hamlet motifs themes

Issues, Concerns, Themes, Values #

The meanings of a play emerge indirectly or implicitly via the vicarious personal involvement or identification and empathy of us the responders.

Meaning can also be derived from recurring Motifs which unify the plot and provide clues to the composer’s underlying concerns in creating meaning through patterns of design.

Shakespeare’s plays are a rich minefield of layers and layers of meaning and we can often find recurring concerns developed in similar or differing ways. Variations upon a theme will reinforce the message.

Motifs help to foster textual integrity. Hamlet is full of recurring references, allusions, images and language that provide a pattern of meaning, including Providence are we the masters of our own identity?) Deception, Betrayal, Loyalty……

Shakespeare embodies the moral relativism of the Post-Modernists. One can never be sure whose side he is on. Shakespeare is full of moral and philosophical ambiguities. As John Bell states: “he doesn’t commit himself to any one stance….he didn’t have to believe anything. His great objectivity lead to ambivalence because life is ambiguous.

Hamlet is one of the most introspective of Shakespleare’s characters; he is questioning everything - not sure of anything - he even questions the ghost scene with his dead father, questioning whether he might be of the devil. It is full of moral dilemmas.

Unifying Motifs in Hamlet: #

Motifs are recurring images, ideas or variations on themes that emphasize or reinforce overriding concerns of the composer. They also help to provide unity to a large scale work.

Brevity #

Characters are wordy. They promise to be brief but fail to deliver:

The GHOST, in describing his poisoning:

Brief let me be.

Then elaborates with details and images for another 34 lines.


I will be brief: your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,
What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?
But let that go.


More matter, with less art.


Madam, I swear I use no art at all.

LORD POLONIUS on the Play:

This is too long.


It shall to the barber’s, with your beard.

This could be another self referential comment as this is Shakespeare’s longest play. Kenneth Branagh used every line, running for more than four hours.

Blaise Pascal:

I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.

Shakespeare can be self-effacing at times and we have to read closely to pick up on his tonal irony.

Appearance and reality, #

Duplicity or Deception- things not as they “seem”. The word “seem” is used repeatedly. Gertrude seems virtuous, Claudius seems legitimate. Is Hamlet all that he seems?

Hamlet to his mother:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;

Hamlet could be totally false in this, because later he admits to having an “antic disposition”. He often performs to attempt to discover the sincerity of others. He plays mind games with Polonius, attempts to trick Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and parodies Osric.

Polonius to Ophelia

We are oft to blame in this,–
‘Tis too much proved–that with devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o’er
The devil himself.

From the late 1590’s, Shakespeare appears to have changed tack. Perhaps it was the death of his 11 year old son, Hamnet, from pestilence that ushered in a darker perspective on life. Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear take a much more dimmer view of humanity.

Rhodri Lewis, in Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, contends that Shakespeare adopts a contrary view of the norm being good, to a portrait of “refractory moral dislocation”. “

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right”.

When he accidently kills Polonius, Hamlet acknowledges his fate:

I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.

He then demotively carries on:

I’ll lug the guts into the neighbour room.Who was in life a foolish prating knave.

Shakespeare became disillusioned with the humanist moral philosophy as a measure of human experience.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy".

Deception: #

Hamlet resolves to be nice to his mother.

will speak daggers to her, but use none;
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites;

Yet later he questions:

What devil was’t
That thus hath cozen’d you at hoodman-blind?

Hamlet to Ophelia on Women’s faces: Hamlet accuses all women of affectations and cosmetic ruses to seduce men.

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God
has given you one face, and you make yourselves
another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp,

This could be an oblique reference to all ladies of the court who were using lead based cosmetics that corroded their faces, requiring even more powder to cover up the pock marks.


Ophelia, walk you here. Gracious, so please you,
We will bestow ourselves.


Read on this book;
That show of such an exercise may colour
Your loneliness. We are oft to blame in this,–
‘Tis too much proved–that with devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o’er
The devil himself.


“The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word
O heavy burthen!”

