Words Words Words
Updated: Nov 10, 2020
We often quote Shakespeare’s lines without knowing where they come from. Some lines are so familiar that they seem to be just part of our language, part of our culture, and don’t need a source. Words and expressions that we use without realising that someone came up with them a long time ago and that someone was pretty special.
The magic of Shakespeare's language
(photo via Time Out)
Occasionally we get a bit of help, notably from the brilliant Horrible Histories, where their Shakespeare tells us “That was one of mine” when he hears his words coming up. But part of the fun here is that even the real Shakespeare can’t have been sure what he genuinely made up and what he only thought he did.
"That was one of mine"
(Oh no it wasn't!)
It’s also very easy for us to get the lines wrong now, which isn’t a big deal generally as long as we get close enough. Our minds play tricks with us and what we think we remember. Sometimes we get the lines horribly wrong. Other times we come out with words and sayings that have been expressed so often in common parlance that they have long since ceased to have any bite. There is no magic in clichés.
On rare occasions, there is some mystery as to whether the speaker is deliberately getting it wrong. For even the most overly quoted lines, this can be wonderfully amusing. Eric Morecambe springs to mind. His “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well” was and probably always will be hilarious. That’s not how it goes in the text, honestly, despite so many of us fondly remembering it that way.
Hamlet (David Tennant), surely not about to get it wrong with Yorick
Shakespeare may even have seen this coming, and set us all up for such a fall. And yet he took some pains to guard against too much buffoonery with words. Professor Ewan Fernie claims that “Hamlet wages war against cliché”, and I’m inclined to agree with both the academic and the Prince on stage. The Professor goes further: “All regular assumptions are open to question”. So, no definitive meanings in what is said in the court of Elsinore. I like this kind of openness when it comes to the meaning of words.
And then we come to the ultimate quote. The ultimate question:
“To be or not to be”
Somehow, even though this line has been said so often throughout history, in often highly inappropriate or irrelevant circumstances, it is still possible to probe Hamlet, the play and the man, for hidden meanings in a dramatic context. Amazingly, when we keep an open mind, Hamlet’s words maintain their freshness and their impact. Through Hamlet and his soliloquies, his conversations and arguments, Shakespeare set us up for all eternity to engage in word play, interpretation, and detailed scholarly analysis of the power of words and how they convey the mysteries of the universe. Hamlet’s, and Shakespeare’s words are “always presenting alternative forms and meanings” (Fernie).
"What do you read, my lord?"
Quizzing Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu)
We can go well beyond being and not being. Hamlet contains so many brilliant lines worthy of quotation and exploration. Literary fun and games for all. Even if some of them have been quoted so many times down the centuries. And so, I present to you a selection of my favourite lines from the great play. Many will be familiar; a few, at least, may be surprises.
1. “Frailty, thy name is woman!”
Hamlet to his mother, Queen Gertrude, Act 1 scene 2
Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu) pointing out the error of his mother's (Lorna Brown) ways
2 . "In my mind’s eye, Horatio”
Hamlet coining a phrase spoken many times since, Act 1 scene 2
3. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend.”
Polonius to his son Laertes, Act 1 scene 3
4. “This above all - to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Polonius to Laertes, Act 1 scene 3
5. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”
Marcellus, Act 1 scene 4
6. “Murder most foul”
Ghost, Act 1 scene 5
7. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Hamlet to his friend Horatio, Act 1 scene 5
The ghostly world. Image: Johann Ramberg
8. “This is the very ecstasy of love”
Polonius, thinking he knows whats up with the prince, Act 2 scene 2
9. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t”
Polonius still thinking he has it all figured out, Act 2 scene 2
10. “Man delights not me – no, nor woman neither”
Hamlet to Guildenstern, enigmatic and playful, Act 2 scene 2
11. “Doubt that the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.”
Hamlet, in a letter to Ophelia, intercepted by Polonius (her father), Act 2 scene 2
True love? Ophelia (Mimi Ndiweni) and Hamlet (Paapa Essiedu)
12. “What do you read my lord?”
“Words, words, words.”
Polonius to Hamlet, and Hamlet’s answer, Act 2 scene 2
13. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”
Hamlet to Rosencrantz, philosophising on what constitutes a prison, Act 2 scene 2
14. “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”
More on this theme, Hamlet, Act 2 scene 2
15. “What a piece of work is a man!”
Hamlet, explaining his state of mind to Guildenstern, Act 2 scene 2
16. “The play’s the thing
Wherein I‘ll catch the conscience of the King.”
Hamlet, planning to entrap his guilty uncle, Act 2 scene 2
17. "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?”
Everyone knows this one. Hamlet and the most famous soliloquy ever, Act 3, scene 1
That's a tough one
18. “When we have shuffled off this mortal coil”
Hamlet, more from the same speech, Act 3 scene 1
19. “The undiscover’d country”
Same speech again. Used as the title of the 6th Star Trek movie, Act 3 scene 1
20. "Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all”
Hamlet getting to the end of his self-interrogation, Act 3 scene 1
21. “Get thee to a nunnery.
Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?”
Hamlet to Ophelia, Act 3 scene 1
22. “God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another”
A bit harsh. Hamlet on make-up, Act 3 scene 1
23. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”
Gertrude to Hamlet on the player Queen. Gertrude should have protested more herself when importuned by her brother-in-law, Act 3 scene 2
24. “I will speak daggers to her, but use none”
Hamlet soliloquising again, this time on his mother. He proceeds to tear into her in the next scene, Act 3 scene 3
25. “Words without thoughts never to heaven go”
Claudius trying to pray, but unwilling to let go of his ill-gotten Queen, Act 3 scene 3
26. “Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty!”
Hamlet to Gertrude. Not mincing his words, Act 3 scene 4
More advice to his mum. Hamlet (Ben Whishaw) with Gertrude (Imogen Stubbs)
27. “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain”
Gertrude’s response, Act 3 scene 4
28. “O, throw away the worser part of it,
And live the purer with the other half”
Hamlet’s response to his mum’s broken heart, Act 3 scene 4
29. “I must be cruel only to be kind”
Hamlet to his mother, explaining why he has chided her so strongly, Act 3 scene 4
30. “When sorrows come, they come not single spies,
But in battalions.”
Claudius, on the latest piece of bad news, Ophelia’s madness on hearing of her father’s death, Act 4 scene 5
31. “Too much of water has thou, poor Ophelia, And therefore I forbid my tears.”
Laertes, discovering his sister has drowned, Act 4 scene 7
32. "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.”
Hamlet to Horatio, on finding the skull of a former beloved court jester in the grave, Act 5 scene 1
Do the line, Tom!
Tom Hiddleston in the graveyard scene.
33. “Sweets to the sweet, farewell!”
Gertrude on Ophelia, Act 5 scene 1
34. “Now cracks a noble heart.
Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”
Horatio to Hamlet. A fitting tribute, Act 5 scene 2
Finally, since you’ve got this far with me, I feel it only fair to present an extract from Morecambe and Wise doing Shakespeare:
And you thought this was all about tragedy!
© Eddie Hewitt 2018
The Connected Cultures Hamlet special:
Review of the RSC’s Hamlet at the Hackney Empire
All the Hamlets: famous performances through the ages
In a Nutshell: Hamlet - the Story
The RSC: Hamlet
Hackney Empire: Hamlet