You know how sometimes you’re having a bad day, you miss the bus, spill coffee on yourself, forget to reply to an important email, and the ghost of a dead family member appears and speaks to you and tells you to take revenge for their murder? Wait, so not that last one? Ok, fair enough. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, might not have coffee, bus timetables and emails to worry about, but it’s fair to say that in this moment of the play, Act 1, scene 5, he is well and truly having a bad day. This is a fantastic speech for an actor to demonstrate their ability to play high stakes and an extreme emotional state. Let’s take a look at the text.
In order to fully grasp what Hamlet is experiencing and attempting to convey in this moment, we need to understand what has immediately preceded it. As always, it’s essential to read the play featuring your selected soliloquy. For the purposes of this particular soliloquy of Hamlet, however, much of the necessary information can be gleaned from the events which have just unfolded. Here is an abridged version of the conversation between Hamlet and the ghost of his father. I have highlighted in red the crucial given circumstances we must take into account. Take a look:
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love–
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.
I find thee apt;
Now, Hamlet, hear:
‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.
O my prophetic soul! My uncle!
Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts,–
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!–won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen:
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!
But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage.
But, soft! methinks I scent the morning air;
Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine;
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch’d:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:
O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not;
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once!
The glow-worm shows the matin to be near,
And ‘gins to pale his uneffectual fire:
Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me.
In this guttural and heart wrenching speech from the Ghost, he unfolds the truth which Hamlet felt an inkling of but could not have imagined in its entirety. The ghost has revealed the treacherous nature of Claudius to Hamlet, that he has crept up on the sleeping King and poured poison in his ear – a liquid so awful that it literally curdled the blood in his body, like milk. The ghost also reveals part of what he is suffering in purgatory – ‘fasting in fires til the mould crimes’ done in his life are purged away. The ghost is unable to be at peace, since he was murdered before being able to atone for his sins. The ghost is in a horrible state, and asks Hamlet to take revenge for his father’s plight. This, as you can imagine, is a LOT for Hamlet to process.
Host: The whole population of heaven
Fie: Archaic exclamation, used to express disgust or outrage
Sinews: the parts of a structure, system, or organisation that give it strength or bind it together.
Poor Ghost: Hamlet’s Father, also called Hamlet, who has just appeared and spoken to him as a ghost
Distracted globe: Hamlet’s mind
Saws of books: Literature which Hamlet has read
Baser matter: Insignificant and less important information
Pernicious Woman: Regarding Gertrude, Hamlet’s Mother, who Hamlet now believes to have been adulterous.
Tables: Records. This could be a literal notebook which Hamlet pulls out, or a figurative reminder to take note of what he has learnt.
Oh God and all of you up in Heaven, Oh Earth – what else, should I include everyone in hell, too?
Oh no! Hold, hold my heart;
And you, my body, don’t instantly rot and age but keep me standing up.
Remember you? Yes, you poor ghost, while this mind of mine is still able to remember I will never forget you. Remember you? Yes – from the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial information, all I have read, all experiences from my life so far; and your command shall live alone within my brain, not mixed with more trivial matters. Yes, by heaven!
Oh you pernicious woman!
Oh you villain, you villain, you smiling damned villain.
Take note – I should write down that it is possible for someone to smile and smile and still be a villain – at least I’m sure this is the case in Denmark.
So, uncle, now I see you. Now, to my word:
it is ‘Goodbye, goodbye, remember me.’
I have sworn to do so.
Notes on Performance
Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most famous intellectual characters. Hamlet processes his emotions and experiences with words and logic, rather than with actions. This soliloquy, however, is an exception to the rule in the sense that this is a complete outpouring of emotion on behalf of Hamlet, who has already told us he must ‘hold his tongue’ and hold himself together.
As is often the case in Shakespeare, we are given spoken physical directions from the characters in place of stage directions. Hamlet, in this soliloquy, is giving the audience and the actor clear directions for what he is experiencing physically. He is telling himself, “Hold, hold my heart”. He is begging his heart and his body to remain intact and standing, in order to avoid crumbling onto the floor in pieces. This is an indication to the actor of the physical and emotional state they need to occupy in order to do this aspect of the role justice.
Consider the weight of the information Hamlet is trying to process right now. Hamlet has just discovered that he has been lied to, (in regards to the narrative of the snakebite which killed his Father) his Father is now a GHOST who is burning in purgatory to purge his sins because he was MURDERED by Hamlet’s UNCLE. That’s enough to boggle your brain, and that’s before we begin to consider the whole confirmation of the afterlife conundrum.
Hamlet is in shock. This shock causes a ‘break’ in Hamlet’s character – something in this moment snaps. This moment allows him the inspiration of his ‘antic disposition’ (feigned madness plan), and considering what has happened in these moments we must start to wonder whether this madness is truly feigned or if it is real.
What this moment begs of the actor is release and commitment to the given circumstances, clear targets and the passionate pursuit of an objective, overriding the mountainous obstacles standing in your way. The actor must know, understand and feel the weight of the interaction which has just passed between Hamlet and his Father. The actor must be clear about the world around them, and the targets placed in the world at a measurable distance from them: Heaven, Earth, Hell, pernicious woman, villain. Finally, the objective. Hamlet must stay standing. He must hold his heart together and prohibit it from shattering into a thousand pieces. The actor must not play the victim, and fight against the obstacle of crumbling under the weight of the circumstances. This fight, this conflict will create the emotional experience desired in the audience.
If there is a tipping point moment in Hamlet, where we see him transition from who he was to who he becomes, this is it. In the space of 20 or so lines, we see Hamlet become the eccentric, unhinged and volatile tragic revenge hero we know him to become. This affords the actor a wonderful opportunity: to feel and express this transition. Hamlet, in the space of this scene, changes. He goes from a man without a cause, without a purpose, to a man with a singular goal: revenge. This metamorphosis is violent, ugly and alarming to witness. This is going to take courage from the actor, and this courage will be rewarded greatly.