Study Guide

Hamlet

by William Shakespeare

Hamlet Quotes

Important Quotations

Brevity is the soul of wit (2.2.90)
This phrase is from Polonius’s speech to Gertrude and Claudius concerning why he thinks young Hamlet is mad. But he seems to be having a hard time getting to the point. It must be remembered that, although Polonius is a minister in the Danish court, he is still talking to the King and Queen of Denmark as well as the uncle/step-father and mother of a man who could be the next King. He just cannot blurt out that he has a corny love letter from Hamlet to Ophelia that suggests he is lovesick, which in the Renaissance, was considered a medical condition that could result in death. A man affected by this disease was known as an enamorato. Polonius therefore skirts the issue until Gertrude gives him a way in: ‘‘More matter, with less art’’ (95), or in other words, get to the point.

Cruel to be kind (3.4.178)
Polonius, with Gertrude and Claudius’s approval, intends to cure Hamlet of his lovesickness by getting Gertrude to tell him to snap out of it. Hamlet, who has just been given an opportunity to kill Claudius in the chapel, goes to see his mother to beg her to give up Claudius. Their exchange is fiery and angry. Hamlet murders Polonius, who is hiding behind the arras and sees his father’s Ghost again. Hamlet spends a good deal of time trying to rationalize his action against Polonius, but then his thoughts turn again to his mother. He begs her not to sleep with Polonius and she agrees. Realizing that so much violence has passed during their meeting, he tells her that he ‘‘must be cruel only to be kind.’’ But Hamlet is also speaking to the audience, letting them know that his treatment of Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fits into his plan for revenge of his father’s murder. In order to be kind to those who have been tainted by Claudius, Hamlet must be cruel and mad.

A hit, a very palpable hit (5.2.281)
During the duel between Laertes and Hamlet, Hamlet scores a point which Laertes contests. Hamlet looks to Osric for a judgment of whether he scored. Osric replies with ‘‘A hit, a very palpable hit.’’ For the Elizabethans, ‘‘palpable,’’ which had originally meant ‘‘sensitive to the touch,’’ had come to mean ‘‘perceivable by any of the senses.’’ Here Shakespeare also intends an ironic meaning. When Hamlet has been hit by the poisoned tip of Laertes’ sword, he will feel it physically.

The lady doth protest too much (3.2.230)
During the play-within-a-play, The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet asks his mother how she likes the play. His question is pointed. The Queen has been watching the Player Queen swear undying devotion to her husband and that she will never take another husband after he is dead. Her life will simply end. This, in Hamlet’s opinion, is how Gertrude should have behaved when King Hamlet died. For Shakespeare’s audience, ‘‘protest’’ meant to make a vow or a solemn promise. What Gertrude is actually saying is that the Player Queen’s vows and promises are ‘‘too much,’’ too pretty, too unbelievable. Unfortunately, we do not know what kind of marriage Gertrude and King Hamlet had, only Hamlet’s perception of how they behaved toward each other in his presence, so that by her response, Gertrude may be implying that such vows as these are typical of a silly first love, and that such silliness is not part of her own second marriage.

Method in the madness (2.2.205-206)
Polonius, trying to discover what ails Hamlet, comes upon him reading, and engages him in conversation. Though Hamlet’s responses do not make much sense, Polonius can see that they could not be the ravings of a madman (such as will be seen with Ophelia), but that they seem to be carefully crafted responses. Hamlet is using Polonius’s own techniques to make fun of the old man by enumerating the many characteristics of feeble, old men. The phrase really reads: ‘‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.’’ Like many of the phrases from Hamlet, we often change it to: there’s a method to my madness.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be (1.3.75)
When Laertes get permission from Claudius to go to France for an education in gentleman’s ways, Polonius offers him a speech full of clichés and platitudes. This advice is probably the most famous, followed by ‘‘to thine own self be true’’ (78). It may seem to us that Polonius is just telling Laertes the obvious, but in Shakespeare’s audience were probably many...

(The entire section is 1859 words.)