Hamlet to Horatio

Why should the poor be flatter’d?
No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning


Laertes, was your father dear to you?*
Or are you like the painting of a sorrow,
A face without a heart?

A form of the word “honest” is used 16 times in the play.


O, farewell, honest soldier: (FRANCISCO )


It is an honest ghost,


Then I would you were so honest a man.


Honest, my lord!


Ay, sir; to be honest, as this world goes, is to be
one man picked out of ten thousand.

HAMLET (to Polonius)

I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for
yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab
you could go backward.


None, my lord, but that the world’s grown honest.

HAMLET to R & G:

No such matter: I will not sort you with the rest
of my servants, for, to speak to you like an honest
man, I am most dreadfully attended.

HAMLET to the actors

the phrase that might
indict the author of affectation; but called it an
honest method

HAMLET to Ophelia

Ha, ha! are you honest?


What means your lordship?


That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should
admit no discourse to your beauty.


Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than
with honesty?


Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner
transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the
force of honesty can translate beauty into his
likeness: this was sometime a paradox, but now the
time gives it proof. I did love you once.


Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a
breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest;


Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring?


‘Tis brief, my lord.


As woman’s love.

Is Hamlet mad? #

T.S. Eliot claims that “that the “madness” of Hamlet was feigned in order to escape suspicion, and successfully manage to kill a king who is well guarded”

To his mother Hamlet claims sincerity:

“Seems madam? Nay it is, I know not seems.”

To Horatio he admits:

“I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on-“

To Rosencrantz and Guildenstern he dissembles:


Good my lord, what is your cause of distemper? you
do, surely, bar the door upon your own liberty, if
you deny your griefs to your friend.


Sir, I lack advancement.


How can that be, when you have the voice of the king
himself for your succession in Denmark?


Ay, but sir, ‘While the grass grows,’–the proverb
is something musty.


To Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is*
southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.

To Gertrude:

*Make you to ravel all this matter out,
That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft. *

Misogyny: #

T.S Eliot suggests that Shakespeare’s Hamlet, .. is a play dealing with the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son Hamlet appears to put more blame on his mother for betraying his father than anyone else.

–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.

At the Performance of the Play:


for, look you, how cheerfully
my mother looks, and my father died within these two hours.


Nay, ’tis twice two months, my lord.


So long?………. . O heavens! die two
months ago, and not forgotten yet? Then there’s
hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half
a year:

Later as she comments on the Prologue of the Play:


‘Tis brief, my lord.


As woman’s love.

Men prove to be just as fickle as women.

Yet Ophelia claims:

I was the one more decieved

Providence #

A prevalent concern raised in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies is the question of Providence or destiny: is life pre-deterministic (predestination) or open, free, random, capricious. As in most issues, Shakespeare presents two sides and allows the audience to choose.

Fintan O"Toole writes:

Hamlet and Macbeth, Othello and Lear are distinguished in these dramas by the illusion that they can determine events by their own actions. They have, they believe, the power to say what will happen next. But no amount of power can ever be great enough in an irrational world. The universe does not follow orders.

Hamlet assumes a rational moral order in the universe where Fate is controlled by Nemesis; divine retribution or poetic justice. Hamlet searches for the ultimate meaning of life in what is basically an irrational world through most of his soliloquies which dwell on his existential quest to understand life. The universal question revolves around whether the universe makes sense or not.

However when Hamlet tells his mother, Hoist with his own petard, this concerns landmines for an engineer to be blown by his own bomb. It becomes a matter of poetic justice - to get your just deserts.


I am justly killed with my own treachery.

  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s letter telling the English to execute Hamlet is turned against themselves.
  • Leartes and Claudius both die from the same same sword they envenomed .
  • Gertrude dies from the poisoned wine the King intended for Hamlet.

When the King dies, Leartes says:

He is justly served.

Existentialists assume a universe governed by chance; an indifferent and purposeless universe where free will reigns and anything can happen.

There is conflicting or ambiguous references to Christian determinism and pagan fatalism. Fortuna is frequently mentioned.

