Act I - Scene IV


[Elsinore. The platform before the Castle.]

Enter Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus.

The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.
It is a nipping and an eager air.
What hour now?
I think it lacks of twelve.
No, it is struck.(5)
Indeed? I heard it not. It then draws near the season
Wherein the spirit held his wont to walk.

A flourish of trumpets, and ordnance go off.

What doth this mean, my lord?
The King doth wake tonight and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering upspring reels,(10)
And as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.
Is it a custom?
Ay, marry, is't;(15)
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.
This heavy-headed revel, east and west,
Makes us traduced and tax'd of other nations;(20)
They clepe us drunkards and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though perform'd at height,
The pith and marrow of our attribute.
So, oft it chances in particular men,(25)
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As in their birth—wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin—
By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,(30)
Or by some habit that too much o'erleavens
The form of plausive manners, that these men—
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature's livery, or fortune's star—
Their virtues else—be they as pure as grace,(35)
As infinite as man may undergo—
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. The dram of evil
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal.(40)

Enter Ghost.

Look, my lord, it comes!
Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,(45)
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I'll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane. O, answer me!
Let me not burst in ignorance, but tell
Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,(50)
Have burst their cerements, why the sepulchre
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn'd,
Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws
To cast thee up again. What may this mean
That thou, dead corse, again, in complete steel,(55)
Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous, and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say, why is this? Wherefore? What should we do?(60)

[Ghost beckons Hamlet.]

It beckons you to go away with it,
As if it some impartment did desire
To you alone.
Look with what courteous action
It waves you to a more removed ground.(65)
But do not go with it!
No, by no means.
It will not speak; then will I follow it.
Do not, my lord!
Why, what should be the fear?(70)
I do not set my life at a pin's fee;
And for my soul, what can it do to that,
Being a thing immortal as itself?
It waves me forth again. I'll follow it.
What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,(75)
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o'er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? Think of it.(80)
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.
It waves me still.(85)
Go on; I'll follow thee.
You shall not go, my lord.
Hold off your hands!
Be ruled. You shall not go.
My fate cries out,(90)
And makes each petty artery in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve.

[Ghost beckons.]

Still am I call'd. Unhand me, gentlemen.
By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me.
I say, away! Go on. I'll follow thee.(95)

Exit Ghost and Hamlet.

He waxes desperate with imagination.
Let's follow. 'tis not fit thus to obey him.
Have after. To what issue will this come?
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Heaven will direct it.(100)
Nay, let's follow him.




  1. Teaching Tip: Sometimes students are afraid of Shakespeare due to his lofty reputation. Remind them that he is not meant to be worshiped, but enjoyed. Common people were his bread-and-butter; he could not have reached the heights of popularity that he achieved by appealing solely to the highest common denominator. As Richard Eyre, long-time director of the Royal National Theater and author of National Service: Diary of a Decade argues, "However great Shakespeare's genius is, it doesn't help to treat him as a sort of holy fool or Messianic seer. He was a playwright, and an actor, and a theatre manager. He was utterly pragmatic; his plays wouldn't and couldn't have worked if they had been shrouded in obscurity and abstract conceits."

    — Marissa, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. Hamlet thinks that native customs should bring honor to the people, and the King's drunken toasts are hardly honorable. Hamlet thinks it's more honorable to break (rather than observe) the tradition of drunkenness.