Hamlet Essential Quotes

Essential Passage by Character: Hamlet

HAMLET:
O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah, fie! 'tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead! Nay, not so much, not two;
So excellent a king, that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on; and yet, within a month—
Let me not think on't! Frailty, thy name is woman—
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body
Like Niobe, all tears—why she, even she—
O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer—married with my uncle,
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to, good.
But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue!

Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 132-162

Summary
Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is speaking to himself. He is saddened and disheartened by recent events: his father’s death and the marriage of his mother, Gertrude the queen, to his uncle Claudius. By marrying his mother, Claudius has become king and denies his nephew the right to the crown. But losing the kingship is not what upsets Hamlet. Rather, Hamlet is depressed and angry by his mother’s betrayal of the memory of his father (she has remarried in less than two months after his death). Moreover, Hamlet does not feel that his uncle is anything like his father as a ruler or a parent. Claudius, too, has betrayed Hamlet’s father by marrying Gertrude. Despite all of their treachery, however, Hamlet does not feel he can speak out against their poor behavior and decisions. Although it saddens him, he says, “I must hold my tongue.”

This soliloquy establishes how much Hamlet...

(The entire section is 1085 words.)

Essential Passage by Character: Gertrude

HAMLET:
Here is your husband, like a mildew'd 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?
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? Sense sure you have,
Else could you not have motion; but sure that sense
Is apoplex'd; for madness would not err,
Nor sense to ecstacy was ne'er so thrall'd
But it reserv'd some quantity of choice
To serve in such a difference. What devil was't
That thus hath cozen'd you at hoodman-blind?
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? Rebellious hell,
If thou canst mutine in a matron's bones,
To flaming youth let virtue be as wax
And melt in her own fire. Proclaim no shame
When the compulsive ardour gives the charge,
Since frost itself as actively doth burn,
And reason panders will.

GERTRUDE:
O Hamlet, speak no more!
Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.

Act 3, Scene 4, Lines 70-98

Summary
Gertrude has called Hamlet to her room, yet she is disturbed by his manic behavior. Hidden behind the arras is Polonius, trying to discover more of the cause of Hamlet’s madness. Yet, when Hamlet confronts his mother with her wickedness, Gertrude feels significantly threatened and cries out. Echoing her cry, Polonius reveals his hiding place and Hamlet, thinking that it was Claudius behind the arras, stabs and kills Polonius. Hamlet regrets his death, but he regrets that it was not Claudius even more.

Gertrude, in the face of ongoing judgment from Hamlet, asks her son what she has done to deserve his contempt. Thinking she is playing ignorant, Hamlet accuses her of an immoral marriage to her husband’s brother.

Hamlet points out to Gertrude two portraits of both her husbands. He compares them to each other, first taking note the excellent qualities of his own father. In contrast, he illuminates the wretchedness and wickedness of her second husband, Claudius. Using the Biblical allusion of the “mildewed ear / Blasting his wholesome brother” (from Genesis 41, in which the Pharaoh dreams of withered wheat consuming the wholesome wheat, prophesying the coming drought), Hamlet hints that all that was good about King Hamlet will be destroyed by King Claudius.

Hamlet questions the reason for her marriage. He states that, because she is middle-aged, it cannot be for love, for the passions have...

(The entire section is 1246 words.)

Essential Passage by Character: The Ghost

GHOST:
I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand an end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood....

(The entire section is 1129 words.)

Essential Passage by Theme: Revenge

HAMLET:
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven,
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd.
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge!
He took my father grossly, full of bread,
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands, who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
'tis heavy with him; and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and seasoned for his...

(The entire section is 1332 words.)

Essential Passage by Theme: Redemption

FORTINBRAS:
For me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune.
I have some rights of memory in this kingdom,
Which now, to claim my vantage doth invite me.

HORATIO:
Of that I shall have also cause to speak,
And from his mouth whose voice will draw on more.
But let this same be presently perform'd,
Even while men's minds are wild, lest more mischance
On plots and errors happen.

FORTINBRAS:
Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royal; and, for his passage,
The soldiers' music and...

(The entire section is 1124 words.)