Quotes on Destiny:

At first Hamlet questions his free choice:

“Our wills and fates do so contrary run,
That our devices still are overthrown,
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own (III 2 210)

Later he accepts his fate:

and that should learn us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will” (V 2 9 )

From Montaigne?


Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all:
(V 2 216 - 220)

Motifs: (recurring ideas, themes, symbols) #

(recurring ideas or situations, repetition and variation of themes) Motifs unify the plot and provide clues to the composer’s underlying concerns in creating meaning through patterns of design.


  1. Unify play providing cohesion and reinforcement for major themes
  • Play as in drama in the theatre
  • Play within the Play, The Mouse Trap

A passing troupe of Players perform the Murder of Gonzago as a device to determine Claudius’s guilt.

  • Played upon as a pipe:

HAMLET praising Horatio before the Play for his stoicism:

blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,
That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please.

HAMLET to Guildenstern after realising they were sent for:

I do not well understand that.
Will you play upon this pipe?


My lord, I cannot.


I do beseech you.


I know no touch of it, my lord.


‘Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with
your lingers and thumb, give it breath with your
mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music.
Look you, these are the stops.


But these cannot I command to any utterance of
harmony; I have not the skill.


Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me!
You would play upon me; you would seem to know
my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my
mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to
the top of my compass: and there is much music,
excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot
you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am
easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what
instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you
cannot play upon me.

Play sport - a fencing duel

For ’tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petard:
(Hamlet to his mother)

In a contradictory play, the duel is symmetrical and well structured. It is a clever device of Shakespeare, that he can resolve the problem through Sport; a formula of heroic violence which leaves the hero untainted. Hamlet has no choice, therefore no blame.

Claudius is not a sporting man; everything he does is tinged with evil; he is guilty of a foul, “most unnatural murder”, and now he is a cheat relying on poison and an unbuttoned sword to make it a duel to the death for four of the main characters.

Hamlet is genuinely heroic in that rather than revenge, he seeks Leartes’ forgiveness.

“That I have shot my arrow over
the house and killed my brother”.

Hamlet is freed from guilt in that apology and by the fact that he is killing through a sporting feature in which he has no choice to do anything else.

“Hoist by their own petard”

They are also killed by their own poison


Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric;
I am justly kill’d with mine own treachery.



He is justly served;
It is a poison temper’d by himself.

R&G killed by their letter

Betrayal: #

A betrayal of trust can be a most traumatising experience. Some interpretations see the main cause of the relationship breakdown between Hamlet and Ophelia as a mutual feeling of mistrust - betrayal; Hamlet feels she is assisting her father in spying on him, while Ophelia feels that his coolness towards her indicates his lack of constancy.

Yet Ophelia claims:

I was the more deceived. Act III

Hamlet also feels betrayed by his childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern because he feels they are sent to spy on him, therefore are not wholly honest with him.

Claudius has betrayed the trust of old Hamlet, while Gertrude’s over hasty marriage to Claudius is seen by Hamlet as a fundamental betrayal of her marriage vows.

By spying on Leartes, Polonius reveals his lack of trust, yet on his death, Leartes feels compelled to demonstrate his loyalty and seek revenge.

Fortinbras too feels a betrayal of trust in an agreement his father had with Old Hamlet that is not reinstated until the end of the play.

The people feel a betrayal in the fourth Act, when the mob bursts through the doors of Elsinore:

They cry, “Choose we! Laertes shall be king!”
Caps, hands, and tongues applaud it to the clouds:
“Laertes shall be king, Laertes king!”

Choose we—we get to decide who will be king. These are not mere followers; they see themselves as kingmakers. So did the Capitol invaders: Choose we! Trump shall be president!

I. Exponents (motifs) in the Play HAMLET #

The prevailing atmosphere of the play is one of fear and insecurity. Everyone is distrustful of others; there is little sense of shared empathetic community. Like Orwell in 1984, or today, surveillance is the norm.

