'Hamlet' Quotes Explained

Hamlet is one of the most quoted (and most parodied) plays by William Shakespeare. The play is well-known for its powerful quotations about corruption, misogyny, and death. Yet, despite the grim subject matter, Hamlet is also famous for the dark humor, clever witticisms, and catchy phrases we still repeat today.

Quotes About Corruption

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."

(Act I, Scene 4)

Spoken by Marcellus, a palace soldier, this familiar Shakespeare line is often quoted on cable TV news. The expression implies a suspicion that someone in power is corrupt. The scent of decay is a metaphor for a breakdown in morality and social order.

Marcellus exclaims that "something is rotten" when a ghost appears outside the castle. Marcellus warns Hamlet not to follow the ominous apparition, but Hamlet insists. He soon learns that the ghost is the spirit of his dead father and that evil has overtaken the throne. Marcellus' statement is important because it foreshadows the tragic events that follow. Although not significant to the story, it's also interesting to note that for Elizabethan audiences, Marcellus' line is a crude pun: "rotten" references the smell of flatulence.

Symbols of rot and decay waft through Shakespeare's play. The ghost describes a "[m]urder most foul" and a "strange, and unnatural" marriage. Hamlet's power-hungry uncle, Claudius, has murdered Hamlet's father, the king of Denmark and (in a deed considered incestuous) has married Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude.

The rottenness goes beyond murder and incest. Claudius has broken the royal bloodline, disrupted the monarchy, and shattered the divine rule of law. Because the new head of state is "rotten" as a dead fish, all of Denmark decays. In a confused thirst for revenge and an inability to take action, Hamlet appears to go mad. His love-interest, Ophelia, suffers a complete mental breakdown and commits suicide. Gertrude is killed by Claudius and Claudius is stabbed and poisoned by Hamlet.

The notion that sin has an odor is echoed in Act III, Scene 3, when Claudius exclaims, "O! my offence is rank, it smells to heaven." By the end of the play, all of the lead characters have died from the "rot" that Marcellus perceived in Act I. 

Quotes About Misogyny

"Heaven and earth,

Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him

As if increase of appetite had grown

By what it fed on, and yet, within a month —

Let me not think on't — Frailty, thy name is woman! —"

(Act I, Scene 2)

There's no doubt that Prince Hamlet is sexist, possessing the Elizabethan attitudes toward women found in many of Shakespeare's plays. However, this quote suggests that he is also a misogynist (someone who hates women).

In this soliloquy, Hamlet expresses disgust over the behavior of his widowed mother, Queen Gertrude. Gertrude once doted on Hamlet's father, the king, but after the king's death, she hastily married his brother, Claudius. Hamlet rails against his mother's sexual "appetite" and her apparent inability to remain loyal to his father. He's so upset that he breaks the formal metrical pattern of blank verse. Rambling beyond the traditional 10-syllable line-length, Hamlet cries, "Frailty, thy name is woman!"

"Frailty, they name is woman!" is also an apostrophe. Hamlet addresses frailty as though speaking to a human being. Today, this Shakespeare quote is often adapted for humorous effect. For example, in a 1964 episode of Bewitched, Samantha tells her husband, "Vanity, they name is human." In the animated TV show The Simpsons, Bart exclaims, "Comedy, thy name is Krusty." 

There's nothing lighthearted about Hamlet's accusation, however. Consumed with rage, he seems to wallow in deep-seated hatred. He's not simply angry at his mother. Hamlet lashes out at the entire female sex, proclaiming all women weak and fickle.

Later in the play, Hamlet turns his fury on Ophelia.

"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: I am very

proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at

my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,

imagination to give them shape, or time to act them

in. What should such fellows as I do crawling

between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,

all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery."

(Act III, Scene 1)

Hamlet seems to totter on the brink of insanity in this tirade. He once claimed that he loved Ophelia, but now he rejects her for reasons that aren't clear. He also describes himself as an awful person: "proud, revengeful, ambitious." In essence, Hamlet is saying, "It's not you, it's me." He tells Ophelia to go to a nunnery (a convent of nuns) where she will remain chaste and never give birth to "arrant knaves" (complete villains) like himself.

Perhaps Hamlet wants to shelter Ophelia from the corruption that has infested the kingdom and from the violence that's sure to come. Perhaps he wants to distance himself from her so that he can focus avenging his father's death. Or perhaps Hamlet is so poisoned with anger that he's no longer capable of feeling love. In Elizabethan English, "nunnery" is also slang for "brothel." In this sense of the word, Hamlet condemns Ophelia as a wanton, duplicitous female like his mother.

