Sometimes it feels like Shakespeare was just doing an experiment in Hamlet, trying to identify ‘how much is it possible for an actor to do in one role?’. This soliloquy, and this scene, Act 3 scene 2, is evidence of this. This scene, this act (the whole play, really), has been an athletic feat of performance for the actor playing Hamlet, and in this moment the performance reaches a momentary pinnacle, before descending into the turmoil and devastation which is the second half of the play. Today we’re looking at Hamlet’s mid-play soliloquy ’Tis now the very witching time of night’. Let’s look at the text, then discuss.
This soliloquy, spoken (as soliloquies are) by Hamlet alone on the stage directly to the audience, comes at the conclusion of a MASSIVE scene in the play. This is one of, if not the biggest single scene in Shakespeare’s canon, in terms of what it demands of the actor playing Hamlet. In this single scene, we have Hamlet’s advice for the players while they are preparing, (Speak the speech I pray you) a briefing between Hamlet and Horatio outlining their play to catch the King, the entrance of all the members of the court reading to watch the play and the first time Hamlet has seen Ophelia since the nunnery scene (“Do you think I meant country matters?). Next we have the mousetrap and the King’s guilt-ridden exit from the stage, a passive aggressive conversation between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and finally a belittling interaction between Hamlet and Polonius. Hamlet is swept around the stage in this scene between all these people who Hamlet has an established relationship with. It must be exhausting for Hamlet, and it sure is exhausting for the actor. Hamlet jumps between his plotting, scheming ‘truthful’ persona and his antic disposition rapidly in this scene. He is bouncing off the walls, and the blurred line between performance and insanity is becoming ever more blurry. Finally, finally after all of this, Hamlet is alone. It is the ‘witching hour’ of night – an evil time after midnight, and Hamlet feels murderous. He has been called by his Mother to go and speak to her, she is appalled at the way he has been behaving of late. Hamlet remembers his Fathers instructions:
“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.”
He is attempting to tame his hot blooded mood and visit his Mother with clarity. Though his heart wishes to do her harm, he concludes that it will be with his words that he will hurt her, not his hands.
Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on. Soft! now to my mother.
O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom:
Let me be cruel, not unnatural:
I will speak daggers to her, but use none;
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites;
How in my words soever she be shent,
To give them seals never, my soul, consent!
Witching time: In folklore, the witching hour or devil’s hour is a time of night that is associated with supernatural events, whereby witches, demons and ghosts are thought to appear and be at their most powerful. Definitions vary, and include the hour immediately after midnight, and the time between 3:00 am and 4:00 am.
Quake: (of a person) shake or shudder with fear.
Nero: Nero was the 5th emperor of Rome and the last of Rome’s first dynasty. Nero is known as one of Rome’s most infamous rulers, notorious for his cruelty and debauchery.
Shent: archaic. to put to shame. To chide or reproach. to injure or destroy.
It’s now the devil’s hour of the night,
When churchyards open their graves and hell spills it’s evil out into the world.
I feel this evil in me, too – I could drink hot human blood,
and do such awful things that would terrify even in the daylight.
Okay – now to go and see my Mother.
Oh my heart, don’t lose your nature, don’t let the soul of the tyrant Nero enter you.
Let me be cruel, not murderous.
I will speak words to her which will cut like knives, but I won’t use real knives against her.
In this my soul and words will be opposites.
However I use my words to destroy her, never, my soul, go through with the act!
Notes On Performance
Hamlet is a play where the classic form of a revenge tragedy: a warrior hero who takes the necessary action to avenge the death of a loved one, is flipped on its head. In Hamlet, Shakespeare takes the task of the classic revenge hero, and gives it to an intellectual. With this ingenious action, the stage is set for a unique and conflict-filled story (both internally within Hamlet and externally in the world around him.)
In this soliloquy of Hamlets, we witness a collision between the classic revenger and the intellectual. Hamlet is arguing with himself. Rationally, he is willing himself to be logical and bring no harm to his Mother. But Hamlet’s blood is hot, and he feels his soul tearing for violence and bloodshed.
For the actor performing this soliloquy, particularly if it is being taken out of context for an audition or practise, it is important to understand and feel the whirlwind of activity which has immediately preceded these words. Hamlet has been bounced around between everyone he is concerned with. He trades spitting words with his Mother. His uncle, who he believes to be the murderer of his Father, is in the room with him and reveals an indication of his guilt. Polonius, who Hamlet believes to be a fool, is pestering him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who Hamlet believes to be false and treacherous ‘friends’ of his, are pestering him. Horatio, who is the only person who Hamlet trusts, must be given clear instructions for how to behave at the play. And on top of that, Hamlet has a bunch of unruly actors who he has to give very clear directions to in order for his plan to work; if their performance is rubbish, it won’t have the intended effect on Claudius. As high stakes scenes go, this scene is HIGH STAKES.
In terms of objectives, Hamlet is playing towards himself – to the conflict between his mind and soul. This is Hamlet speaking out loud to check in with himself and what he needs to do. This is a ‘pep talk’ of sorts, like you might give yourself before an important audition or sporting event. Hamlet needs to be in control, needs to be clear, needs to be alert. He is in the thick of it now – this intellectual mind who has frequently delayed and semblance of action has finally got the ball rolling. He is finally taking the steps in the direction his Father wished him to go: towards vengeance.