The jumpy guards on the battlements at Elsinore as Hamlet begins are not watching out for ghosts: war is already coming, as Young Fortinbras threatens to invade if the lands Old Hamlet seized from Norway are not returned. Fintan O’Toole

1, Guarded space intruded upon unexpectedly: #

The prevailing atmosphere from the beginning is one of fearfulness - who can you trust?

a) Scene I, the guards at every change of the guard display their fear.

b) the ghost on the guards and later on Hamlet

c) Polonius— continually eaves dropping

d) Hamlet on Ophelia in her room

e) Hamlet and Laertes in Ophelia’s grave

f) Pirates on ship to England

g) Fortinbras on Denmark

2. Advice freely given: #

Free advice is worth every penny and comes with a money back guarantee.

But it is usually paternalistic and patronising advice, given by all and sundry to make the advisor look good.

a) Polonius to Laertes and Ophelia


I shall the effect of this good lesson keep,
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

Chaucer makes a similar point when he has the Parsoun say:

“erste he wroughte and thanne he taughte”.

b) Ghost to Hamlet

c) Claudius & Queen Gertrude to Hamlet

d) Hamlet to Ophelia and Gertrude

e) Claudius to Laertes

3. Revenge Theme (Son of his father) #

Revenge is an instinctual and basic impulse – a reaction, not a considered and Christian response. Avenge tends to be impersonal and sociially constructive.

a) Pyrrhus of Achilles

b) Hamlet of Hamlet

c) Laertes of Polonius

d) Fortinbras of his father (Fortinbras)

The catchphrase in The Princess Bride,

“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

4. Allusions to traps (people trapped like animals) #

a) Polonius to Ophelia – I, iii 1. 120

ay, springes to catch woodcocks”.

b) Mousetrap — play to catch the conscience of the king

c) Claudius feels that he is trapped — III. iii 11. 70—72

“Oh limed soul that struggling to be free
Art more engaged”

d) Hamlet to plotters: V. ii. 31

“Being thus benetted round with villainies,”

e) Laertes to Osric — V. ii.. 11.319-321

..as a woodcock to mine own springe”

5. Love — contrast between brutish and noble love #

a) hatred of uncle paradoxically motivated by love of father

b) love for mother disillusions him creating emotional turmoil - Oedipus Complex?

c) Romantic love centered on Ophelia but thwarted

i) Polonius forbids Ophelia to respond

ii) Ghost demands revenge

iii) reasons of state demand he marry elsewhere

iv) Ophelia’s lie (where her father is) convinces Hamlet of her duplicity and betrayal. Hamlet tells her

Get thee to a nunnery”

Eventually he rejects all women

“Frailty thy name is woman”

d) Hamlet’s friendship with Horatio III.ii.54—75 Platonic, ideal full of high noble virtue?

e) Brutish love — lust between Claudius & Gertrude.

Ghost: of Claudius:

incestuous and adulterate beast


“rank — smells to high heaven”

Queen: sees her soul:

such black and grained spots

Hamlet: Scolds mother for living:

In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying, and making love
Over the nasty sty’ (III. iv. 11. 99—102)

Hamlet as he kills Claudius:

Here thou incestuous murderous damned Dane” (V.ii.339)

6. Conflict between Man’s animal and higher nature #

Shakespeare’s cynicism about human nature:


….will you see the players well bestowed?


My lord, I will use them according to their desert.


God’s bodykins, man, much better: use every man
after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?
Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
Take them in.

“What a piece of work is man?” (II.ii 316…)

What is a man* ….? (IV.i.. 11. 35 — 45)


Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a
breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest;
but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
were better my mother had not borne me: I am very
proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at
my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
imagination to give them shape, or time to act them
in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
all; believe none of us.

For a play set in pagon settings, there are a lot of religions overtones.

7. Irrationality and reason: #

Ophelia – state after father’s death and her gibberish.

Polonius senility

Hamlet’s feigned ? madness

CLAUDIUS attempts to cheer Hamlet up and stop his grieving:

’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers

HAMLET in his soliloquy challenges this:

O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer-

HAMLET, explaining the late night kettle drums,

I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour’d in the breach than the observance.