Regardless of his motives, Hamlet's rebuke contributes to Ophelia's mental breakdown and eventual suicide. Many feminist scholars argue that Ophelia's fate illustrates the tragic consequences of a patriarchal society.

Quotes About Death

"To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? — To die, — to sleep, —

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to, — ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;

To sleep, perchance to dream — ay, there's the rub:

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come..."

(Act III, Scene 1)

These morose lines from Hamlet introduce one of the most memorable soliloquies in the English language. Prince Hamlet is preoccupied with themes of mortality and human frailty. When he ponders "[t]o be, or not to be," he's weighing life ("to be") versus death ("not to be").

The parallel structure presents an antithesis, or a contrast, between two opposing ideas. Hamlet theorizes that it's noble to live and fight against troubles. But, he argues, it's also desirable (a "consummation devoutly to be wish'd") to flee misfortune and heartache. He uses the phrase "to sleep" as a metonymy to characterize the slumber of death.

Hamlet's speech seems to explore the pros and cons of suicide. When he says "there's the rub," he means "there's the drawback." Perhaps death will bring hellish nightmares. Later in the long soliloquy, Hamlet observes that fear of consequences and the unknown—the "undiscovere'd country"—makes us bear our sorrows rather than seek escape. "Thus," he concludes, "conscience does make cowards of us all."

In this context, the word "conscience" means "conscious thought." Hamlet isn't really talking about suicide, but about his inability to take action against the "sea of troubles" in his kingdom. Confused, indecisive, and hopelessly philosophical, he ponders whether he should kill his murderous uncle Claudius.

Widely quoted and often misinterpreted, Hamlet's "[t]o be, or not to be" soliloquy has inspired writers for centuries. Hollywood film director Mel Brooks referenced the famous lines in his World War II comedy, To Be or Not to Be. In a 1998 film, What Dreams May Come, actor Robin Williams meanders through the afterlife and tries to unravel tragic events. Countless other Hamlet references have made their way into books, stories, poems, TV shows, video games, and even comic strips like Calvin and Hobbes.    

Dark Humor Quotes

Laughter in the midst of death isn't a modern idea. Even in his darkest tragedies, Shakespeare incorporated cutting wit. Throughout Hamlet, the tedious busy-body Polonius spouts aphorisms, or snippets of wisdom, that come off as silly and trite:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;

For loan oft loses both itself and friend,

And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

(Act I, Scene 3)

Buffoons like Polonius provide dramatic foils for the brooding Hamlet, illuminating Hamlet's character and highlighting his anguish. While Hamlet philosophizes and mulls, Polonius makes trite pronouncements. When Hamlet accidentally kills him in Act III, Polonius states the obvious: "O, I am slain!"

Similarly, two clownish gravediggers provide comic relief during a painfully ironic churchyard scene. Laughing and shouting crude jokes, they toss rotting skulls into the air. One of the skulls belongs to Yorick, a beloved court jester who died long ago. Hamlet takes the skull and, in one of his most famous monologues, contemplates the transience of life.

"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow

of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath

borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how

abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at

it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know

not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your

gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,

that were wont to set the table on a roar?"

(Act V, Scene 1)

The grotesque and absurd image of Hamlet addressing a human skull has become an enduring meme, posted on Facebook and parodied in cartoons, TV shows, and films. For example, in the Star Wars episode, The Empire Strikes Back, Chewbacca imitates Hamlet when he lifts the head of a droid.

While prompting laughter, Yorick's skull is also a gruesome reminder of the underlying themes of death, decay, and insanity in Shakespeare's play. The image is so compelling that a dying pianist once bequeathed his own head to the Royal Shakespeare Company. The skull was removed, cleaned and, in 1988, put to service. The actors used the skull in 22 performances of Hamlet before deciding that the prop was too real—and too disturbing.

Sources

  • Hamlet. Folger Shakespeare Library, www.folger.edu/hamlet.
  • Hamlet in Pop Culture. Hartford Stage, www.hartfordstage.org/stagenotes/hamlet/pop-culture.
  • Heymont, George. “Something's Rotten in the State of Denmark.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 12 June 2016, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/somethings-rotten-in-the-state-of-denmark_us_575d8673e4b053e219791bb6.
  • Ophelia and Madness. Folger Shakespeare Library. 26 May 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhJWwoWCD4w&feature=youtu.be.
  • Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: Open Source Shakespeare, Eric M. Johnson, www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/playmenu.php?WorkID=hamlet. 
  • Women In Hamlet. elsinore.ucsc.edu/women/WomenOandH.html.