‘How all occasions do inform against me’: so begins one of Hamlet’s most reasoned and level-headed soliloquies in Shakespeare’s play. The soliloquy comes relatively late in Hamlet, in Act IV scene 4, after Hamlet has been dispatched to England by Claudius (ostensibly on a diplomatic mission, but in reality Claudius has arranged for Hamlet to be killed en route). We have a full plot summary of Hamlet here.
The best way to offer an analysis of this soliloquy is perhaps to go through the ‘How all occasions do inform against me’ speech line by line and offer a summary of what Hamlet is saying. As we go, we’ll draw attention to some of the most meaningful and salient aspects of the soliloquy.
How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Hamlet begins his soliloquy by lamenting the fact that everything seems to be accusing him (‘inform against me’) for not taking revenge on his uncle, Claudius, for having murdered Hamlet’s own father. Everything is spurring him on or encouraging him to take revenge. Hamlet rhetorically asks what the point of man’s existence is if he just eats and sleeps like an animal.
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.
After all, Hamlet reasons, God – who created man and gave him the power to think about both the past and future – did not imbue man with such thinking power for it to rot away unused in us.
Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward, I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;’
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
Hamlet now wonders whether he hesitates out of animal-like simplicity and mindlessness, or whether it’s from his own (human) cowardliness and over-thinking. (If it’s the latter, then only one-quarter of his hesitation is due to sensible consideration of the consequences; the other three-quarters is down to being too scared to go through with the revenge.) Either way, Hamlet says he doesn’t know why he’s still alive and is able to talk about taking revenge (without actually getting on with it). After all, he has everything he needs – the justification, the desire, the strength, and the resources – to go and enact his vengeance. (‘Sith’, before they became the antagonists in the Star Wars films, was an early modern form of ‘Since’.)
Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell.
Hamlet says that Fortinbras, the ‘delicate and tender prince’ of Norway, who is rallying an army so he can invade neighbouring lands (including Denmark), is a glowing example of how someone in Hamlet’s position should act. (‘Examples gross as earth’ means, roughly, examples as solid and concrete as the ground beneath Hamlet’s feet. In other words, Hamlet doesn’t feel spurred on by any abstract notion of ‘honour’ or ‘revenge’: he can actually see how a prince should behave, by observing Fortinbras.)
Fortinbras’ spirit or character is puffed up with God-given ambition, and the Norwegian prince seems to scoff or ‘make mouths at’ the mere idea of defeat or failure (‘the invisible event’). Fortinbras exposes everything that is mortal to anything that can threaten it (there may be faint pun on Fortinbras intended in the word ‘fortune’), even something that is worthless (an ‘eggshell’ was proverbially something of no value in Shakespeare’s time).
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.
The truly great man will not stir to action (especially military action) without a good ‘argument’ or motive in favour of doing so. But if his honour’s been challenged, he will instantly get his armour on and go out and defend it. At least, this is one interpretation of Hamlet’s meaning here.
As Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor point out in their notes in the Arden edition, Hamlet: Revised Edition (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series), some critics have chosen to analyse its meaning differently, i.e. ‘true greatness consists not in refraining from action when there’s no good reason to act, but in looking hard enough to find a justifiable cause in the smallest detail, when your honour is being questioned’. In other words, it’s better to pick a fight over nothing when your honour’s been challenged, than to sit back and do nothing. It’s difficult to say which meaning is intended here, although it’s clear that Hamlet admires Fortinbras for being a man of action and courage.
How stand I then,
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep?
‘How can I stand here and let everyone who has wronged me sleep sound in their beds,’ Hamlet asks himself, ‘when my father has been killed, and my mother has been dishonoured?’ However, ‘all sleep’ here is ambiguous: by ‘all’ Hamlet could mean ‘everyone involved’ or ‘everything’, i.e. ‘how can I let everything rest’, or ‘how can I forget about everything’.
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!
To his shame, while Hamlet’s standing there doing nothing, Fortinbras’ army of twenty thousand men are courageously preparing to fight and die on a small plot of land which isn’t big enough for the participants to decide the matter on, and which isn’t big enough to bury all of those soldiers who will die there. From now on, Hamlet rousingly concludes with a rhyming couplet (‘forth’ and ‘worth’ may well have been full rhymes in Shakespeare’s time), his thoughts will be bloody and courageous, or they’re worthless!
‘How all occasions do inform against me’ shows Hamlet at his most clear-headed and reasonable, and yet there are some internal contradictions in this soliloquy. For one, as Thompson and Taylor point out in their notes in the Arden edition, it’s odd to hear Hamlet speaking of having the ‘strength and means’ to carry out his revenge while he’s aboard a ship for England.
It’s also not clear why Hamlet describes Fortinbras, the mighty Norwegian prince who commands an army, as ‘delicate and tender’. This is a man who, as Hamlet goes on to say, is leading twenty thousand men to their almost certain deaths, as part of his military campaign to conquer other lands. (There’s history between Denmark and Norway; indeed, Fortinbras’ father, Old Fortinbras, was killed by Hamlet’s father, Old Hamlet, in events that took place before the start of the play’s action, but which are described by Horatio in the opening scene of the play.) As elsewhere in the play, Hamlet’s words are not without their internal contradictions.
‘How all occasions do inform against me’ has a clear meaning and message, then: Hamlet looks at Fortinbras’ resolve and decides to rouse himself to action, and to carry out his revenge upon Claudius. But there’s something troubling, even ironic, at this epiphany occurring while Hamlet is miles away from the object of his revenge, his uncle, Claudius, and in his taking inspiration from Fortinbras, whose mission – as Hamlet himself acknowledges – seems ultimately fruitless and doomed to failure.
The role of Hamlet is one of the most intellectually and emotionally demanding for an actor: as Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor mention in their detailed introduction to Hamlet: Revised Edition (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series), the Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis even withdrew from the role in 1989, mid-run, after he allegedly began ‘seeing’ the ghost of his father, the former Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, who had died in 1972.
But despite – or, perhaps, because of – this emotional intensity and complexity, actors down the ages have been keen to put their own stamp on the role, including David Garrick (who had a special wig that made Hamlet’s hair stand on end when the ghost of his father appeared), Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Mel Gibson, Sarah Bernhardt (one of many women to portray the Prince of Denmark: see the image below), Ethan Hawke, Keanu Reeves, Kenneth Branagh, Maxine Peake, and even John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
Hamlet is often characterised as ‘a man who cannot make up his mind’. Indeed, the publicity for Laurence Olivier’s celebrated 1948 film of Hamlet made much of this description of Hamlet’s character. The words that tend to come up when people try to analyse the character or personality of Hamlet are indecisive, delaying, and uncertain, with ‘inaction’ being the key defining feature of what Hamlet actually does during the play. Certainly, the poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought Hamlet’s main fault was his indecision: he detected ‘an almost enormous intellectual activity and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it’ – i.e., Hamlet is better at thinking about doing things than actually doing them.
And yet we might argue that Hamlet doesn’t exactly delay, or at least, he does not delay because he is indecisive, but for sound, practical reasons. Hamlet cannot be sure that the Ghost really is the spirit of his dead father, and not some fiend that’s been sent to cause mischief and goad him to murder. So he needs to find out whether Claudius really is guilty of murdering Hamlet Senior, and thus whether the Ghost can be trusted.