The effect of too much drinking in Denmark:

Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! (Soliloquy)


O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh


What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused

Fortinbras attack on Poland

HAMLET compares his predicament to the absurdity of Fortinbras:

Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

Reason, rational thinking and logic can also be fallible. A rationale can be utterly false. A logical argument is unsound if based on false premises. But to use your head is preferable to your heart or gut.

Jeannie Suk Gersen writes;

“rights can unfold and expand, however, they can also retract and constrict in breathtaking ways, pursuing a particular strain of logic one case at a time.”

Enduring a belief, whose logic brought tthem somewhere else to grief. Auden

8. Tension between thought and action #

a) ”To be or not to be” III.i.

b) “Now I am alone…” II ii.

That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,*
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion!*

c) “How all occasions do inform .." IV.iv

d) To Laertes in Ophelia’s grave (V.i.262,3)

e) Claudius to Laertes — IV. iv 127 — 129

Hamlet’s inaction – his refusal of the call – directly or indirectly causes eight deaths, including his own. If he had acted, then probably only Claudius would have died, but Hamlet would face charges of regicide. .

The moral of the story is that there is risk in action, but the greater risk lies in inaction. In short, action, in bad situations, is the lesser of two evils.

But maybe this isn’t the moral. Maybe the play is not exhorting the audience to act, but asking a deeper question. Namely, what does it mean for us to cross the threshold that separates reason from power? That is, what does it mean for us to abandon reason and strike back at the monster?

Reason appeals to principles. It appeals to the capacity for reason in others. It doesn’t take the law into its own hands. But what if it is sometimes reasonable to abandon reason and strike at power with power? Can reason survive such a decision?

9. The use of the word “conscience” #

as it occurs - what light it sheds on the meaning of the play:

Shakespeare is performing to a Christian audience yet using pagan characters.

a) The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king II 2 609

b) How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience! III i 50

c) Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all. III i 83

d) Now must your conscience my acquaintance seal IV 7 1

e) They are not near my conscience V. 2: 58

f) Is’t not perfect Conscience
To quit him with this arm: V. 2: 6

g) And yet ‘tis almost ‘gainst my conscience V 2 294

10. Obedience, loyalty, unquestioned submission, compliance #

Allegiance to your superiors was an unwritten code of pre modern times and so your followed orders without question, unless you were prepared to lose your head.

Hamlet to his mother: QUEEN GERTRUDE

Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet:
I pray thee, stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.


I shall in all my best obey you, madam. Act I

Contrast this with how he chastises her in Act III


What have I done, that thou darest wag thy tongue
In noise so rude against me?

Hamlet* to the Ghost:



Where wilt thou lead me? speak; I’ll go no further.


Mark me.


I will.

Polonius to the King

“Take this from that if it be not so.”

Horatio to Hamlet;

“E’en so my Lord”

Leartes to the King and his father


“Most humbly do I take my leave, my lord”

Contrast this when Laertes vows to revenge his father’s death.

To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!*
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation.

Ophelia is completely subservient to her father whose cautionary advice represents the mistrust of the entire court.


Ay, springes to catch woodcocks. I do know,*
When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows: these blazes, daughter,
From this time
Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence;
Set your entreatments at a higher rate
Than a command to parley…….

Do not believe his vows; for they are brokers,
Not of that dye which their investments show,
But mere implorators of unholy suits,
Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds,
The better to beguile. This is for all:
I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth,
Have you so slander any moment leisure,
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.
Look to’t, I charge you: come your ways.


I shall obey, my lord.

Queen Gertrude appears utterly subjugated until in the final scene she defies Claudius’s direction not to drink the poisoned wine and dies as a result:


Gertrude, do not drink.


I will, my lord; I pray you, pardon me.

11. Absurdities in Hamlet: #

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite That ever I was born to set it right. -

Hamlet’s reaction to the state of Denmark, there was a method to his madness: His antic disposition.

Polonius has no qualms about spying on his own son using pragmatic tactics; by indirections find directions out.


he’s very wild;*
Addicted so and so:’ and there put on him
What forgeries you please; marry, none so rank
As may dishonour him; take heed of that;
But, sir, such wanton, wild and usual slips
As are companions noted and most known
To youth and liberty.


