in it." In these lines, "method" refers to a style or an approach that suggests an inherent or underlying logic to the performance: as the playwright creates an honest and straightforward play, so Hamlet creates or "performs" his madness as an actor would on the stage.
"they say an old man is twice a child..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
The old man here is Polonius. He's "twice a child" because old age makes men into babies in need of care, coddling, and (in some cases) changing. This doesn't mean, however, that an old man becomes innocent again or that his mind necessarily goes; Polonius' certainly hasn't.
"When the wind is southerly..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Some scholars suggest that this line refers to a hunter looking up at a hawk that's easily visible when flying from the south (with the sun at its side) but not from the north-north-west, in direct line with the sun. In other words, Hamlet is only mad in certain lights and at specific times of day, but otherwise, he's perfectly sane.
"should more appear like entertainment..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
In other words, Hamlet doesn't want to make a scene by not seeing to his princely duties (as a host) or being rude to his guests. His use of the word "garb" suggests that this politeness is in fact a costume and that Hamlet feels that his role as the prince is a performance that he puts on for other people's benefit, not unlike an actor.
"to make them exclaim against their own succession..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Hamlet points out that youth is temporary and that it seems foolish to train children to become actors if, by the time they're trained, they're too old to get any of the parts written by the playwrights focused on writing parts for children. In this way, Shakespeare comments on our unhealthy obsession with youth and its negative effect on the entertainment industry.
"On Fortune's cap we are not the very button..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
That is, that they're not the luckiest men ("the very button," or the top) and that Fortune isn't paying very much attention to them. As if often happens in Shakespeare's play, Fortune is fickle, and someone who's highly favored one day is likely to fall from grace the next. Better to be in the middle, Guildenstern says.
Act III - Scene I
"and you make yourselves another..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
In other words, Ophelia has used makeup to make herself a "new" face unlike the one God gave her at birth. Metaphorically speaking, this new face is a kind of performance, and Hamlet looks down on it as a kind of purposeless deceit that has no real cause other than to catch and deceive a man. He doesn't think nearly so critically of his own performance, of course, which makes this judgment somewhat hypocritical.
"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.
"inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
"Our old stock" should be here understood as sin, which we all carry with us as if it's our heritage. Hamlet believes that virtue can't erase this weight or stock of sin, and that regardless of whether or not he intended to love Ophelia, all he really wanted was to "relish" his sins, or in other words to have sex with her.
"from what it is to a bawd..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
A "bawd" is someone who trades in the sex industry, as for instance a pimp or a madam of a whorehouse. Hamlet thinks that beauty will sooner make such a bawd honest than make beauty itself honest. In other words, he doesn't think beautiful people are necessarily good or honest people and is questioning whether Ophelia is really worth his love.
"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.
"That makes calamity of so long life..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Death's uncertainty rightly gives Hamlet pause and forces him both to rethink death and treat it with respect (or caution). This caution toward and fear of death makes life into a "calamity" or a disastrous misery and makes many people avoid committing sins for fear of the afterlife and what it has in store for them.
"Ay, there's the rub..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
In bowling, "rub" is a term and refers to anything that gets in the way or slows down the ball (by rubbing its surface the wrong way). In this context, "rub" means the most problematic thing or the problem with his otherwise perfect theories about death. If death isn't really what he wants, then his revenge plan could end horribly for him.
"To sleep—perchance to dream..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
"Perchance" means perhaps or possibly, whereas "dream" has been defined in Hamlet's conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as "ambition." Thus, this line reads that sleep (or death) might just be a dream (or an ambition), and that it might not be as peaceful or as easy as he hopes.
"That flesh is heir to..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
In Christian theology, humans are born with original sin, that is, the residual guilt of Eve eating the apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. Thus, we become her "heirs," and our flesh is subject to that sin and to the thousand "natural shocks" or painful experiences that we all experience in our lifetimes.
"we do sugar o'er..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Polonius admits that they're sugarcoating "the Devil himself" or rather their devilish actions. This suggests that Polonius knows that spying on Hamlet is wrong, but that he does it anyway because he wants to and because this sugaring over is second nature to him.
