Hamlet is perhaps the greatest tragic drama of all, but the play is also very long--too long for the time available in summer school. Since most students are at least familiar with Hamlet and may study it elsewhere, our course focuses on some scenes whose themes connect to other tragedies:
Backstory: Prince Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet, has died, and the King's brother Claudius has married Queen Gertrude, the prince's mother.
King Hamlet's ghost tells Prince Hamlet that Claudius murdered him (the King) by pouring poison in his ears. Hamlet swears vengeance but remains uncertain of the Ghost's reliability.
In Act 3 he tests the Ghost’s story and Claudius’s guilt by arranging a play in which Claudius will see his crime enacted.
Act 2, Scene 2 below shows him preparing a troupe of actors (or players) to
perform this play. Hamlet's and the chief player's discussion involves mimesis
or the relationship of art to reality.
Act 2, Scene 2 below shows him preparing a troupe of actors (or players) to perform this play. Hamlet's and the chief player's discussion involves mimesis or the relationship of art to reality.
From Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2
. . . [Flourish for the Players]
Guildenstern: There are the players. [Players = actors, dramatists, thespians]
be with you, gentlemen! . . . The actors are come hither, my
lord. . . . The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral,
tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral; scene
[Enter four or five Players.] [Players = actors, dramatists, thespians]
Hamlet: You are welcome, masters; welcome, all.—I am glad to see thee well.—Welcome, good friends.—O, my old friend? . . . We'll have a speech straight. Come, give us a taste of your quality. Come, a passionate speech. [a brief “play within a play”]
First Player: What speech, my good lord? . . .
[the player or actor speaks a passionate story about Hecuba, queen of Troy, that concludes in the following passage, where the actor feels the part so powerfully that the reality of the moment is affected—though the reality in this case is another play]
. . .
. . . But if the gods themselves did see her then,
[her = Hecuba, queen of Troy]
Polonius: Look, whether he has not turned his color, and has tears in his eyes. Prithee no more!
Hamlet: 'Tis well. I'll have thee speak out the rest of this soon. Good my lord, will you see the players well bestowed? Do you hear? Let them be well used; for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live. . . . [Hamlet warns Polonius that the poetry of plays outlives and defines history]
Polonius. Come, sirs.
Hamlet: Follow him, friends. We'll hear a play to-morrow.
[Exeunt Polonius and Players [except the First].]
Dost thou hear me, old friend? Can you play 'The Murder of Gonzago'?
First Player: Ay, my lord.
Hamlet: We'll have it to-morrow night. You could, for a need, study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines which I would set down and insert in it, could you not?
First Player: Ay, my lord.
Very well. Follow that lord—and look you mock him
[Exit First Player.]
friends, I'll leave you till night. You are welcome to
Now I am alone.
What would he do,
[he = the actor]
Yet I . . . can say nothing! . . .
Why, what an ass am I! . . .
Fie upon't! foh! About, my brain! Hum, I have heard
I'll have these Players
From Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2. A hall in the castle.
[Enter HAMLET and Players [actors]]
HAMLET: Speak the speech, I pray
you, as I pronounced it to you,
[Exeunt Players; Enter POLONIUS, ROSENCRANTZ, and GUILDENSTERN]
How now, my lord! Will the king hear this piece of work?
POLONIUS: And the queen too, and that presently.
HAMLET: Bid the players make haste.
Will you two help to hasten them?
ROSENCRANTZ GUILDENSTERN: We will, my lord. [Exeunt ROSENCRANTZ and GUILDENSTERN]
HAMLET: What ho! Horatio! [Enter HORATIO]
HORATIO: Here, sweet lord, at your service. . . .
There is a play to-night before the king;
Well, my lord:
HAMLET: They are coming to the play; I must be idle: Get you a place.
[Danish march. A flourish. Enter KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, POLONIUS, OPHELIA, ROSENCRANTZ, GUILDENSTERN, and others]
How fares our cousin Hamlet?
Excellent, i' faith; of the
chameleon's dish: I eat
KING CLAUDIUS: I have nothing with this answer, Hamlet; these words are not mine.