As gaming, my lord.


Ay, or drinking, fencing, swearing, quarrelling,*
Drabbing: you may go so far.


My lord, that would dishonour him.


‘Faith, no; as you may season it in the charge*
You must not put another scandal on him,

  • Ophelia’s ramblings represent a mind no longer rational

  • How Fortinbras engaged in senseless war mongering can represent restoration of order is beyond me.

12. Shakespeare as revolutionary #

The people feel a betrayal in the fourth act of Hamlet, when the mob bursts through the doors of Elsinore:

They cry, “Choose we! Laertes shall be king!”
Caps, hands, and tongues applaud it to the clouds:
“Laertes shall be king, Laertes king!”

Choose we—we get to decide who will be king. These are not mere followers; they see themselves as kingmakers. So did the Capitol invaders: Choose we! Trump shall be president!

Is Shakespeare aware of the primal instinct of freedom? (Fintane O’Toole - New York Review)

13. Consequences of the “Afterlife" #

Perhaps one of the more prevalent themes of the Play, death is dealt with both in a philosophical and abstract sense and in the real concrete world as most of the main characters are dead at the end: Old Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, Hamlet, and insignificantly R&G.

Hamlet’s preoccupation with death stems from an ominous feeling he has once he realises he will have to be the scourge to “set things right”

Death: Acknowledged in “to be or not to be” Soliloquy when Hamlet speculates on dreams “ah, there’s the rub,…. What dreams may come? .. the dread of something after death”.

Claudius concerned about his soul.

Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!

Hamlethesitates killing a shriven soul.

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,

Hamlet contemplates suicide; Ophelia commits it.

Death as equaliser in graveyard scene:

“A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm..Thus a king may go in progress through the guts of a beggar.” - Hamlet to Claudius.

Noble dust of Alexander or Caesar turned to dust, earth, loam to a bunghole stopper for a beer barrel.

All attempts for a Hamlet II, have failed as there were not enough characters left alive for a sequel.


O, I die, Horatio;*
The potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit:
…………………………The rest is silence.


This quarry cries on havoc. O proud death,
What feast is toward in thine eternal cell,
That thou so many princes at a shot So bloodily hast struck?

Nature - Weeds (7 times) Flowers #


: ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature.


I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf, (memory)
Wouldst thou not stir in this.


Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected,
With Hecate’s ban thrice blasted, thrice infected,


And do not spread the compost on the weeds,

Gertrude on Ophelia’s death: #

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.

Ophelia’s flowers: #

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,
love, remember: and there is pansies. that’s for thoughts.
There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue (flattery – rue regrets)

for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it
herb-grace o’ Sundays: *O you must wear your rue (rue – adultery/abortions)

a difference.

There’s a daisy: I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died
(faithfulness and fidelity)

(innocence and gentle)

Hamlet on War: #


*Our last king,

Was, as you know, by Fortinbras of Norway,
Thereto prick’d on by a most emulate pride,
Dared to the combat; in which our valiant Hamlet–
For so this side of our known world esteem’d him–
Did slay this Fortinbras; who by a seal’d compact,
Well ratified by law and heraldry,
Did forfeit, with his life, all those his lands
Which he stood seized of, to the conqueror:
Against the which, a moiety competent
Was gaged by our king; which had return’d
To the inheritance of Fortinbras,
Had he been vanquisher; as, by the same covenant,
And carriage of the article design’d,
His fell to Hamlet. Now, sir, young Fortinbras,
Of unimproved mettle hot and full,
Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there
Shark’d up a list of lawless resolutes,
For food and diet, to some enterprise
That hath a stomach in’t; which is no other–
As it doth well appear unto our state–
But to recover of us, by strong hand
And terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands
So by his father lost: and this, I take it,
Is the main motive of our preparations,
The source of this our watch and the chief head
Of this post-haste and romage in the land.

Fortinbras too feels a betrayal of trust in a*n agreement his father had with Old Hamlet that is not reinstated until the end of the play.