"That show of such an exercise..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
In this context, a devotional exercise, as from a religious book which Ophelia has here been instructed to read. Notice that Polonius uses the word "show" to reinforce that this is a performance. Her loneliness, then, is twofold: she's technically alone and also spiritually lonely, because she's faking her connection with God and has ruined her relationship with Hamlet.
Act III - Scene II
"It is as easy as lying..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Here we discover the true meaning of Hamlet misunderstanding Guildenstern's love and duty: he knows Guildenstern has been lying and doesn't understand why he's trying to be friends when Hamlet's treating him (rightfully) like an enemy. Hamlet thinks that playing the recorder should be as easy as lying for Guildenstern. That is, it should come naturally.
"bar the door upon your own liberty..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Rosencrantz thinks that by closing himself off to people, Hamlet has made it impossible for him speak at liberty with anyone (and also, it seems, to move freely around the castle without being watched). This line directly relates to Hamlet's line about how his soul "sealed thee for herself" and to the theme of imprisonment built throughout the play.
"put him to his purgation..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
In other words, to exonerate him of any crime, or to put him through a kind of purgatory where he will answer for his sins. Hamlet suggests that telling Claudius he's being choleric (or even suggesting this to a doctor) would only anger him further and that Guildenstern should be careful (rely on "[his] wisdom") when he tells anyone about this.
"you mark his favorite flies..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
To "mark" in those context means to note the dead man's favorite "flies," or people who seems most to hover around his dead body (presumably with the purpose of stealing away some of his wealth). This speaks uncomfortably to the funeral proceedings and marriage that followed King Hamlet's death, wherein Claudius and the nobles alike took advantage of the king's death.
"To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
When we forget the decisions we've made or change our minds, it's important that we don't regret this forgetting or think that we owe it to ourselves (or "pay ourselves" that debt) to follow through with our original plans. Instead, we should let sleeping dogs lie.
"base respects of thrift, but none of love..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
The Player Queen thinks that second marriages are never made out of love, but rather as a means of reestablishing financial security after the first husband's death. She says that marrying again would be like killing her husband twice, because it would be an insult to their love and his memory.
"None wed the second but who killed the first..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
The Player Queen's husband has told her to remarry after he dies so she can be happy and beloved. The Player Queen refuses, saying that only women who kill their first husbands marry again. This line directly condemns Gertrude for remarrying and suggests that she may have had something to do with the murder plot.
"he'll not shame to tell you..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet turns Ophelia's innocent question about the play's meaning into another sexual innuendo, suggesting that the player will gladly tell Ophelia the meaning of any show, including any suggestive show they might want to engage in together. Ophelia, of course, doesn't like this suggestion and calls Hamlet "naughty" because of it.
"I will pay the theft..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
If Claudius manages to hide (or "steal" away) his guilt, Horatio will pay for it ("the theft"). In other words, watching the King during the play is very dangerous, and if they aren't right, then Horatio's going to be in trouble. He's willing to do so for Hamlet, but isn't so foolish as to think it's without risk.
"Do not itself unkennel..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
"Unkennel" means to unleash (as if from a kennel) and derives from a hunting term for driving a fox out of its hole. Hamlet suspects that if Claudius truly is guilty, then whatever he's hiding will be evident on his face, and he'll know for sure whether the Ghost was really his father or was just a demon trying to lead him astray.
"That no revenue hast..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
In this context, "revenue" refers to wealth or income. Hamlet implies that Horatio, despite being an officer, has no money, and as a poor man has nothing to his name but his good spirits. In an earlier scene, Hamlet equated poor men with honest men, so even though Hamlet seems critical, he's actually praising Horatio.
"to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Hamlet claims that the whole point of acting or putting on a show is to reveal something about human nature (or to hold it up to a mirror). This emphasizes the complexity of human interactions and the psychological depth of Shakespeare's characters, who can be held up to a mirror without appearing flat or one-dimensional.