HAMLET: No, nor mine now. [To POLONIUS] My lord, you played once i' the university, you say?
LORD POLONIUS: That did I, my lord; and was accounted a good actor.
LORD POLONIUS: I did enact Julius Caesar: I was killed i' the Capitol; Brutus killed me.
HAMLET: It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there. Be the players ready?
ROSENCRANTZ: Ay, my lord; they stay upon your patience.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me.
HAMLET: No, good mother, here's metal more attractive. [as in metal to a magnet]
LORD POLONIUS: [To KING CLAUDIUS] O, ho! do you mark that?
HAMLET: Lady, shall I lie in your lap? [Lying down at OPHELIA's feet]
HAMLET: I mean, my head upon your lap?
HAMLET: Do you think I meant country matters?
OPHELIA: I think nothing, my lord.
HAMLET: That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs.
OPHELIA: You are merry, my lord.
HAMLET: O God, your only jig-maker. What should a man do but be merry? for, look you, how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within these two hours.
OPHELIA: Nay, 'tis twice two months, my lord.
HAMLET: So long? Nay then, let the devil wear black, for I'll have a suit of sables. O heavens! die two months ago, and not forgotten yet? . . .
Hautboys play. The dumb-show enters [Hautboys = oboes]
Enter a King and a Queen very lovingly; the Queen embracing him, and he her. She kneels, and makes show of protestation unto him. He takes her up, and declines his head upon her neck: lays him down upon a bank of flowers: she, seeing him asleep, leaves him.
Anon comes in a fellow, takes off his crown, kisses it, and pours poison in the King's ears, and exit. The Queen returns; finds the King dead, and makes passionate action. The Poisoner, with some two or three Mutes, comes in again, seeming to lament with her. The dead body is carried away.
The Poisoner wooes the Queen with gifts: she seems loath and unwilling awhile, but in the end accepts his love
OPHELIA: What means this, my lord?
Marry, this is miching
mallecho; it means mischief. [miching mallecho = sneaking mischief]
OPHELIA: Belike this show imports the argument of the play.
[Enter Prologue] [Prologue: cf. Chorus Leader]
HAMLET: We shall know by this fellow: the players cannot keep counsel; they'll tell all.
OPHELIA: Will he tell us what this show meant?
HAMLET: Ay, or any show that you'll show him: be not you ashamed to show, he'll not shame to tell you what it means.
OPHELIA: You are naught, you are naught: I'll mark the play.
For us, and for our tragedy,
[Enter two Players, King and Queen]
Full thirty times hath Phoebus' cart gone round
So many journeys may the sun and moon
'Faith, I must leave thee, love, and shortly too;
O, confound the rest!
HAMLET: [Aside] Wormwood, wormwood. [ = bitterness]
The instances that second marriage move
I do believe you think what now you speak;
This world is not for aye, nor
'tis not strange
Nor earth to me give food, nor heaven light!
HAMLET: If she should break it now!
'Tis deeply sworn. Sweet, leave me here awhile;
Sleep rock thy brain,
HAMLET: Madam, how like you this play?
GERTRUDE: The lady protests too much, methinks.
HAMLET: O, but she'll keep her word.
CLAUDIUS: Have you heard the argument? Is there no offence in 't?
HAMLET: No, no, they do but jest, poison in jest; no offence i' the world.
What do you call the play?
The Mouse-trap. Marry, how?
Tropically. This play is the image of a murder done in
OPHELIA: You are as good as a chorus, my lord. . . . [chorus = commentary]
Thoughts black, hands apt, drugs fit, and time agreeing;
[Pours the poison into the sleeper's ears]
HAMLET: He poisons him in the garden for his estate. His name's Gonzago: the story is extant, and writ in choice Italian: you shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife. [poisons him in the garden = possible associations with Genesis story of serpent in garden]
HAMLET: What, frighted with false fire!
QUEEN GERTRUDE: How fares my lord?
LORD POLONIUS: Give o'er the play.
KING CLAUDIUS: Give me some light: away!
