Come give us a taste of your quality, come, a passionate
What speech, my good lord?
Hamlet:Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 431–440
I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was never acted,
or if it was, not above once; for the play, I remember, pleas'd not
the million, 'twas caviare to the general. But it was, as I receiv'd it
—and others, whose judgments in such matters cried in the top of
mine—an excellent play, well digested in the scenes, set down
with as much modesty as cunning.
"Caviary to the general" is not a delicacy prepared for the commanding officer. Like "pearls before swine," it refers to quality unbefitting those who partake in it. The "general" are the multitude—Hamlet's "million," too numerous and too vulgar to grasp the "quality" (here, "skill") of an excellent stage play.
Hamlet addresses the traveling dramatic troupe which has come to the Danish court to entertain the king. This is the same troupe the prince will use to "catch the conscience" of Claudius [see THE PLAY'S THE THING]. Hamlet nostalgically recalls a speech from a dramatization of the fall of Troy and commends the players' unappreciated skill. Shakespeare may be parodying the complaints of other playwrights, especially Ben Jonson, that the many-headed multitude don't know art when they see it. Despite Hamlet's Jonsonian snobbery, Shakespeare's own position was probably more ambivalent.