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Last Updated on March 13, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1859

Brevity is the soul of wit (2.2.90)

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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 gentlemen who had borrowed extensively from other gentlemen. This borrowing became so common that many men had to sell off pieces of their estates in order to maintain their lavish lifestyle in London to the disadvantage of their heirs. Borrowing did not matter as much as the keeping up of appearances, a theme in many Shakespeare plays.

The play’s the thing (2.2.604)

This phrase is used and adapted by many critics of theater and film in their reviews, as well as by marketing firms substituting the name of their product for the word ‘‘play.’’ What is never questioned is the word ‘‘thing.’’ What ‘‘thing’’ do we mean? Or is it THE thing? For Hamlet, the ‘‘thing’’ is the play, The Murder of Gonzago, in which he will insert ‘‘some dozen or sixteen lines, which I would set down’’ (2.2.541-542) that would apply to Claudius. Depending on the King’s reaction, Hamlet will have the proof that he needs to believe what the Ghost has told him. We can easily believe that Claudius might be moved by such a play as we are familiar with ‘‘tear-jerker’’ movies and other visual events that have an effect on audiences.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark (1.4.90)

Marcellus, a guard on duty at Elsinore at the opening of Hamlet, recognizes that all is not well with the government of Denmark when he and Horatio go to tell Hamlet they have seen his father’s Ghost. He bases this belief on the Ghost appearing on the ramparts, the non-stop, around-the-clock preparations for war at the castle, and the wedding of the widow to her brother-in-law so quickly after the funeral of her first husband, his brother. Though Hamlet beckons the men to follow him when he meets the Ghost, they refuse to follow someone in such a manic state. Hamlet, however, who does not hear Marcellus’s remark, had previously referred to Denmark as ‘‘an unweeded garden / That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely’’ (1.2.135-137). Everyone, not just Hamlet, Marcellus, and Horatio, will soon know just how far the rot extends.

To be, or not to be (3.1.56)

Probably the most famous of Shakespeare’s quotes, this line occurs just before Hamlet’s confrontation with Ophelia. Hamlet, educated apparently in the humanist tradition, debates with himself over whether he should go through with the plan to avenge his father’s death to its ultimate conclusion, using all his capabilities, or just give up and kill himself. He wonders if there is an afterlife, and if there is, why no one has returned to tell the rest of us what it is like. He may be recalling that Ghosts could tell, but will not tell of his torments. This thought raises the question of which is better: to suffer now or suffer later. Or is death just a dream, a gentle sleep with only sweet dreams?

Alas, poor Yorick (5.1.185)

Because of limited burial space in Shakespeare’s day , graves were frequently recycled. The graves would be cleared of the bones of the previous tenant, and would then be taken to a charnel house. This may be why Shakespeare left a curse on whoever moved his bones as his epitaph. When the Grave Digger clears a grave for Ophelia, the grave he is unearthing is that of Yorick, the old King Hamlet’s jester. When Hamlet was a boy, Yorick would amuse the young Prince with jokes and stories. Hamlet, just returned from England and his adventures with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, has obviously had time to think about his ‘‘to be or not to be’’ soliloquy, and has come to the conclusion that all men, happy or sad, comic or tragic, die.

The Serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown (1.5.39-40)

The ghost of Hamlet’s father speaks these lines in explaining to Hamlet that Claudius murdered him, and that Hamlet must avenge his father’s death. These lines set the stage for the basic plot in the play.

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, / That I ever was born to set it right (1.5.188-89)

Hamlet, now with the burden of avenging his father’s death, laments his state. The quote illustrates Hamlet’s view of the enormity of the task, and foreshadows his wavering and hesitation.

What a piece of work is a man! / How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties (2.2.303-04)

Part of one of the most famous of Hamlet’s speeches in the play, the quote illustrates Hamlet’s philosophical dilemma. He proclaims the goodness and beauty of man, but his father’s death and the ill-fated events make him ponder whether it is all an illusion, and whether life is a meaningless sham.

Give me that man / That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him / In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart (3.2.71-73)

In many of Shakespeare’s plays, the conflict between man’s passion and his reason is apparent, especially in Hamlet, who vacillates between action and restraint. In the context of the quote, Hamlet appears to be referring to Claudius, who he hopes to catch with a guilty face upon seeing the play that Hamlet has orchestrated.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: / Words without thoughts never to heaven go (3.3.97-98)

Spoken by Claudius at the end of the scene, they express his futility in attempting to pray for forgiveness for his murder of King Hamlet. He is unable to relinquish everything he has gained from the murder, and thus has not atoned for the act. Consequently, his prayer lacks sincerity, and is merely ‘‘words.’’

O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth (4.4.65-66)

Shocked and dismayed at his inability to act, Hamlet firmly resolves at the close of this scene to take action. In this soliloquy he compares his inaction with Prince Fortinbras and his army, who are bravely fighting over a plot of land, the latter fighting and dying for causes far less compelling than Hamlet’s.

There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow (5.2.219-20)

As Hamlet prepares for a fencing match with Laertes, Horatio asks Hamlet if he would like a delay, but in an often-quoted speech, Hamlet refuses, saying that whatever happens is God's will, including the fall of a sparrow, a reference found in the Gospel of Matthew. Hamlet finally appears at peace, ready to accept his fate.

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