"beget a temperance that may give it smoothness..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
We can assume from these lines that Hamlet isn't just speaking about the actor's performance, but also about his own, and that he believes that his acting has the temperance and the smoothness he demands here. This may be arrogance on his part, or it may be his survival mechanism.
"The Mousetrap..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Perhaps even more telling than the actual content of the play is this title, The Mousetrap, which perfectly describes Hamlet's plan: he's going to catch Claudius, the mouse, with this play, the trap he set to make the king feel guilty. However, like a mousetrap, it can backfire, and Hamlet must be careful that it doesn't catch the wrong person.
Act III - Scene III
"This physic but prolongs thy sickly days..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
A "physic" refers not to a physician but to a medicine. The "medicine" Hamlet speaks of is Claudius' continued existence, which prolongs his mother's sickness (incestuousness in marrying her brother-in-law). In other words, Hamlet is giving his mother her medicine, and he isn't going to feel bad about it. He's waiting for the perfect moment to kill Claudius.
"this is hire and salary..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
In one sense, this line means Claudius should be held accountable for his crimes, because as a villain he hasn't yet been repaid in kind for his sins. In another sense, Hamlet has been hired by the Ghost to avenge his death, and thus this revenge isn't so much for Hamlet as it is for his father. Thus, Hamlet becomes a mercenary, hired to do a job and paid a salary for his services (in the form of becoming king).
"My fault is past..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Notice that Claudius wants to claim the benefits of prayer (absolving one sin and stopping someone before they commit another) without actually praying. He's trying to rationalize his behavior to soothe his conscience, telling himself that what's done is done, but the fact that he feels the need to do this proves that his guilt will not be so easily assuaged.
"And both neglect..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Claudius says he can't pray because he feels guilty, and he can't fully feel guilty because he knows he wants to pray and absolve his sins (proving that he still has some good in him). However, by neglecting both his guilt and his desire to pray he places himself in an even worse position where his failure to pray is as damning as his guilt.
"we will fetters put upon this fear..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
"Fetters" are chains or shackles meant to hold or imprison someone. It's unclear whether "this fear" refers to Hamlet or his madness, which can in itself be figured as a "fear" or a "fright" in the sense of it being a kind of monstrous enemy. More likely, Claudius think of the fear as Hamlet, whom Claudius thinks has been allowed to walk too freely.
"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.
"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
"for leave to do him good..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Notice that Hamlet still believes he's in the right, despite having killed Polonius without first knowing it was him. In this construction, Hamlet is the virtuous one asking the sinful one (Gertrude, specifically, but also Claudius) for enough freedom to address their sins by avenging his father's murder. He will continue to think of this vengeance as a righteous act.
"Would gambol from..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
A "gambol" in general means a leap made by a horse but in this context refers to a caper or bit of spirited movement, particularly from an actor or player on the stage. Hamlet doesn't directly tell Gertrude that he's been feigning madness here, but it's clear from this line that he intends to prove his sanity (if not tell her his whole plan).
"Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
In Hamlet's time, women were considered the weaker sex, and thus susceptible to persuasion and outside influence. The word "conceit" here means an idea or thought that the Ghost wants Hamlet to feed to Gertrude, because if it comes from him (a well-educated man) it's supposed to work well on her (a "weak" woman).
"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.
"for madness would not err..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
Hamlet thinks madness wouldn't "err" or stray from its intentions, but instead stick doggedly to its course. He knows this from experience, having portrayed the part of the mad man for the last two acts of the play. It's important to note, however, that while Hamlet has spent the last acts waffling and taking advantages of opportunities that came to him, rather than creating them for himself. This alone proves he's not mad.
"With tristful visage..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
A "visage" or face appears "tristful" when it's sad or feeling dreary. In this case, the visage belongs to Hamlet, whose entire body ("solidity and compound mass") feels the effects of the terrible act of murder. Hamlet in this case refers to the murder of his father, King Hamlet, but may also be speaking more generally about murder itself, which leaves him upset ("thought-sick").