Claudius in Council:

Now follows, that you know, young Fortinbras,
Holding a weak supposal of our worth,
Or thinking by our late dear brother’s death
Our state to be disjoint and out of frame,
Colleagued with the dream of his advantage,
He hath not fail’d to pester us with message,
Importing the surrender of those lands
Lost by his father, with all bonds of law,
To our most valiant brother. So much for him.
Now for ourself and for this time of meeting:
Thus much the business is: we have here writ
To Norway, uncle of young Fortinbras,–
Who, impotent and bed-rid, scarcely hears
Of this his nephew’s purpose,–to suppress
His further gait herein; in that the levies,
The lists and full proportions, are all made
Out of his subject: and we here dispatch
You, good Cornelius, and you, Voltimand,
For bearers of this greeting to old Norway;
Giving to you no further personal power
To business with the king, more than the scope
Of these delated articles allow.


Most fair return of greetings and desires.
Upon our first, he sent out to suppress
His nephew’s levies; which to him appear’d
To be a preparation ‘gainst the Polack;
But, better look’d into, he truly found
It was against your highness: whereat grieved,
That so his sickness, age and impotence
Was falsely borne in hand, sends out arrests
On Fortinbras; which he, in brief, obeys;
Receives rebuke from Norway, and in fine
Makes vow before his uncle never more
To give the assay of arms against your majesty.
Whereon old Norway, overcome with joy,
Gives him three thousand crowns in annual fee,
And his commission to employ those soldiers,
So levied as before, against the Polack:
With an entreaty, herein further shown,

At first glance, how Fortinbras engaged in senseless war mongering can represent restoration of order is beyond me, but this may be Shakespeare cautioning us to keep our house in order or we will be overrun by foreign powers.

Enter FORTINBRAS, a Captain, and Soldiers, marching


Go, captain, from me greet the Danish king;
Tell him that, by his licence, Fortinbras
Craves the conveyance of a promised march
Over his kingdom. You know the rendezvous.
If that his majesty would aught with us,
We shall express our duty in his eye;
And let him know so.

Exeunt FORTINBRAS and Soldiers



Good sir, whose powers are these?


They are of Norway, sir.


How purposed, sir, I pray you?

Captain Against some part of Poland.

HAMLET Who commands them, sir?


The nephews to old Norway, Fortinbras.


Goes it against the main of Poland, sir, Or for some frontier?


Truly to speak, and with no addition, We go to gain a little patch of ground That hath in it no profit but the name. To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it; Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee.


Why, then the Polack never will defend it.


Yes, it is already garrison’d.


Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will not debate the question of this straw:
This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies. I humbly thank you, sir.

Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake.

Samuel Johnson was shocked by the wars that were fought to acquire colonies and hold on to them. One of his most powerful pieces of writing is a 1771 pamphlet entitled Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland’s Islands.

A crisis had flared up between Britain and Spain over that small archipelago, three hundred miles off the coast of Argentina. In the end war was averted (as it was not in 1982 when history repeated itself), and Johnson argued convincingly that there was no possible benefit to Britain in defending a barren territory that could produce nothing of value.

In 1982, Margaret Thatcher declared war on Argentina for much of the same vacuous reasons, merely to consolidate her image as “The Iron Lady”.


Young Fortinbras, with conquest come from Poland,
To the ambassadors of England gives
This warlike volley.


O, I die, Horatio; The potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit:
I cannot live to hear the news from England;
But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;
So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence.


Where is this sight?


What is it ye would see? If aught of woe or wonder, cease your search.


This quarry cries on havoc. O proud death,
What feast is toward in thine eternal cell,
That thou so many princes at a shot
So bloodily hast struck?


Let four captains Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally: and, for his passage,
The soldiers’ music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.

Hamlet urges Horatio to reject suicide so he can tell the:

“unknowing world/How these things came about.”

He accepts that there is “a divinity that shapes our ends..” but the original ending is changed from:

“heaven receive my soul” to:

“The rest is silence”.

Is Shakespeare succumbing to Nihilism?