Drama

65 Hamlet: Study Guide

First, browse the award-winning website maintained by the University of Victoria. It is a very useful resource for the study of Shakespeare’s plays.

Internet Shakespeare Editions: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Ideally, before beginning your study of Hamlet, you should view the entire Hamlet video, available in various versions at most public libraries and on the main video streaming sites.

Now let’s begin our study of Hamlet.

Background

Notice that, although the play is set in Denmark, the characters would dress in English costumes, just as they would have in a Roman play such as Julius Caesar, with no togas, just English Elizabethan costumes.

First, some necessary background. The following table shows major binaries in Hamlet. The two columns, beginning with nature vs. grace are important for an understanding of the intellectual background to all Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Mighty Opposites from Sonnets through Tragedies
Negative binary Positive binary
Nature Grace
Fallen world Redeemed time
Unweeded garden Eden
Time Eternity
City, court Green world: Forest of Arden
Money, sex, power Unworldliness
Goddess Fortuna Transcendent (this binary links to service theme)
Illusion Truth
Cupidity Charity
Disorder Order
Ambition Chain of being
Shadow Substance
Passive virtue Active virtue
Darkness Light
Intemperance Temperance
Euphemism Plain language

Shakespeare’s was a Christian society, and educated people accepted the traditional way of looking at the universe: human history began as a direct result of Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience. Prior to that sin, they inhabited an eternal spring in Eden—the changeless utopian realm of harmony. With their sin, nature fell with them. The result was that the realm of Nature was removed from Grace, and only through the intervention of Christ on behalf of fallen humanity could people hope to return to the state of grace. Earth became a battleground between those who try to uphold virtue vs. those who practice vice.

The terms on the left-hand (Nature) side of the table represent negative binaries: Denmark, like Eden, becomes an unweeded garden. You should try to find out what changed Hamlet’s view of Denmark from a once-virtuous state into a place where something is rotten.

Typically in Shakespeare, the country was deemed to be closer to virtue than the city, the seat of power and upward mobility. The king held his court in the city, and those wishing to rise had to adopt the values of court. So the Court is the realm of money, sex, power, whereas the country suggests unworldliness. A typical symbol of this virtuous, utopian (because it is non-materialistic) green world is presented in the comedy As You Like It as the Forest of Arden.

The corrupt, fallen world pays allegiance to the Goddess Fortuna (a mythological figure, still current in our society. One thinks of the game show Wheel of Fortune). Most of the characters in Hamlet can be described as either those who serve Fortune (or time, hence time-servers) and those who opt to serve the Transcendent (God, eternal values such as love). In the fallen world, unlike in Eternity, perception is never simple, because those who are seeking worldly advancement tend to employ deception; for example, they often lie or pretend to be something they are not. Thus, the fog in Act 1 serves as a metaphor for the fallen world and the difficulty people have in penetrating through appearances to find the reality.

As the play starts, Hamlet is aware of a change from his late father’s open ways to the often devious ways of his uncle, the usurper King Claudius, and of his chief adviser, Polonius.

Act Notes

In Hamlet, the text invites us to structure the conflict as Hamlet vs. Claudius, “mighty opposites.” The play breaks into two opposed camps, with the Claudian group on the left outnumbering the Hamlet group on the right:

  • Claudius vs. Hamlet
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern vs. Horatio
  • Osric vs. Hamlet Sr.
  • Polonius vs. Fortinbras

Note that Ophelia and Gertrude do not quite fit either camp, though Ophelia actually fits squarely into the Hamlet camp in her true nature, while Gertrude moves out of Claudius’s orbit towards the end, after the closet scene (3.4).

A key to understanding Hamlet is to focus on the conflict between two kinds of service: one must choose between serving the “corrupt times” or else serving the transcendent. Most of the main characters either serve “time,” i.e., the materialistic world, or else they choose to serve the opposite: the TRANSCENDENT. More simply put, this conflict is the immoral vs. the moral.