[Exeunt all but HAMLET and HORATIO]
Why, let the stricken deer
HORATIO: Half a share. . . .
HAMLET: O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound. Didst perceive?
HAMLET: Upon the talk of the poisoning?
HORATIO: I did very well note him.
Ah, ha! Come, some music!
come, the recorders!
[Re-enter ROSENCRANTZ and GUILDENSTERN] . . .
GUILDENSTERN: The king, sir,--
GUILDENSTERN: Is in his retirement marvellous distempered.
GUILDENSTERN: No, my lord, rather with choler. [choler = rage]
HAMLET: Your wisdom should show itself more richer to signify this to his doctor; for, for me to put him to his purgation would perhaps plunge him into far more choler.
GUILDENSTERN: Good my lord, put your discourse into some frame and start not so wildly from my affair.
HAMLET: I am tame, sir: pronounce.
GUILDENSTERN: The queen, your mother, in most great affliction of spirit, hath sent me to you. . . . [T]hus she says; your behavior hath struck her into amazement and admiration.
HAMLET: O wonderful son, that can so astonish a mother! But is there no sequel at the heels of this mother's admiration? Impart.
ROSENCRANTZ: She desires to speak with you in her closet, ere you go to bed. [closet = private room, bedroom]
HAMLET: We shall obey, were she ten times our mother. . . . [Enter POLONIUS] God bless you, sir!
POLONIUS: My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently. . . .
HAMLET: Then I will come to my mother by and by. They fool me to the top of my bent. I will come by and by.
HAMLET: By and by is easily said.
Leave me, friends.
[Exeunt all but HAMLET]
Tis now the very witching time
Act 3, Scene 3. A room in the castle. [Enter CLAUDIUS, ROSENCRANTZ, and GUILDENSTERN]
I like him not, nor stands
it safe with us
Arm you, I pray you, to this
ROSENCRANTZ, GUILDENSTERN: We will haste us. [Exeunt ROSENCRANTZ and GUILDENSTERN; Enter POLONIUS]
My lord, he's going to his
private room, bedroom]
CLAUDIUS: Thanks, dear my lord. [Exit POLONIUS]
O, my offence is rank it smells
O, what form of prayer
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
CLAUDIUS: [Rising] My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
ACT 3, SCENE 4:
Instructor’s comment: Hamlet is rich with Oedipal potential. At the center of the play is a scene of particular interest for a mother-son conversation on incest interrupted by the ghost of Gertrude’s (first) husband and Hamlet’s father, the murdered king—in his nightgown!
Modern directors and producers, who know Freud’s Oedipus Conflict, often heighten the sexual possibilities that earlier productions of the play may have ignored.
ACT 3, SCENE 4: The Queen's closet. [“closet” = private room, maybe bedroom]
Enter QUEEN GERTRUDE and POLONIUS.
POLONIUS: 'A will come straight. Look you lay home to him. [‘A = all; lay home = be direct]
Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with,
And that your Grace hath screened and stood between
Much heat and him. I'll silence me even here;
Pray you be round with him. [be round = don’t go easy] 
HAMLET: Within Mother, Mother, Mother!
GERTRUDE: I'll warrant you, fear me not. Withdraw, [warrant = listen and attest]
I hear him coming. [Polonius hides behind the arras.] [arras = tapestry]
[Enter HAMLET. ]
HAMLET: Now, mother, what's the matter?
GERTRUDE: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended. 
HAMLET: Mother, you have my father much offended.
GERTRUDE: Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.
HAMLET: Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.
GERTRUDE: Why, how now, Hamlet?
HAMLET: What's the matter now?
GERTRUDE: Have you forgot me? 
HAMLET: No, by the rood, not so: [rood = cross]
You are the Queen, your husband's brother's wife,
And would it were not so, you are my mother.
GERTRUDE: Nay, then I'll set those to you that can speak.
HAMLET: Come, come, and sit you down, you shall not budge;
You go not till I set you up a glass [glass = mirror] 
Where you may see the inmost part of you.
GERTRUDE: What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?