"As false as dicers' oaths..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
"Dicers" in this context are gamblers whose oaths mean nothing, because they're bluffs without any substance. Hamlet has essentially given a laundry list of ways that murder can destroy beautiful things: the modest become immodest, the virtuous lie, the innocent grow up and get sick, and sacred vows become worthless. One could argue that Hamlet's being overdramatic here.
"I'll set those to you that can speak..." See in text (Act III - Scene IV)
As queen, Gertrude relies on her marriage to Claudius for her power, making her technically no more powerful than Hamlet, whose power also comes from his relation to the king. Since Hamlet doesn't think much of her power, Gertrude threatens to send someone in who can wield their power over him (in this case likely not the king but guards who can fight him).
Act IV - Scene II
"Hide fox, and all after..." See in text (Act IV - Scene II)
This is a phrase from a children's game similar to hide-and-seek. The "fox" hides and all other children chase after in pursuit. Hamlet uses this line to suggest that he didn't kill Polonius on purpose, but rather thought it was a game. Accordingly, within the game, Polonius isn't dead but rather just hiding. Hamlet of course knows perfectly well what he did and is just feigning madness so he isn't thrown in jail.
Act IV - Scene III
"seek him i' the other place yourself..." See in text (Act IV - Scene III)
Though it appears at first that Hamlet's referring to Hell here, he's most likely speaking of Purgatory, where one has the opportunity to pay for one's sin and handle any unfinished business before one can go to Heaven. Hamlet politely suggests that Claudius might go up to Heaven and "nose" or brush Polonius on the stairway, but probably thinks that Claudius will be going to Hell.
"and we fat ourselves for maggots...." See in text (Act IV - Scene III)
When we're dead and buried, maggots consume our bodies. Hamlet says that we "fat ourselves" in life both for and in spite of these maggots, knowing that they're coming but also wanting to enjoy the pleasures of life while we fat our livestock. It's a circle of life in which kings and beggars are both reduced to meals and in some ways feed off each other.
Act IV - Scene IV
"My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth..." See in text (Act IV - Scene IV)
Hamlet has talked himself into pursuing his revenge by any means necessary, regardless of who dies in the process. We know that he intends to kill Claudius, and it seems likely, from this line, that more will die, and he won't mind this happening.
"Even for an eggshell..." See in text (Act IV - Scene IV)
This "eggshell" refers to the small piece of land which Fortinbras has decided to "conquer," even though the Poles have no real intention of defending it, because it's worthless. He sees a certain nobility in this futile march, which Fortinbras leads not out of anger but ambition. Hamlet respects this and wishes he too could be great.
"To fust in us unused..." See in text (Act IV - Scene IV)
To "fust" means to become moldy or smelly, in this case out of disuse. Hamlet says that God gave us our intelligence for a reason and that we shouldn't waste His gift and act like unintelligent beasts who do nothing but eat and sleep. Being human means being a thinking being to him, which is not so far from Descartes famous saying, "I think, therefore I am."
Act IV - Scene V
"paid with weight..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
Another way of saying "payback" or revenge. Laertes intends to kill whoever murdered his father and drove his sister mad. In this case, that murder is figured as "weight" or as a dead body that can then be placed on one side of the scale to balance it or tip it downward ("turn the beam").
"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.
"By his cockle hat and staff..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
A "cockle" is a bivalve like a mussel or a scallop whose shell is sewn onto the hats of pilgrims traveling to St. James of Compostella. This song compares the pilgrim to a man whose "true love" is so pure that it must be compared to the pilgrim's love of God in order to be put into perspective.
"Yet the unshaped use of it doth move(10) The hearers..." See in text (Act IV - Scene V)
Polonius' death has driven Ophelia slightly mad, and she's becoming paranoid and unpredictable. Though "her speech is nothing," or mad and meaningless, there's something in the way she speaks that gives other people pause (or "moves" them to collection). In her ravings, people find their own suspicions confirmed and draw conclusions Ophelia herself hasn't.