In this context, two important plot/characterization elements need to be considered in terms of the oppositions between TIME-SERVERS vs. SERVANTS of GRACE and THE TRANSCENDENT/DIVINE. First, we should try to understand why Hamlet treats Ophelia, the woman he loved, so cruelly. Next, we should try to understand why Hamlet allows his erstwhile friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to go to their deaths. Wrongly or rightly, Hamlet views all three as time-servers; he believes that all three defile or betray love. Ophelia’s behaviour towards Hamlet disillusions him. He is unaware that Ophelia is merely following her father Polonius’s orders when she returns his ardent love letters and denies him all further access to her. He concludes that she was merely pretending to be in love with him. But since her seeming coldness towards him is not acted on stage, but merely reported by Hamlet, the reader may not grasp just why Hamlet turns against her. Then, too, Hamlet’s disillusion with Ophelia is aggravated by his feeling that his mother was also incapable of constancy towards her first husband, Hamlet Sr. Hamlet is mistaken about Ophelia, but correct in his assessment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s alleged love for Hamlet. He soon regards them as mere time-servers, pawns of King Claudius. Hamlet concludes (rightly) that they are all too willing to betray their friend and the bonds of friendship in return for personal advancement.

In order to comprehend Hamlet’s behaviour, we should notice that it is grounded upon what he considers his divinely appointed fate to serve as God’s agent, one who must not condone, but punish the actions of the various time-servers in the play: “… heaven hath pleased it so / To punish me with this … / That I must be their[1] scourge[2] and minister[3].” Hamlet soon embarks on a course of action to correct or “redeem” fallen nature. The corrupt “pursy” times need correction. The rare virtuous individual can help set the times aright.

Act 1

Scene 1

Act 1, scene 1 begins on the ramparts of Elsinore, the site of the Danish court. The dominant images in this scene suggest the Fallen World. Elsinore is dark and foggy. The fog suggests uncertain perception. It is midnight, the witching hour, and the guards feel sick at heart. When Hamlet’s true friend Horatio first sees Hamlet’s ghost, he cries out, “Stay illusion” (1.127). Horatio knows that perceptions can be untrustworthy—the fog and darkness are fitting images for the present world of Denmark, described by Hamlet as a “prison.” In this first scene, we learn that Denmark is on a war footing—Hamlet Sr. was a representative of the old heraldic, chivalric ordered world. He fought and defeated fairly Fortinbras Sr., King of Norway, and thereby won his lands legally. We soon learn that the late king of Norway’s son Fortinbras has decided to win back Norway’s lost land as a point of chivalric honour, and that he is preparing to attack Denmark.

You might ask whether the ghost is a good or an evil spirit. He appears to shun the image of grace—the cock crowing (it was a Christian belief that the cock, the watch-bird placed on church spires, was sacred). The uncertainty about the ghost is the main reason for Hamlet’s delay in attacking the usurper King Claudius. He needs proof that Claudius murdered his father before he sets about acting as God’s scourge and minister.

Scene 2

Act 1, scene 2 takes place in King Claudius’s illegal court. (Illegal because he usurped the throne.) In this scene, notice his preparedness for war with Norway; he is capable of playing the role of a legitimate king. His first speech is very much official and ceremonial. His language is highly rhetorical. He refers to the recent death of his brother, King Hamlet, and speaks of this “warlike state.” However, he attempts diplomacy as a way of checking the military goals of young Fortinbras (who, like young Hamlet, has lost a father and will attempt to avenge that loss). Claudius writes to the old King of Norway, asking him to check young Fortinbras.

After giving Polonius’s son Laertes leave to return to France, he addresses Hamlet as his son, but in an aside,[4] Hamlet says, “A little more than kin, and less than kind,” meaning he does not feel kindly towards Claudius. King Claudius does not want Hamlet to continue mourning, but when his mother, Queen Gertrude, asks him to “cast thy nighted color off” (Hamlet is traditionally played in this scene wearing black), insisting that he is being excessive in his grief and reminding him that it is “common” knowledge that the living must eventually die, Hamlet seizes upon her word “common,” saying, “Ay, madam, it is common,” thereby implying that she has behaved commonly or in a way unbecoming a queen. Hamlet implicitly accuses Gertrude of hypocrisy and deceit as he throws her word “seems” back at her:  Hamlet says, “‘Seems,’ madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’” (1.2.257). His feelings are sincere; her feelings of grief were mere pretense, play-acting. He insists his black mourning garments alone cannot convey the sincerity of his grief—clothes are merely external, but his inner feelings are sincere, unlike the “suits of woe.” Hamlet would prefer, like Laertes, to leave Denmark, but grudgingly accepts his mother’s request that he stay, stating pointedly, “I shall in all my best obey you, madam,” thereby excluding Claudius. The scene ends with Hamlet’s reference to Denmark as an “unweeded garden” (1.2.319). His world is a fallen one. Eden has become a jungle where “things rank and gross” (i.e., Claudius) possess it (320). His ensuing soliloquy bitterly contrasts his late father, King Hamlet, as a sun god in relation to his goat-like uncle, the new king. Perhaps Hamlet exaggerates the period of mourning, collapsing it into “a month,” but he cannot forgive his mother for rushing into another marriage so quickly, accusing her of womanly frailty. To Hamlet, this fallen world values a demi-goat (satyr) like Claudius more than a god-like king (Hamlet Sr.). The scene ends when his friend Horatio informs Hamlet that his father’s ghost has just appeared, and Hamlet immediately assumes that the sudden appearance of his father’s ghost means that all is not well. He suspects foul play, observing that foul deeds cannot be covered up indefinitely—evil will out.

