Secret Library

The Real Meaning of Hamlet’s ‘There Are More Things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle considers a famous and much-misunderstood quotation from Shakespeare

‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ These words are among the most-quoted in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, and they’re up against a whole host of other now-ubiquitous phrases and snquotations, including ‘hoist with one’s own petard’, ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’, ‘methinks the lady doth protest too much’, and countless others. And this is to say nothing of the short phrases the play has given to the English language, such as ‘something is rotten’, ‘cruel to be kind’, ‘to the manner born’, and so on.

But there is something particularly noteworthy about ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Of all quotations from Hamlet, this one has been perhaps the most widely debated – and argued over – in terms of what its precise meaning is.

Let’s start by considering where they are spoken in the play. Hamlet himself speaks them, while in conversation with his close friend, Horatio, a fellow student of his at Wittenberg. The words appear in Act 1 Scene 5 of the play, just after Hamlet has spoken with the Ghost, which purports to be Hamlet’s dead father, Old Hamlet:

HORATIO:
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange.

HAMLET:
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet then proceeds to outline his plan – to ‘put an antic disposition on’, or prepare to be mad, so he can investigate the claims of the Ghost and try to get to the bottom of the matter. Is the Ghost for real, or some demon sent to make mischief? Is what it speaks true: was Old Hamlet really murdered by his own brother, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, as he slept in his orchard one afternoon?

Hamlet resolves to find out. (On that issue, I’ve always been struck by the actual madness of Hamlet’s plan: if he wishes to set about playing detective and try to find out if his father really was murdered, without arousing the suspicion of those around him, surely pretending to be mad is one sure-fire way to guarantee that he will attract the attention and suspicion of others. And this is exactly what happens.)

Hamlet’s declaration that there are ‘more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ immediately provokes some questions. What exactly is Hamlet implying here? That we shouldn’t dismiss such things as ghosts as if they were purely superstition, but approach them with an open mind?

Is he speaking generally, or is he making a personal attack on Horatio’s views about the world? What is Horatio’s philosophy? Or does ‘your’ here refer not to Horatio’s outlook specifically, but to all human philosophy? That is, Hamlet is using ‘your philosophy’ to mean ‘that whole branch of knowledge we call “philosophy”’. The quotation is as ambiguous as anything Hamlet says elsewhere in the play – and he is not above making gnomic or enigmatic statements.

The various editions of the play, ever since the earliest quartos were printed at the beginning of the seventeenth century, have only amplified the ambiguity. The First Folio printing, for instance, had ‘our philosophy’ rather than ‘your’, and this seems a fair emendation. Suddenly Hamlet’s words are clearer: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in our philosophy’ (i.e. the sum total of all human knowledge).

In the excellent and exhaustively annotated Arden edition of the play, Hamlet: Revised Edition (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series), Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor print the line with ‘your philosophy’ rather than ‘our philosophy’, arguing in their note that ‘your’ here is probably being used colloquially in a general, rather than a personal, sense by Hamlet: he isn’t attacking Horatio’s own beliefs as limited but simply acknowledging the limitations of all human knowledge.

This seems likely, although it’s worth bearing in mind that earlier in the play, in its very first scene, when the Ghost was first discussed by the sentries on the battlements of Elsinore Castle, Marcellus had told us, of the supposed Ghost that has been sighted:

Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight twice seen of us.

Nevertheless, most critics and editors seem to favour the interpretation of Hamlet’s lines that sees him acknowledging the limits of rational thinking: if such things as ghosts do exist, they cannot be accounted for by reason alone. And Hamlet has just spoken to a ghost, even if he cannot be sure it is who it says it is.

Why does this distinction matter? Perhaps it doesn’t, greatly. It’s sometimes argued that it does matter because Hamlet’s words are often analysed as representing a takedown of those with a limited rationalistic worldview, who are (Hamlet implies) wrong to disbelieve in the supernatural just because the existence of such things is not accounted for by reason or empirical study.

Thus many people have been happy to co-opt Hamlet’s words, cloaked in the authority which any Shakespeare quotation is supposed to carry (even if, like Polonius’s ‘to thine one self be true’, the words are spoken by a pompous windbag), in order to criticise or chastise their fellow humans for being closed-minded over others’ religious or supernatural beliefs.

But if ‘your philosophy’ is simply being used synonymously with ‘the whole field of human study’, Hamlet may not be attacking Horatio for his closed-mindedness, but he is still advocating a belief in the supernatural. Rather than criticising the limits of Horatio’s worldview, he is calling out the limitations of the whole of rational philosophy. This gives the words a slightly different tone, true (and means Horatio, were he not Hamlet’s social inferior, wouldn’t be so tempted to slap the smug and self-righteous so-and-so); but I don’t think it greatly alters their meaning.

I have analysed Hamlet as a whole, and offered more thoughts on this most intriguing and rewarding of plays, here.

About Hamlet

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.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.

One Comment

  1. I’ve always assumed that Hamlet refers to Philosophy as an academic discipline. He and Horatio are both alumni of Wittenberg University after all. In a different context he might have said “your Mathematics” or “your Modern Languages”.So not Horatio’s personal philosophy, but Philosophy as studied by him at Wittenberg.