"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
"When these are gone, The woman will be out...." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
"These" are Laertes' tears, which he's tried and failed not to shed. He's ashamed of crying, because he thinks that makes him weak or feminine, like Ophelia, who had too much water (or cried too much). When he's finished crying, he says, he won't be "feminine" anymore, and then the fire in his words will be put into action. Note that this is the weakest we'll ever see Laertes.
"our drift look through our bad performance..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Modern readers will likely recognize the term "drift" from the phrase, "Do you catch my drift?" In this case, "drift" means intent or meaning, and Claudius' intent is to kill Hamlet but make it look like an accident. To do that, both Claudius and Laertes must perform, like actors, the same way Hamlet has performed his madness. If not, they'll be found out and will need a back-up plan.
"Revenge should have no bounds..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Claudius thinks revenge should have "no bounds," meaning no limits on where it can be exacted, regardless of whether or not that place is a sanctuary. Thus, Laertes can slit Hamlet's throat in a church without reproach (from Claudius, at least). This kind of revenge further highlights the differences between Laertes and Hamlet, who refrained from killing Claudius in a church because it's inappropriate.
"But to the quick o' the ulcer..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
An "ulcer" is a hole in the stomach lining, which has been eaten away by an excess of acid, typically caused by worry and stress. He calls Hamlet "the quick" or cause of the ulcer, backhandedly denigrating him while also admitting that he has caused Claudius stress. The use of the conjunction "but" at the beginning of the sentence functions to change the subject from disease to Hamlet.
"Yet needful too..." See in text (Act IV - Scene VII)
Claudius says that Laertes' greatest strength is his youth. Or, rather, his kind of youth, which doesn't sacrifice ambition (being "needful") to the light and careless livery (garb or disguise) that youth so often wears. Hamlet would be jealous of this because his youth has been spent studying, being dull and serious and lacking in any ambition (that others know of, at least).
Act V - Scene I
"Alas, poor Yorick!..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
One of the most famous moments in Shakespearian tragedy, Hamlet takes this encounter with Yorick's skull to contemplate fate and mortality — inescapable for kings and court jesters alike. Hamlet is disturbed by how the rotting skull contradicts the happy memories he has of Yorick. Critics have also noted that Yorick seems to be a surrogate father figure for Hamlet. Therefore, this moment serves as a reminder to Hamlet of his own immanent demise and the ephemerality of all things.
"When that her golden couplets are disclosed..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
In this context, we should read "disclosed" as "hatched" or opened, as when the dove's chicks hatch from the egg and reveal their fluffy yellow (golden) feathers. Gertrude asks to be as patient as the dove he waits for her children to be born, suggesting that she herself has to wait until her son Hamlet returns, or is born again. He has become such a different person in the course of the play that she hardly feels she knows him anymore.
"on that cursed head..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Laertes thinks that this cursed head is Hamlet, but he doesn't have all the information. Had Claudius and Polonius refrained from spying on Hamlet, and had Claudius not killed King Hamlet in the first place, Hamlet would've had no reason to kill Polonius. Hamlet may have been the sword, but Claudius and Polonius himself were the force behind it and are as guilty as Hamlet is.
"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.
"Mine, sir..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
The First Clown, despite being rude, brutish, and indelicate, makes an insightful joke here, stating that the grave he's digging is his own because he'll be working as a gravedigger until he dies. This use of gallows humor proves that while he's uneducated and absurd, he's not entirely unintelligent, though he will seem so in this conversation with Hamlet.
"of a pair of indentures..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
In this context, "indentures" doesn't refer to indents or notches but rather to contracts drawn up between two parties, which are now null and void, because of one party's death. In the wake of his death, his possessions would've been split up; his land, fought over; his estate, in crisis, until his heirs could draw up contracts or "vouchers" of their own to preserve what was left. Death thus undoes a man's work and makes his life seem meaningless.
"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).