Act 2

Scene 1

Typically, Polonius, the King’s chief adviser, spies on people. This time, he spies on his son, and his modus operandi is “by indirections, [to] find directions out” (2.1.958). In other words, he is the opposite of direct. He snoops, he infers, but he does not ask direct questions. He relies on “intelligence.”

Notice in the latter part of 2.1, Ophelia tells Polonius of Hamlet’s “perusal of her face / As he would draw it” (987). What is significant about Hamlet’s keeping his eyes fixed on her as he backs away out of the room? Might he not be emphasizing the extreme difficulty of perceiving people’s real nature in this fallen world?[5] Polonius concludes that Hamlet’s bizarre behaviour is proof that he is mad as the result of unrequited love for his daughter. Polonius kicks himself for being too clever by half, and for assuming Hamlet was merely leading his daughter on (l. 1009–11). But is Hamlet really mad here? In any case, Ophelia makes it clear that she followed her father’s commands and denied access to Hamlet as well as returned his letters. This is proof to Hamlet that she was merely pretending to love him, and so Hamlet concludes that both women—his mother and the object of his love, Ophelia—substitute the appearance of love for its reality.

Scene 2

Hamlet meets his old university friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in this scene. When Hamlet greets them, they pretend indifference to the Goddess Fortuna. The repartee degenerates into a sexual joke, “her privates we” (1279). Hamlet says, “She is a strumpet.” Why does Hamlet describe the goddess Fortune as a whore? Because she is fickle, she dumps all, and fortune’s wheel turns. Hamlet implies that, in a world governed by Fortune, everything is for sale to the highest bidder. This explains the high frequency of prostitution images: love, like everything else, is for sale, as opposed to ideal love as described in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: “Love’s not time’s fool.” To Hamlet, if the world’s grown honest, then doomsday must be upon us … It would take something as momentous as the Last Judgment for the world to become honest. (Note also the meaning of “honest” as “chaste,” “faithful”—cf. Hamlet to Ophelia “Are you honest?” (3.1.1758).)

Now look back to 2.2.1230 as Hamlet reflects to Polonius upon “Words, words, words …” Hamlet is disillusioned by evidence of false, insincere language: his mother has shown herself untrue to her word about fidelity towards her first husband, Hamlet Sr., and because Ophelia returns his letters, Hamlet now views her as untrue to him. Hamlet focuses on Polonius’s obliquity, indirectness, lies. Polonius, the trusted political adviser, even lies about his own son and thinks the worst of Hamlet’s motives. Not surprisingly, Hamlet is now convinced that all are materialists, sensualists. He adopts a satiric mode in his conversation with Polonius: Hamlet’s satire on falsehood—”Slanders—the satirical rogue says here that old men have gray beards”—is his reductio ad absurdum (2.2.1235 ff.). He labels as satire the basic truth that old men have gray beards, but in a world given over to topsy-turvydom, black equals white; then Plain truth is viewed as a lie. Hamlet is holding up the mirror to nature as it should be: where words are true tender, not something to be manipulated for gain as they habitually are for Laertes, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. (See Polonius’s punning on “tender” in his speech to Ophelia—”You have taken these tenders for true Pay / Which are not sterling” (1.3.569 ff.).)

