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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...

(The entire section is 1,859 words.)