What is the significance of this quote in Shakespeare's Hamlet? "I have of late—but wherefore I know not..."I have of late—but wherefore I know not— lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of...

What is the significance of this quote in Shakespeare's Hamlet? "I have of late—but wherefore I know not..."

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—
lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed,
it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame,
the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging(305)
firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire,
why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent
congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! how
noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving
how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in(310)
apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the
paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence
of dust? Man delights not me—no, nor woman nei-
ther, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In this scene (Act Two, scene two) of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet is extremely depressed. His father is dead—murdered by his uncle; his mother has seemingly forgotten her loving marriage to Old Hamlet, marrying her brother-in-law very soon after his death—and he is a murderer. Ophelia seems to have joined the King and her father in discovering what bothers Hamlet. Hamlet is embarrassed by the drunken behavior of those in his kingdom (especially Claudius), and feels isolated. He is so sad that he considers suicide. Out of the blue, he now has to find proof of Claudius' guilt and kill him. Hamlet is a student, not a soldier—but feels compelled (after speaking with the Ghost) to avenge his father's death.

In this segment, Hamlet "waxes philosophical," admiring the miracle of creation, of man and his great accomplishments. However, while he is able to see the magnificence of God's hands at work, his knowledge of what men can do distresses him greatly, and he cannot rouse himself to be impressed.

Hamlet notes that he has lost his joy ("mirth"), but he is not sure why:

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—

lost all my mirth (301-302)

He does not participate in activities that have entertained him before. Instead of seeing the world as a work of art, it is nothing more than a barren piece of rock.

...the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory (304)

Hamlet describes the beauties of the sky, but notes how all has changed into a poisonous, toxic place—we can only surmise that this is due to his devastation over his father's death, his mother's remarriage, the skulduggery that exists at the castle at every turn, and even his perception that Ophelia has abandoned him.

...this most

excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging 

firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire,

why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent

congregation of vapours. (304-308)

While the images he shares of the sky and air are beautiful, they only allow for a more drastic comparison of how he perceives these glorious things changed. The new mood is set with dark words like "foul" and "pestilent."

Hamlet's real disappointment is seen in the capacity of mankind, and the choice of men to act like barbaric animals. He notes that man is a miracle, a masterpiece, a work of art. He compares man to an angel, to a god. Man is able to reason (think). He moves with grace. He is the greatest of God's creations, far superior to any of God's "animals." And yet, for all of this, Hamlet has lost faith in mankind and notes that neither man or woman pleases him: for all (in his mind) have let him down.

What a piece of work is a man! how

noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving

how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in

apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the

paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence

of dust? Man delights not me—no, nor woman nei-

ther... (308-314)

Certainly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to whom Hamlet speaks, are a perfect example: allegedly friends, they have come to the castle supposedly out of concern for Hamlet, but have really been sent for to see what they can learn of Hamlet's mood. Hamlet will note that Claudius will use them until the King has no more use for them. Hamlet's childhood friends serve only their own best interests—just another disappointment to the young prince.

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