By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’: so exclaims Hamlet in one of his more despairing soliloquies in Shakespeare’s play. But what prompts him to exclaim ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’ and what does he say in this important speech in the play? Hamlet’s soliloquy comes in act 2 scene 2 of Hamlet, shortly after he has spoken with the players or actors, and just before he hatches his fiendish plan to try to determine the guilt of his uncle (which he comes up with towards the end of the soliloquy).
The best way to offer an analysis of this soliloquy is perhaps to go through the 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. As the words which precede the speech, ‘Now I am alone’, indicate, Hamlet is about to launch into a soliloquy, in which he thinks out loud about his predicament.
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
Hamlet begins by insulting himself. ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’: Hamlet considers himself a ‘rogue’ (i.e. a cheat) and a ‘peasant slave’ (i.e. a base or low coward) for failing to do the brave and honourable thing and exact revenge on Claudius for his father. He then goes on to express astonishment at the performance he has just seen from one of the actors (‘this player here’), who was able to put on a convincing show of grieving over Hecuba.
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.
Hamlet continues to sing the praises of the actor, in awestruck tones: if this player was in Hamlet’s place, just think what a performance he could put on that would make the guilty go mad with guilt and amaze everyone who witnessed it.
Here we have a key feature of Hamlet’s character, and of the play as a whole: the importance of illusion and performance, and Hamlet’s preoccupation with acting. He has already resolved ‘to put an antic disposition on’, i.e. to pretend to be mad while he sets about establishing whether Claudius is truly guilty of murder, before Hamlet takes revenge on his uncle.
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing; no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn’d defeat was made.
Hamlet now contrasts the deeply felt (fabricated) emotion of this superlative actor with his own (real) resolve: he is a rascal whose ‘mettle’ or courage is like mud, weak and wet. He ‘peaks’, i.e. mopes about the place, like ‘John-a-dreams’ (a stereotypical dreamy head-in-the-clouds man) who is not motivated by his cause (‘unpregnant of my cause’, i.e. his cause is not making anything grow or develop in the way of action).
Hamlet then confides that he ‘can say nothing’: he can’t even speak out and call out his uncle for the murderer he (probably) is. (As we discover shortly after this, there is still some doubt in Hamlet’s mind over Claudius’ guilt.) Not even for his father, who was a king (Old Hamlet murdered by his brother, Claudius), can Hamlet speak out and tell the truth, even though Claudius ‘defeated’ Old Hamlet of his life by killing him.
Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i’ the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?
Hamlet asks if his failure to speak up and speak out makes him a coward. He feels as though someone is accusing him of being a villain for failing to avenge his father’s death. They beat him about the place and taunt him for lacking masculinity (the ‘beard’ reference is intriguing, since Hamlet is usually played by a clean-shaven actor; most critics have interpreted the beard as merely a metaphorical one, a symbol of Hamlet’s masculinity – or, here, his lack thereof).
’Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave’s offal: bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
Hamlet concedes that he feels such taunts are justified, and he should take them, for the fact must be faced that he is coward lacking the courage to make the oppression (i.e. the feeling that he cannot speak up) bitter enough so he will be motivated to break his silence and wreak vengeance. If he had done so, all of the kites (birds of prey) in the region would have fed on Claudius’ internal organs. Hamlet then descends into a series of insults aimed at Claudius, this time, rather than himself.
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
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,
Hamlet chides himself for standing about talking about whether avenging Old Hamlet is the right thing to do, like a ‘scullion’ or kitchen-maid gossiping or a ‘whore’ chattering; ‘heaven and hell’ have told him to avenge his father (in the form of the Ghost), yet here he is, ‘cursing’ (he’s certainly done a fair bit of that) like a ‘drab’ (another word for ‘whore’, i.e. prostitute).
Fie upon’t! foh! About, my brain! I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim’d their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I’ll observe his looks;
I’ll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course.
Hamlet hatches his plan to determine Claudius’ guilt: he has heard that sometimes guilty people are so moved by seeing similar crimes to the ones they’ve committed acted out before them that they will confess everything there and then.
Thus will Claudius’ murder ‘speak’, even without having a tongue to do so. So Hamlet will ask the actors to perform a version of Hamlet’s father’s murder before Claudius, and observe Claudius’ expression as his uncle watches his crime acted out in front of him and the court. If Claudius merely turns pale, Hamlet will take that as a sign that his uncle is guilty.
The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I’ll have grounds
More relative than this: the play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.
Hamlet explains his reasoning: the Ghost that appeared to him claimed to be his father, but what if it was the devil merely assuming the appearance of his father, in order to trick him into killing Claudius? Ascertaining Claudius’ guilt more empirically, by observing his face when the play is performed, will be more convincing grounds on which to condemn his uncle.
‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’, as that opening line of the soliloquy makes clear, is dominated by insult and ‘a-cursing’ (as Hamlet himself puts it). But look at how the words Hamlet starts off applying to himself (he is a ‘peasant slave’, and wonders, ‘who calls me villain?’) are soon twisted and reapplied not to himself, but to his uncle (the kites would feed on the ‘slave’s offal’, meaning Claudius’ internal organs after Hamlet had killed him and left him out for the birds to feed on; Claudius is a ‘bloody, bawdy villain’ and a ‘remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain’.
The soliloquy is also, though, a searching account of Hamlet’s attitude to gender: masculinity is associated with action, and Hamlet feels he is being chided for his lack of masculinity, because he is spending more time talking about whether to enact his revenge than he is actually getting on with it. Note the language he uses is highly gendered: he likens himself to a ‘drab’ and a ‘whore’ (both terms for a prostitute in Elizabethan England), and a ‘scullion’ or kitchen girl. These are just some of the terms of abuse Hamlet throws about in this soliloquy.
Of course, this ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’ speech is also slightly unfair on Hamlet, too, and it goes to the core of what Hamlet’s delay in the play really signifies. He’s reprimanding himself for failing to take action, but it’s only through thinking through his predicament that he arrives upon his plan for the actors to perform a play that, he hopes, will tease out Claudius’ guilt.
So it’s not as if he’s sitting about idly doing nothing. As the final words of the soliloquy make clear, in words that have since become proverbial, ‘the play’s the thing’. And Hamlet’s telling reference to having been ‘prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell’ also reveals that there is still some doubt in his mind over the authenticity of the Ghost claiming to be his father (why ‘heaven and hell’ otherwise?).
The play’s the thing, all right: for Hamlet, acting (on a stage) rather than ‘acting’ (i.e. walking up to Claudius straight away and running him through with a sword) will be the way he will get his revenge.
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.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.