POLONIUS: [Behind]. What ho, help!
HAMLET: [Drawing] How now? A rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead! [ducat = coin] 
[Kills Polonius through the arras.] [arras = hanging tapestry]
POLONIUS: [Behind] O, I am slain.
GERTRUDE: O me, what hast thou done?
HAMLET: Nay, I know not, is it the King?
GERTRUDE: O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!
HAMLET: A bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother. 
GERTRUDE: As kill a king!
HAMLET: Ay, lady, it was my word.
[Parts the arras and sees Polonius.]
Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better. Take thy fortune;
Thou findest to be too busy is some danger. --
Leave wringing of your hands. Peace, sit you down, 
And let me wring your heart, for so I shall
If it be made of penetrable stuff,
If damned custom have not brassed it so [brassed = hardened]
That it be proof and bulwark against sense. [bulwark = fortified]
GERTRUDE: What have I done, that thou dare wag thy tongue 
In noise so rude against me?
That blurs the grace and blush of modesty,
Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love
And sets a blister there, makes marriage vows 
As false as dicers' oaths, O, such a deed [dicers’ = gamblers’]
As from the body of contraction plucks [contraction = betrothal]
The very soul, and sweet religion makes
A rhapsody of words. Heaven's face does glow
O'er this solidity and compound mass [this . . . mass = the earth] 
With heated visage, as against the doom; [the doom = Judgment Day]
Is thought-sick at the act.
That roars so loud and thunders in the index? [index = prologue]
[In the following speech, Hamlet typically shows Gertrude two pictures, one of old King Hamlet, the other of his brother Claudius.]
HAMLET: Look here upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers. 
See what a grace was seated on this brow: [old King Hamlet, H’s father]
Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself, [Hyperion = Apollo; Jove = king of gods]
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command, [Mars = god of war]
A station like the herald Mercury [station = bearing; Mercury = messenger of gods]
New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill; 
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal
To give the world assurance of a man.
This was your husband.
Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear, 
Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this moor? Ha, have you eyes? [batten =gorge; moor = hill]
You cannot call it love, for at your age
The heyday in the blood is tame, it's humble, 
And waits upon the judgment, and what judgment
Would step from this to this?
Else could you not have motion, but sure that sense
Is apoplexed, for madness would not err, [apoplexed = paralyzed]
Nor sense to ecstasy was ne'er so thralled [thralled = captive] 
But it reserved some quantity of choice
To serve in such a difference. What devil was't
That thus hath cozened you at hoodman-blind? [cozen’d = cheated at blind man’s bluff]
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all; 
Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope. O shame, where is thy blush?
If thou canst mutine in a matron's bones, [mutine = mutiny]
To flaming youth let virtue be as wax 
And melt in her own fire. Proclaim no shame
When the compulsive ardour gives the charge, [ardor = sexual heat]
Since frost itself as actively doth burn,
And reason panders will. [will = lust]
GERTRUDE: O Hamlet, speak no more!
Thou turnest my eyes into my very soul, 
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct. [leave tinct = give up stain]
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, [enseamed = greasy]
Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty! [sty = pig pen] 
GERTRUDE: O, speak to me no more!
These words like daggers enter in my ears.
No more, sweet Hamlet!
HAMLET: A murderer and a villain!
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe [tithe = tenth]
Of your precedent lord, a Vice of kings,
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule, 
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole,
And put it in his pocket --
GERTRUDE: No more!
[Enter GHOST in his night-gown] [ghost = Old King Hamlet, H’s father, Gertrude’s 1st husband]
HAMLET: A king of shreds and patches --
Save me, and hover o'er me with your wings,
You heavenly guards! What would your gracious figure? 
GERTRUDE: Alas, he's mad! [he = Hamlet; mad = crazy]
HAMLET: Do you not come your tardy son to chide,
That, lapsed in time and passion, lets go by
Th' important acting of your dread command?
O, say! 
GHOST: Do not forget! This visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose. [whet = sharpen; blunted = dulled]
But look, amazement on thy mother sits,
O, step between her and her fighting soul.
Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works, 
Speak to her, Hamlet.
HAMLET: How is it with you, lady?
GERTRUDE: Alas, how is't with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy,
And with the incorporeal air do hold discourse? [incorporeal = empty]
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep, 
And as the sleeping soldiers in th' alarm,
Your bedded hair, like life in excrements, [excrements = growths]
Start up and stand an end. O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience. Whereon do you look? [What do you see?] 
HAMLET: On him, on him! look you how pale he glares!
His form and cause conjoined, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable. -- Do not look upon me,
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects, then what I have to do 
Will want true colour -- tears perchance for blood.
GERTRUDE: To whom do you speak this?
HAMLET: Do you see nothing there?
GERTRUDE: Nothing at all, yet all that is I see.
HAMLET: Nor did you nothing hear?
GERTRUDE: No, nothing but ourselves.
HAMLET: Why, look you there, look how it steals away! 
My father, in his habit as he lived!
Look where he goes, even now, out at the portal. [Exit GHOST]
GERTRUDE: This is the very coinage of your brain, [coinage = hallucination]
This bodiless creation ecstasy [ecstasy = madness]
Is very cunning in. 
My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time,
And makes as healthful music. It is not madness
That I have uttered. Bring me to the test,
And I the matter will reword, which madness
Would gambol from. Mother, for love of grace, [gambol = run freely] 
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul, [unction = comfort]
That not your trespass but my madness speaks;
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whiles rank corruption, mining all within, [whiles = while]
Infects unseen. Confess yourself to heaven, 
Repent what's past, avoid what is to come;
And do not spread the compost on the weeds
To make them ranker. Forgive me this my virtue,
For in the fatness of these pursy times
Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg, 
Yea, curb and woo for leave to do him good.
GERTRUDE: O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain. [cleft . . . in twain = divided in two]
HAMLET: O, throw away the worser part of it,
And live the purer with the other half.
Good night, but go not to my uncle's bed -- 
Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits evil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery 
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence, the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either [ . . . ] the devil or throw him out 
With wondrous potency.
And when you are desirous to be blest,
I'll blessing beg of you. --For this same lord, [this . . . lord = Polonius]
I do repent; but heaven hath pleased it so
To punish me with this, and this with me, 
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. So again good night.
I must be cruel only to be kind.
This bad begins and worse remains behind. 
One word more, good lady.
GERTRUDE: What shall I do?
HAMLET: Not this, by no means, that I bid you do:
Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed, [bloat king = Claudius]
Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse,
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses, [reechy = foul] 
Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out,
That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft.
For who that's but a queen, fair, sober, wise, 
Would from a paddock, from a bat, a gib, [paddock = toad; gib = tom-cat]
Such dear concernings hide? Who would do so?
No, in despite of sense and secrecy,
Unpeg the basket on the house's top,
Let the birds fly, and like the famous ape, 
To try conclusions in the basket creep,
And break your own neck down.
GERTRUDE: Be thou assured, if words be made of breath,
And breath of life, I have no life to breathe
What thou hast said to me. 
HAMLET: I must to
I had forgot. 'Tis so concluded on.
HAMLET: There's letters sealed, and my two schoolfellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fanged, [adders = snakes]
They bear the mandate, they must sweep my way 
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work,
For 'tis the sport to have the engineer [enginer = engineer, sapper]
Hoist with his own petard, an't shall go hard [petard = bomb; the one who set the bomb is blown up]
But I will delve one yard below their mines, [mines = land mines]
And blow them at the moon. O, 'tis most sweet 
When in one line two crafts directly meet.
This man shall set me packing;
I'll lug the guts into the neighboring room. [lug the guts = drag Polonius’s corpse]
Mother, good night indeed. This counselor [This counselor = Polonius]
Is now most still, most secret, and most grave, 
Who was in life a foolish prating knave.
Come, sir to draw toward an end with you.
Good night, mother.
[Exeunt severally. Hamlet tugging in Polonius.]
from Act V, scene 2
[Enter King, Queen, Laertes, Lords,
Osric, and Attendants with