Now let’s return to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet tells them that “Denmark’s a prison” (2.2.1289). Rosencrantz replies: “We think not so, my lord.” As in 3.3, Hamlet focuses on the literal meaning of words. Hamlet says, “Why, then ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (2.2.1295). This is a key speech. To Hamlet, the criterion for proper human behaviour is the thoughtful application of moral law. He chooses to live in a moral as opposed to a relativistic universe. Faced, like Falstaff, with a vision of Nature in red with tooth and claw, he recoils and gives his allegiance to those who also seek something higher, like his sincere friend Horatio. The upright Horatio would never justify theft as Falstaff does (“If the young dace be a fair bait for the old Pike / I see no reason in the law of nature / But that I may snap at him” (2 Henry IV)). This is the kind of fallen, corrupt world of self-interest to which most give allegiance: Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the young courtier Osric, and Polonius.

Hamlet’s seeming digression on acting in 2.2.1392 ff. relates to the theme of fashion lowering standards of acting. Trendy, fashionable child actors are now applauded for crying out their lines. Hamlet takes up his attack on trendy art again in 3.2. Hamlet’s advice to the players at the start of 3.2 is central to the play’s meaning and not a digression. Actors should be the abstract and chronicles of the times (1565). Here Hamlet refers to Aristotle’s mimesis—drama should “hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature” (1870 ff.). Its purpose is a moral one, concerning ethics: it should depict and praise virtue, and depict and scorn vice. “Use every man after his own desert, and who shall scape whipping?”—He insists on fallen nature, but also on gracious forgiveness. By the end of Act Two, Hamlet’s plot to trap the King is hatched. “The Play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

Act 3

Scene 1

Polonius gets his daughter Ophelia to feign devotion. He tells her to read this holy book “to color your loneliness”—i.e., to make your solitary walk more plausible to Hamlet. She allows herself to be the means of spying on Hamlet. Ophelia is too Passive, her virtue is a fugitive and cloistered one. She is Passive to a fault. Later, when speaking to the king, Polonius refers to the prevalence of hypocrisy: “We are oft to blame in this, / Tis too much proved, that with devotion’s visage / … we do sugar o’er the devil himself” (ll. 1698–1700). Claudius responds to these lines by referring to his own guilty conscience in this scene: “How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience! / The harlot’s cheek, beautified with plast’ring art, / Is not more ugly … Than is my deed to my most painted word” (1702–06). Notice again another reference to false language—painted words. As the king and Polonius hide in order to eavesdrop on Hamlet, Hamlet begins his famous soliloquy in 3.1.

His “To be or not to be” (1710 ff.) soliloquy is a response to his awareness of a fallen world. How should he respond? Should he give up and just commit suicide? He comes across Ophelia and asks, “Are you honest, fair?” (1758). Again, he focuses on the literal meaning of his words. She seemed honest (faithful), but has proven untrue—she has denied him access; now she returns his love letters. He denies giving her anything—i.e., “the Person you now are, the Person you are proving yourself to be—not his idealized woman. In 3.1.96: “I never gave you aught (anything)” (1751)—and that is just what Hamlet means: he is referring to the woman she is now, not the woman he thought she was in the past.

The Power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty unto his likeness. That is, physical beauty is more capable (in this fallen world) of corrupting innocence than the other way around—honesty is less able to urge beauty on to virtue. This was Sometime (once) a Paradox (lie), but now the time gives it proof. “I did love you once … I loved you not” (1773). Again he refers to the ideal. Note how Hamlet, we are told, stared at Ophelia in his earlier mad scene. He stares because he now sees her as traitor to love and truth when she gives back his love letters. Virtue will be blighted in the fallen world, so Hamlet urges her to flee from this corrupt world: “Get thee to a nunnery” (138)—a refuge because Carnality is the dominant force. He now mordantly advises her that, if she must marry, then marry an imperceptive man, for wise men know what monsters (cuckolds) you make of them. A cuckold is a man with the goat’s horns—therefore a monster. Wise men who know the truth about women have no illusions about their lechery.

Scene 2

This scene contains Hamlet’s advice to the travelling actors or “players.” His speech to the players is a thematic crux, and it alludes to the motto of Shakespeare’s own Globe Theatre: Totus mundus agit histrionem—all the world’s a stage. Hamlet’s advice to the players (1849 ff.) is richly symbolic: don’t overact, acquire temperance—self-restraint, control your Passions. Find the middle way, the via media. Be not too tame, neither; don’t be too Passive.