"his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
"Quiddities" and "quilets" are both subtleties in a lawyer's argument, whereas his "tenures" would be his various positions and his "tricks" the ones he uses in court in order to win his cases. These five things encompass the whole of a lawyer's work and, by extension, his self, but have been stripped of him in death. Hamlet sees this loss of self as a great tragedy, and may be thinking specifically of his father and Ophelia in this passage.
"great folk should have countenance..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
The First Clown seems to be using the word "countenance" to mean bearing or manner rather than facial expression or look (as it's most commonly used). Thus, this line reads that it's a pity that great folk or nobles carry themselves like people who choose to commit suicide, or that they're more inclined to commit suicide than the working class. This is, of course, just a clown's theory, and not sociologically sound by modern standards.
Act V - Scene II
"But let this same be presently perform'd..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Horatio wants everything to be cleared up quickly so that order will be restored quickly, before there's more bloodshed. In some ways, Horatio feels that this is a performance, or that they must go through the motions until Fortinbras has been installed as king and everyone is satisfied. Royal succession was a very formal process, so it's not surprising that he thinks of it as a performance.
"As th'art a man, Give me the cup. Let go!..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet and Horatio struggle over the poisoned cup, from which the latter has attempted to drink in order to avoid the aftermath of this scene. Hamlet appeals to Horatio's sense of honor and masculinity, saying, "As thou art a man," as if to say a real man would give him the cup. Hamlet's adherence to gender norms should be understood as a product of the times and as a kind of sexism that every single male character almost certainly espoused.
"Never Hamlet..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet cleverly begins to speak of himself in the third person, suggesting a literal divide between his self and his idea of himself. This alone would make him seem mad in an otherwise so proper and officious environment and would be reason enough for Laertes to forgive him (if not because they're reconciled, then because Laertes can't bring himself to blame someone who seems out of his mind).
"I here proclaim was madness..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet has never before and will never again say that he's mad as if he truly believes it. From the start, Hamlet intended to use his false "madness" as a failsafe should his plan backfire, and for the past five acts he has merely been laying the groundwork. Now, he finally puts that failsafe to use, manipulating Laertes into forgiving him for things that shouldn't be forgiven.
"the drossy age dotes on..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Recall that Hamlet earlier referred to the age as "picked" and that he thinks there aren't any worthwhile men left. Here, Shakespeare uses the word "drossy" to mean impure, implying that this age has seen too much mixing between the upper and lower classes. This could be seen as an essentially classist remark, and if not for Hamlet's earlier claim that fishmongers are the only honest men one could argue that Hamlet is, in fact, an elitist.
"And a man's life's is no more than to say 'One.'..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet has a very small window in which to act before news comes from England that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been killed. More than anyone else, he's counting the days and minutes he has left; but this, as he says, is the nature of life. It's so short that it feels like we only count to "one" before it ends. This line serves as a painful reminder that this is the last scene.
"even in that was heaven ordinant..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
If heaven is "ordinant," then it's giving order or commanding Hamlet's actions. Hamlet has already stated that he thinks his plan has been helped by divine providence and here expresses both his gratitude and surprise that heaven helped him in this regard. One would expect to run out of such luck.
"How to forget that learning..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet has been taught to write (and speak) in these poetic lines, but had to stop doing so to fake the letter from Claudius to the English and write it "fair" (or without flourishes and meter) like a statesman. In some ways, this entire play has been a process of unlearning for Hamlet, as he's had to strip away his scholarly ambitions and beliefs in order to devote himself to his revenge and avoid being killed.
"They had begun the play..." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Hamlet notes that he wasn't the one who started this. Picking up on the theme of acting and performance, he says that they (the villains) started the "play" of murderous deceit and revenge by plotting to kill King Hamlet, and that they've all just been playing their roles so far. Another way to put this would be that they started it, but Hamlet intends to finish it.
"we have therefore odds...." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
Laertes has bet on Hamlet to win and staked much more on him than Laertes has staked. Since Laertes is known to be the better swordsman, odds have been placed so that he has to make three times as many "hits" (or points of contact) in order to win the match. Claudius has done this so that the match will appear even and so that no one will suspect him if something goes wrong.