    — Sarah, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. 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.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  4. Hamlet threatens to kill ("make a ghost") anyone who gives him enough power to do so. In this case, "power" might also be understood as "reason" or "cause," implying that if Horatio and Marcellus make him really angry, then he'll use his influence as Prince to destroy them. This threat seems out of character for Hamlet, who has thus far been a brooding young man with no real power.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  5. A creature from ancient Greek mythology, the Nemean Lion was said to possess enormous strength, impenetrable fur, and claws that could slice through all armor. Hercules's First Labor was to slay the Nemean Lion, an event alluded to in Act I, Scene ii, when Hamlet draws a parallel between himself and Hercules. By subverting this metaphor and positioning himself as the Nemean Lion, he makes himself more like Hercules in terms of strength, suggesting that his father and his uncle are more alike than he thinks.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  6. 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. In going with the Ghost, Hamlet exerts his own will rather than following the flow of logic.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  7. 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.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  8. Shakespeare makes use of the obscure verb form of the word "beetle" to imply that the cliff overhangs the sea. He also draws on imagery from the Bible (the flood, the cliff) to recall Matthew 4:1-11, where the devil leads Jesus into the wilderness, tempts him to stray from God, then tells him to jump from the tallest point of a temple. In effect, Horatio equates the Ghost with the devil, suggesting that it doesn't have good intentions.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  9. To "shake" someone's "disposition" means to frighten or startle them. In this line, the word "disposition" harkens back to our earlier discussion of the word "complexion," so an alternate reading of this line could be that Hamlet's personality or "nature" might be altered by the experience of seeing his father's ghost. Hamlet suspects that what the Ghost has to say will "shake" or alter his values and beliefs, as well as his disposition.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  10. "Cerements" or grave-clothes were wrapped around the body when it was buried or interred. For a ghost to rise, it would need to break through its grave-clothes and leave its sepulchre or tomb to walk the earth. Since Hamlet's father appears on stage in his armor, there's a tension here between whether or not the Ghost appears in corporeal form, as a solid figure, or in translucent form, like ghosts in films. Different productions of the play have answered this question differently.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  11. Canonization is the process by which a person in the Christian church becomes sainted. In this sense, it also means that King Hamlet's bones have already been consecrated (buried, but also treated as holy). Hamlet's father would've been far from saintlike in his life (see: the Danes' drinking custom), but in death his son's respect for him continues to grow. In this scene he becomes a near saintly figure, incapable of wrongdoing.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  12. 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.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  13. A "dram" is literally an eighth of a fluid ounce. In Q2, the second full quarto of Shakespeare's works, the line reads the "dram of eale," where "eale" might be a transcription error between quartos or could be an archaic spelling of "ale," an alcoholic beverage. Some Shakespeare scholars have suggested that "eale," as a product produced with yeast, changes this line's meaning to be that a small fault can, like too much yeast in a loaf a bread, ruin a person. This reading is supported by the use of the word "o'erleavens," meaning "to make bread rise too much," but hasn't been widely accepted among scholars.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  14. In Hamlet's time, if one's complexion was "o'vergrown," one of their four "humours" was out of alignment. The four "humours" were bodily fluids (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) and were said to govern one's personality. Too much or too little of any one "humour" could result in one being sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, or melancholic (generally undesirable characteristics that needed to be corrected). Hamlet himself appears to be melancholic, suggesting that he has too much black bile in his system.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  15. "Pith" refers to the fluids and tissues of the spinal canal, while "marrow" refers to the same tissues inside a bone. Thus, we read this line to mean the stuff that makes our spines straight and bones strong, meaning the force and power of our character. In essence, Hamlet is saying that this custom of heavy drinking diminishes the Danes' achievements and makes them look weak.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  16. In modern English, "to traduce" means to alter or modify or to move from one place to another. In Shakespeare's play, however, the word takes on its archaic definition, "to speak ill of" or to slander. With this definition, we take the line to mean that the Danes, being such heavy drinkers, have come to be known to the other nations as drunkards and fools, and that this reflects poorly on their nation as a whole.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  17. Shakespeare puns on the colloquialism "to the manor born," which refers to the children of nobility who've been raised in the "manor," or the palatial home. To be "to the manner born," however, has a different connotation meaning that, as a native he's familiar with the custom of heavy drinking, but doesn't approve of it. He seems to wish he had been born in a different time and place.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  18. 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.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  19. Claudius' pledge isn't a noble one. He's promised to drink all of his wine in one sitting, an action that does not seem particularly regal. Throughout the play, Claudius will be depicted as a heavy drinker, which calls into question his reasons for overindulging in drink. Is he attempting to drown his sorrow? And, if so, what are these sorrows, and do they have anything to do with Hamlet?

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  20. "Keeping wassail" means to carouse or drink heavily, suggesting that the King has something of a drinking problem. What's more, he makes a show of his drinking problem by ordering trumpets to call and ordnance (artillery, cannons, catapults, slings) to fire. This implies the King has an audience for his revelries, and that he feels no qualms about being intoxicated in front of his guards. It's at once a sign of self-assurance and an act of great impropriety.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  21. In other words, his life isn't worth the price of a pin, meaning he has nothing to lose. Hamlet's use of hyperbole or exaggeration in this line underscores his verbal capacity (as a scholar capable of such poetic soliloquies) and his self-effacing tendencies (as a young man with little to no self-esteem). One begins to wonder in this scene if the Prince isn't just in mourning but is also suffering from suicidal ideation.

    — Brad