The purpose of playing (acting) is ethical: to show virtue her own feature, scorn (or vice) her own image. (cf. Aristotle’s mimesis). This is exactly what Hamlet does a few lines later in this scene: He paints a verbal portrait of the virtuous man, Horatio (3.2.1904): “Horatio, thou art e’en as just a man / As e’er my conversation coped withal.”

Clearly, Horatio is exempt from Hamlet’s comment that some players “imitate humanity so abominably.” Polonius is like the clown who interferes with a necessary question of the play (life). Horatio is the temperate man, not a pipe for Fortune’s finger (cf. the same image used by Hamlet earlier for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who would try to play him like a pipe. Hamlet satirizes this attempt by giving Rosencrantz the pipe to play.)

Now in 3.2.1966, immediately after praising virtue, Hamlet shows scorn to vice: this is Hamlet’s sardonic satire on the inconstant love of two women, Ophelia and Gertrude. Their love is now seen to be debased to mere sexuality and sale.

Before the play, “The Mousetrap,” Hamlet lies beside Ophelia, and she embarrassedly says, “You are keen[6] my lord …” (2116). Hamlet replies, “It would cost you a groaning to take my edge off”—notice the sexually gross language that Hamlet uses with her (3.2.2117). Why? Hamlet is now playing the role of the denizen of a brothel. Even the Player King/Queen speeches here reiterate this theme of inconstancy, fickleness.

The battle lines are now drawn. Hamlet and Horatio have seen Claudius’s conscience smarting. He cannot view the depiction of a husband being murdered, and he must get away from the play. Now Hamlet mocks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He asks Rosencrantz, “Have you any further trade with us?” (3.2.2203)—note the distance, the coldness now that Hamlet chooses to use the royal “we” to his former friends. Here Hamlet mocks what moderns would now call Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s Skinnerian, behaviorist conception of humanity. “You would play upon me … heart of my mystery” (2237 ff.). Hamlet, an anti-materialist, sees more than just stimulus–response (money, sex, power) governing human relations.

Scene 3

In this crucial soliloquy, Claudius admits that he murdered Hamlet’s father: “O my offense is rank. [7]It smells to heaven” (2312 ff.). Claudius here reveals a conscience, yet he nevertheless sticks to his materialistic course. Claudius pretends to ask for grace, but doesn’t really want it. “My words fly up; my thoughts remain below” (2372).

Scene 4

Hamlet storms into Queen Gertrude’s bedchamber. Hamlet tells Gertrude, “I [will] set you up a glass[8] where you may see the inmost part of you” (2399). His verbal portrait elicits shame in his mother (3.4.2464–67). Note the dynamics of this scene: it starts with Gertrude initially on the offensive, but Hamlet invokes traditional ethics—he entreats his mother to repeat virtue (sexual abstinence) until it becomes habitual. “Forgive me this my virtue. For in the fatness of these pursy times / Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg” (2535–6). Note the garden and weed imagery, which suggests the fallen world of nature. Hamlet now sees himself as Heaven’s “scourge and minister” (3.4.2551). You should look carefully at the editor’s gloss for both words.

Act 4

Notice that in 4.2, Hamlet is even more openly contemptuous of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Rosencrantz is a mere sponge.  In 4.3, Hamlet here uses a key image: one to which he will return in the graveyard scene at Act 5.1. Here he points out that “your fat king and your lean beggar” (2693) are equal in that, after death, they both become food for worms. So he stresses here and in the graveyard scene the futility of attaining worldly power.

In Hamlet’s soliloquy in 4.4, he states that the purpose of life is to serve honorably the transcendent realm: “What is man / If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed?” Contrasting his own delay in seeking revenge, unlike Fortinbras, he now commits to revenge. In Act 4, scene 5, Ophelia utters the line, “We know not what we may be.” This fatalistic, deterministic line reminds us of her Passive, rather than Active virtue. Her bawdy jingle: “Young men will do’t if they come to it / By cock they are to blame” (2799) points to the fallen world: it is an appetitive world. Laertes rants and threatens the king, whom he blames for the death of his father, Polonius. Hamlet later satirically imitates Laertes’s intemperate rant by jumping into the grave, just as he later parodies Osric’s sycophancy by imitating his speech patterns in Act 5 as well. In both instances, Hamlet, through exaggerated imitation or parody, is again holding the mirror up to human nature and showing vice its own ugliness.

