‘Now might I do it pat, now he is praying’: so begins one of the numerous soliloquies spoken by Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play. Although it’s not the most famous soliloquy in Hamlet – ‘To be or not to be’ and ‘O that this too too sullied flesh would melt’ are both better-known – ‘Now might I do it pat’ offers a valuable insight onto both Hamlet’s personal thoughts and the play’s wider concern with questions relating to religion and revenge.
Rather than present the text and then analyse it, let’s go through it, line by line almost, summarising the meaning of Hamlet’s soliloquy and analysing what’s going on. We’ll gloss any words that need glossing. Note: ‘Now might I do it pat’ can be found in Act III Scene 3 of Hamlet, just as Hamlet walks in on Claudius at prayer. For a reminder of the plot of Hamlet, see our summary and analysis of the play.
Okay, here’s the text, with commentary:
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
Immediately we come to an interesting point of critical interpretation. Does Hamlet say ‘Now might I do it pat, now he is praying’, or ‘Now might I do it. But now he is praying’? The Folio edition of Hamlet, published in 1623 in the First Folio, has ‘Now might I do it pat’, with ‘pat’ meaning ‘conveniently’. Claudius is on his knees, praying, so it’s a good moment to kill him as he’ll be taken off guard and won’t be able to defend himself. But ‘pat’ may have been an error that crept into the text that constituted the Folio edition of Hamlet. The advantage of ‘but’, as the editors of Hamlet (The Arden Shakespeare, Third Series) make clear (who opt for ‘but’ over ‘pat’), is that it immediately introduces Hamlet’s doubt into his newly hatched plan. The word that dogs Hamlet throughout the play is ‘doubt’: whether the Ghost really is his father, whether his father really was murdered by Claudius, whether he should be avenging his father’s murder or should leave that up to God. So although ‘Now might I do it pat’ is perhaps the more popular rendering of the line, it’s not the only plausible one.
Now, Hamlet has another problem. Practically speaking, it’s easier to kill Claudius while he’s kneeling and praying (with his eyes closed); but from a theological perspective, if he kills Claudius while his uncle is praying, Claudius will go straight to heaven because all his sins would be forgiven. And this hardly seems fair given that poor Old Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s father, is in Purgatory because he was murdered by Claudius while asleep in his orchard (so before he had a chance to be absolved of his sins).
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
This idea should be ‘scann’d’ or analysed carefully. So, on the one hand, killing Claudius now would free Hamlet of the need to avenge his father’s murder. Claudius will be dead. But the ‘villain’ that is Claudius will also have gone to heaven, despite his foul deed.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
Another troublesome line: does Hamlet say ‘hire and salary’ or ‘base and silly’? The latter is from the Folio, and makes more sense than the Quarto’s ‘hire and salary’. But ‘base and silly’ is also unworthy of the great wordsmith that Hamlet is, and sounds more like the sort of thing a lower character would say. ‘Hire and salary’ is meant to suggest that killing Claudius now would be the act of a hired mercenary soldier (‘salary’ is a word that dates from Roman times, when Romans were paid a food allowance – contrary to popular belief, although the word comes from the Latin for ‘salt’, they weren’t just paid in the stuff). So the two interpretations/alternatives both make sense.
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?
Talking of food, Claudius killed Old Hamlet one afternoon while the latter was sleeping off his dinner in his orchard, so he was in a state of sensual satisfaction – not fasting or repenting. So all of Old Hamlet’s ‘crimes’ or sins were in full bloom, like the flowers in the month of May. Who knows how God in heaven rates Old Hamlet – is he worthy of heaven or not? But Claudius, who definitely is not worth a place in heaven given his murder of Hamlet’s father, will still get a place in paradise if he’s killed while praying to God. Not fair, that.
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,
When he is fit and season’d for his passage?
In other words, according to the (circumstantial) evidence mere mortals can bring to bear on Old Hamlet’s life, his sins probably weigh ‘heavy’ on him, and disbar him from heaven. So, Hamlet wonders next, is it revenge to kill Claudius if, in doing so at such a time while Claudius is purifying his soul of his crimes, Claudius gets a place in heaven?
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
Hamlet puts up his sword (he’d drawn his sword not long after he’d walked in on Claudius at prayer), deciding not to kill Claudius right now. There will be a more ‘horrid’ moment or ‘hent’ (perhaps a variant of ‘hint’), such as when Claudius is drunk or angry: that would be a better time to send a guilty man to meet his maker. Or, indeed, when he’s in bed with Gertrude, his brother’s widow (in some parts of the Old Testament, marrying one’s brother’s widow was condemned; presumably it’s doubly frowned upon if you’d murdered your brother first).
At game, a-swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Gambling and swearing would also be better times than praying, for Hamlet to take his revenge.
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.
Hamlet concludes his ‘Now might I do it pat’ soliloquy with a neat image: the idea of tripping up Claudius so his heels kicked up at the sky, as though he was spurning heaven itself. The action now resumes: Hamlet must go and meet with his mother in her chamber, but he has time for one parting shot to Claudius (who is not aware that Hamlet is there): the ‘physic’ (Hamlet’s decision to spare his life is likened to a medicine) is only going to draw out the king’s ‘illness’ (i.e. his sinful existence), not cure him indefinitely.
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.