By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
As Hugh Leonard once said, ‘Hamlet is a terrific play, but there are way too many quotations in it.’ So many lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet have become famous to people who have never read, studied, or watched the play.
As a result, these quotations are often misquoted, taken out of context, or misinterpreted. So let’s take a closer look at some of the most important quotations in Hamlet, offering an explanation of each quotation as we go.
‘To be, or not to be: that is the question’.
Arguably the most famous quotation in the whole of Hamlet, this line begins one of Hamlet’s darkest and most philosophical soliloquies. Yet interestingly, in the first printing of Hamlet, the lines were quite different (see the image from the Quarto, below right): ‘To be, or not to be: that is the question’ was instead ‘To be, or not to be, I [i.e., ‘aye’, or ‘yes’] there’s the point’.
This version may have been actors or audience-members misremembering the lines from the play and trying to reconstruct them from memory.
Many commentators interpret Hamlet’s line as a meditation on whether he should end his life or not. But things are not quite so straightforward. What makes ‘To be or not to be’ such a cryptic utterance is that the lines telegraph the full thought which Hamlet is mulling over.
Should ‘To be or not to be’ be silently completed by us as ‘To be alive or not to be alive’ or as ‘To be an avenger or not to be an avenger’ (bringing in the revenge plot of the play)?
The problem is that the lines which follow, far from being specifically about the pros and cons of going on living, can actually be used to support either interpretation.
To ‘suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them’ sounds like somebody wondering whether to carry on living or to end it all, but these lines might just as easily refer to Hamlet’s dilemma over whether to accept the challenge mounted by the Ghost (avenge his murdered father) or to stand by and passively let things play out as ‘fortune’ decrees.
We have discussed the whole soliloquy here.
‘O that this too too solid flesh would melt’.
This line (in some editions, ‘O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt’ while, in some others, ‘O, that this too too sallied flesh would melt’, based on the various early printings of the play) also sees Hamlet wishing he could be relieved of his burden.
Whether we render the word as ‘solid’, ‘sullied’, or ‘sallied’, the meaning is the same: Hamlet wishes that his own body would just melt away. If only it could just dissolve into a dew, and he could cease to exist, he could leave all the problems of living behind.
We have analysed this soliloquy here.
‘Get thee to a nunnery!’
Get thee to a nunnery! Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.
In this quotation, Hamlet tells Ophelia – with whom he has previously been romantically involved – to go to a convent and become a nun, swearing off men, marriage, and bearing children. After all, all women who give birth to men are breeders of ‘sinners’, because all men are sinners.
It has been suggested that Hamlet is using ‘nunnery’ here as (ironic) slang for ‘brothel’, and there is some evidence for ‘nunnery’ being in use at the time with this meaning. The more immediate problem with such an interpretation, in relation to ‘Get thee to a nunnery’, is that Hamlet is trying to persuade Ophelia not to breed, so taking ‘nunnery’ at face value as ‘convent’ here makes more sense.
We have analysed this passage in more detail here.
‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’.
In Act 3 Scene 2, the Players or actors visiting the castle put on a play for the royal court. At Hamlet’s request, they agree to perform a play he himself has given them, whose plot closely mirrors what the Ghost reported happened (i.e., Hamlet’s father was murdered by his uncle).
When Hamlet asks his mother, Gertrude, what she think of the play, she responds, ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’, referring to the Queen in the play and her claims that she loves the King and would remain loyal to him even after his death.
However, as so often with famous quotations from Hamlet, there are several ways to interpret this line; we’ve discussed them here.
‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’.
A minor character named Marcellus speaks this famous line in Act 1 of Hamlet. It means, of course, that something isn’t right: something in the state or kingdom is amiss.
‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
One of the most widely debated (and misunderstood) quotations in Hamlet, this one is spoken by the title character, during Act 1 Scene 5 just after Hamlet has met with the Ghost. Horatio tells him that the whole appearance of the Ghost is ‘wondrous strange’, and Hamlet responds with these famous lines, which mean (roughly) that ‘there is more out there than we were mortals can possibly conceive or imagine’.
But it’s far from clear that Hamlet is attacking his friend for his narrow-mindedness here. Indeed, the First Folio printed ‘our philosophy’ rather than ‘your’, and even if Hamlet did say ‘your’, he may have been using it in a colloquial sense (i.e., ‘your’ = ‘your average human understanding’).
We discuss the quotation in more detail here.
‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!’
In another of Hamlet’s celebrated speeches, he marvels at the remarkable work of nature that is a human being. But to Hamlet, who has ‘lost all [his] mirth’, he can find no joy in this wonderful creation – in himself or in other human beings – because he is feeling down. As he puts it, ‘man delights not me.’
‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.’
Another of the most famous quotations from the play, and worth explaining. In the famous ‘Gravedigger scene’, Hamlet stumbles upon the skull of his father’s jester, who used to entertain young Hamlet when he was a child. Holding the skull, Hamlet tells Horatio that he has fond memories of Yorick, who seemed to embody the joy of living with his jests and japes.
But where are his jokes now? Everyone dies, no matter how ‘alive’ they are today. Hamlet’s meditation on mortality is a memento mori: a reminder to us, and to himself, that life is finite and we all die.
We have analysed the whole speech here.