In Act 4.7, while speaking with Laertes, Claudius gives his view of love. His view is the opposite to that of Hamlet and matches Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments ….” Essentially, Claudius says that love IS time’s fool: “Time qualifies the spark and fire of it. / There lives within the very flame of love / A kind of … snuff that will abate it” (3110 ff.). Thus, by implying that Laertes might be insincere in his professions of love for his dead father, Claudius tricks him into trying to murder Hamlet to avenge the death of Polonius.

Act 5

Scene 1

In the graveyard scene, note the imagery Hamlet uses in this scene from lines 3267 onward. The lawyer, this “great buyer of land” (3295) is reduced to skulls filled with dirt. Notice Hamlet’s contempt for the worldly, or contemptus mundi: “Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor [skull] she must come. Make her laugh at that” (3382). Here Hamlet stresses the futility of time-service and the quest for money and power. Note the fate of Alexander the Great, who once conquered the known world: now he is mud to stop a bunghole in a barrel. Compare this cyclic image to that which he uttered in 4.3.2693. Hamlet then mocks Laertes’s bombast at Ophelia’s grave.

Scene 2

“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends / Rough hew them how we will” (3509). Here Hamlet suggests that human beings can take up an opportunity for partnership with the divine. Rashness becomes a good thing when our deep plots (planning) do pall. Hamlet realizes that his opportunity to embrace a transcendent moment (the right time) has arrived. His will be an Active virtue. Notice that Hamlet here uses imagery from drama. He speaks of scripting his own action: “Being thus benetted round with villainies / Ere I could make a prologue to my brains, / They[9] had begun the play—I sat me down, / Devised a new commission, wrote it fair” (3530–3534). Notice again the metaphor of life as a kind of play, one with ethical significance. He creates action himself, writes a new letter commanding the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. “Tis dangerous when the baser nature[10] comes between the pass and fell incensed points / Of mighty opposites” (5.2.3563–65). What two characters are the “mighty opposites”?

Now we are introduced to Osric. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he is a courtier, a time-server. Hamlet contemptuously refers to him as a “Waterfly … He hath much land … dirt.” Hamlet contemptuously refers to that which shows Osric’s wealth—land—which he again describes as mere dirt (5.2.3588). Hamlet bitterly observes, “Let a beast / be lord of beasts, and his crib shall stand at the King’s mess” (3591–3592). Power and wealth are always obeyed in the fallen world. Hamlet’s final putdown of Osric: “He did comply with his dug before he sucked it” (3651). What does this amusing line mean? How does it relate to the dominant theme of obsequious compliance with the powerful’s wishes?

Immediately before Hamlet’s climactic confrontation with Laertes, whose sword Claudius has tipped with poison so that Hamlet will die if touched, Hamlet says, “The readiness is all” (3668 ff.). Horatio had just urged Hamlet not to continue the bout if he felt any misgivings about the outcome, but Hamlet is now committed to his course of action. One thinks here of Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and the big-game hunter Wilson’s quotation from Shakespeare’s 2 Henry IV just before he confronts a potentially dangerous wild animal: “By my troth, I care not, a man can die but once. We / owe god a death … an it be my / destiny, so; an’t be not, so. No man’s too good to serve his prince[11], / and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for / the next” (2 Henry IV, 3.2.216 ff.). Here, it is helpful to read the definition of “readiness”:  “Promptness in voluntary action, prompt compliance, willingness” (Oxford English Dictionary). Now Hamlet has committed himself to serving the transcendent. He is mortally wounded by Laertes’s sword and turns it upon Laertes, who also dies. But before his own death from drinking the wine that was poisoned, Gertrude, who had first drunk the wine destined for Hamlet, warns Hamlet that the wine was poisoned. Hamlet now realizes that Claudius is the poisoner and runs him through with the poisoned sword, killing him. Before Hamlet dies, he asks Horatio to convey Hamlet’s vote for Fortinbras as the next King of Denmark, thereby ensuring that an honorable, incorruptible king will govern.

