In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle delves into the origins of a famous Shakespeare quotation
‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much’ is a phrase people sometimes use in jest, especially the sort of folk who are fond of talking of heading to the nearest hostelry for flagons of ale and addressing each other as ‘good sir’. The meaning of the phrase is relatively straightforward, but what about its origins?
Let’s start with the meaning. ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much’: in other words, ‘I think something a woman [though sometimes, rarely, a man] is pretending not to like something that she [or he] actually is rather fond of, and she [or he] is merely feigning dislike or disapproval.’ That’s how we might summarise the phrase’s meaning. But its origins take us back to William Shakespeare – as so often with these things – and to his most quoted and quotable play of all, Hamlet, from around 1601.
Some people may think that it’s Hamlet himself who says ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much.’ This isn’t true. In fact, nobody, strictly speaking, says that, because that isn’t the exact wording of the line. And it’s not Hamlet who says it, but his mother, Gertrude.
In the scene in question, Act 3 Scene 2, the Players or actors visiting the castle of Elsinore in Denmark put on a play for the royal court. At Hamlet’s request, they agree to perform a play he himself has given them, The Murder of Gonzago, although Hamlet tells Claudius (the King, and Hamlet’s own uncle) that it’s called ‘The Mousetrap’. Agatha Christie, of course, borrowed that alternative title for her play which began running in 1952 and is still being performed in London to this day, making it the longest-running play in theatre history.
Anyway, Hamlet – who suspects that his uncle murdered his father, Old Hamlet, by pouring poison into his ear while he was asleep – hopes that by staging a play which recreates his father’s murder he will awaken Claudius’ guilt, and the King will reveal, through his response, that he is guilty of murdering Old Hamlet. Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, who has hastily remarried to Claudius following Old Hamlet’s death, is also in the audience too.
When it comes to the point in the play – the play-within-the-play, that is – when the Player King and Player Queen are talking, the Player Queen tells the Player King:
Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife
If once I be a widow ever I be a wife.
In other words, ‘May I come to trouble if you, my husband, ever die and I decide to remarry once you’re gone.’ Once the Player King has gone off for his fatal afternoon nap, Hamlet asks his mother, ‘Madam, how like you this play?’
Gertrude responds with the lines that have now become famous: ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks.’
One of the reasons the line may have become so well-known – albeit with the word-order often slightly altered – is that the actor playing Gertrude can ‘read’ the line in a number of different ways. As Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor observe in their note to this line in Hamlet: Revised Edition (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series), ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’ can be uttered in such a way as to highlight, variously, Gertrude’s discomfort (she senses that the play she’s watching has cut too close to the bone), her self-control (she is determined to defend her own actions in remarrying to Claudius so soon after Old Hamlet’s death), or her innocence (she hasn’t even noticed the parallel her son is trying to draw between the Queen on the stage and herself).
But there’s something more here. For, as the editor of another edition of the play, the New Penguin edition used by the RSC, has highlighted, the word ‘protest’ her doesn’t just mean ‘deny’. It means to promise publicly. So, in other words, Gertrude is berating the Player Queen on stage for making a rash promise about something she may well end up doing if she found herself a widow one day.
To my mind, this makes the ‘innocence’ interpretation less likely: it seems clear that Gertrude has picked up on the parallel between herself and the Queen in the play, and is quietly criticising her stage counterpart for pledging, not just to love ‘till death do us part’, but even beyond that.
However it’s worded – ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much’ or the more accurate ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’ – the meaning of this phrase is clear. But its origins are a little more surprising, not least because, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Gertrude shows herself to be a little more feisty and knowing than she is often taken to be.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.