Like most tragic heroes, Hamlet is something of a tragic scapegoat. Note that the Greek root of tragedy is “tragos” (goat) + “aeidein” (to sing), thus “goat song.” This tragic hero chooses to die in order to ensure that the kingdom will flourish.

Prose Paraphrase Exercises

Paraphrase each of Shakespeare’s mostly blank verse speeches (i.e., put a given speech into your own words without avoiding the hard bits). Here is an example:

Marcellus in Act 1, Scene 1, lines 32–38.[12]

Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him,
Touching this dreaded sight twice seen of us.
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night,
That if again this apparition come
He may approve our eyes and speak to it.

Paraphrase

Horatio[13] says that the ghost is just in our imaginations, and he won’t let himself be persuaded by what Barnardo and I have already seen twice. So I have urged him to come along and stand guard with us tonight, so that if this ghost reappears, he can witness it with us and speak to the ghost.

As you know, I’m suggesting that the fog imagery in Act 1 immediately sets up the Illusion vs. Truth binary that parallels Nature vs. Grace; that is, just as fog makes our immediate sense perceptions, at best, iffy, so too does the fallen world mean that people don’t always speak or behave sincerely. They cover up their real emotions and motives. It is hard, therefore, to be certain about our judgments. This is the kind of world Hamlet feels himself all of a sudden to be inhabiting.

Now, paraphrase these speeches. Number 7 has been paraphrased for you. See if you agree.

  1. Marcellus, “Good now … that can inform me” (1.1.86–95).
  2. Horatio, “That can I … rummage in the land” (1.1.96–124).
  3. Horatio, “A mote it is … Stay, illusion!” (1.1.124.5–127).
  4. King Claudius, “Though yet of Hamlet … taken to wife.” (1.2.179–192).
  5. Queen Gertrude and Hamlet, “Good Hamlet … denote me truly” (1.2.248–264). (Say what he means by “Ay, it is common.”)
  6. Hamlet, “Oh, that this too … hold my tongue” (1.2.313–343).
  7. Hamlet, “Thrift thrift … marriage tables” (1.2.368–369):
    • “The royal couple, keeping to their household budget, put food wrap over the leftover funeral dishes and served them cold at the wedding banquet.”[14]
  8. Hamlet, “My father’s spirit … to men’s eyes” (1.2.456–459).[15]
  9. Laertes, “For nature … none else near” (1.3.474–507).
  10. Ophelia, “I shall … own rede” (1.3.508–514).
  11. Polonius, “Do not believe … Come your ways” (1.3.593–601).
  12. Hamlet Sr. (Ghost), “Thus was I … incest” (1.5.759–768).
  13. Hamlet, “O all you … Remember thee?” (1.5.777–782).
  14. Ophelia and Polonius, “My Lord … light on me” (2.1.973–997).
Be sure to look at the footnotes in your edition. It takes some practice, but the footnote next to a word means that the editor thinks you will need help interpreting a word or phrase. Your own dictionary will help, but remember, Shakespeare’s diction is not easy to follow at first. But it gets easier as you read further.

Additional Resources

The British Library has posted a number of excellent units on Hamlet. Please browse any of these these topics:


  1. the heavens’ or God’s
  2. punisher
  3. divine agent
  4. An aside is a conventional way of conveying that the words are not meant to be heard by others on stage.
  5. Compare King Duncan to Macbeth, referring to The Thane of Cawdor's treason: "There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face. / He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust (Macbeth 1.4.12–15).
  6. Note double meaning—eager, but also sexually excited.
  7. Recall Hamlet’s speech at 1.2.320: “Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely"
  8. mirror
  9. his enemies Claudius and his followers
  10. i.e., Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
  11. God
  12. This can also be written as 1.1.32–38.
  13. Horatio is well named—note that the last part of his name, "ratio," is Latin for reason. Horatio is the skeptical, rational one, it would appear.
  14. Thrift often had the negative connotation of selfish behaviour in Shakespeare's day. Hamlet’s ironic speech, pretending approval, is a cut at his mother and stepfather, cynically emphasizing the unseemly haste of his mother's remarrying.
  15. Notice throughout Act 1, so far, the constant jostling to pierce through to the truth.

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Composition and Literature by James Sexton and Derek Soles is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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