The previous scene of gloom and darkness is replaced by the bright lights of the King’s court, apparently its first gathering since the death of Hamlet.  We learn very quickly that Claudius, the late King’s brother, not his son, has succeeded him and married Gertrude, King Hamlet’s widow, something that would have been considered incest at the time.

Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him,
Together with remembrance of ourselves.
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
The imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy,--
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,--
Taken to wife: nor have we herein barr'd
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along. For all, our thanks.
Now follows, that you know, young Fortinbras,
Holding a weak supposal of our worth,
Or thinking by our late dear brother's death
Our state to be disjoint and out of frame,
Colleagued with the dream of his advantage,
He hath not fail'd to pester us with message,
Importing the surrender of those lands
Lost by his father, with all bonds of law,
To our most valiant brother. So much for him.
Now for ourself and for this time of meeting:
Thus much the business is: we have here writ
To Norway, uncle of young Fortinbras,--
Who, impotent and bed-rid, scarcely hears
Of this his nephew's purpose,--to suppress
His further gait herein; in that the levies,
The lists and full proportions, are all made
Out of his subject: and we here dispatch
You, good Cornelius, and you, Voltimand,
For bearers of this greeting to old Norway;
Giving to you no further personal power
To business with the king, more than the scope
Of these delated articles allow.
Farewell, and let your haste commend your duty.

In that and all things will we show our duty.


This opening speech is a test of Claudius’ political skill, one in which he has to strike a careful balance between acknowledging the grief of the nation over its loss and moving on to confront the pressures that are facing the country.  This speech presumably represents Claudius’ first official function as Denmark’s new king, and thus is essentially his inaugural speech, an oration in which hitting all the right notes is crucial to establishing his legitimacy as the new head of state. 

Wisely, he begins with an acknowledgement of Denmark’s grief by personifying the kingdom in order to emphasize the collective nature of its grief (‘our whole kingdom
… contracted in one brow of woe,’) and then moving on to something that would be on everyone’s mind:  the fact that he has wed his brother’s widow, an act considered to be incestuous at the time.  By referring to her as ‘our sometime sister, now our queen,’ he confronts the issue openly, but justifies the marriage, making it seem not just a personal choice but also a matter of state by further referring to her as “The imperial jointress to this warlike state,” making her an equal partner and reminding his listeners that war is being threatened.  Using a series of oxymoronic phrases, he goes on to suggest the ambivalence they are all feeling right now, a time of both mourning and celebration:

Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy,--
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,--
Taken to wife:

He then thanks his council, which he observes, has “freely gone/ With this affair along.”

Having dealt with the domestic situation, Claudius goes on to address the other pressing matter on everyone’s mind:  the threat posed by Fortinbras, who is seeking the return of the lands lost by his father to King Hamlet so many years ago.  Claudius suggests that the young prince might be trying to press his advantage by assuming an inner chaos in Denmark due to Hamlet’s death, but he seeks to show both domestically and internationally that Denmark is in good and capable hands, thereby establishing his foreign policy bone fides.  Through what must be a well-developed intelligence system, Claudius has learned that the old and sick king of Norway isn’t really aware of what his nephew is up to.  The Danish king is therefore dispatching two emissaries with a letter to Norway informing him in the hope that he will stop his young nephew, thereby averting war.  If he succeeds, Claudius will have achieved a major victory and gone a long way toward validating his kingship.

Next, Claudius turns his attention to Laertes, the son of his chief advisor Polonius:

And now, Laertes, what's the news with you?
You told us of some suit; what is't, Laertes?
You cannot speak of reason to the Dane,
And loose your voice: what wouldst thou beg, Laertes,
That shall not be my offer, not thy asking?
The head is not more native to the heart,
The hand more instrumental to the mouth,
Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father.
What wouldst thou have, Laertes?

Note the deferential tone Claudius adopts here, using Laertes’ name four times in a mere nine lines, essentially telling him he can have anything he asks for.  The new king is in full display here as a master politician, clearly conveying to everyone the importance of Laertes’ father to his rule.

My dread lord,
Your leave and favour to return to France;
From whence though willingly I came to Denmark,
To show my duty in your coronation,
Yet now, I must confess, that duty done,
My thoughts and wishes bend again toward France
And bow them to your gracious leave and pardon.
Have you your father's leave? What says Polonius?

He hath, my lord, wrung from me my slow leave
By laboursome petition, and at last
Upon his will I seal'd my hard consent:
I do beseech you, give him leave to go.

Once again, to show his respect and gratitude to Polonius, Claudius, before granting Laertes’ petition to return to France, asks if he has his father’s permission.  Once that is established, he gives his consent:

Take thy fair hour, Laertes; time be thine,
And thy best graces spend it at thy will!
But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son,--

He next turns his attention to his nephew, now his son, Prince Hamlet.  This public encounter will require all of Claudius’ considerable political skills:

[Aside] A little more than kin, and less than kind.

How is it that the clouds still hang on you?

Not so, my lord; I am too much i' the sun.

The prince’s first words are laced with bitterness, clearly indicative of the antipathy he feels toward his uncle.  When the latter inquires why he is still looking sad, Hamlet’s reference to being ‘too much I’ the sun’ is probably both a rebuke of the bright and festive lights of the court while Hamlet is still in mourning for his father as well as a pun on the word ‘sun,’ an indication of how he resents now being Claudius’ new son.

At this point, maternal concern prompts Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, to implore her son:

Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

Concerned about her son’s protracted grieving, she is asking him to accept that death is a fact of life.

Ay, madam, it is common

This response is both an acknowledgment and an expression of revulsion over the fact that death is a coarse truth of life, suggesting that the prince has not really come to grips with it yet.

If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not 'seems.'
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.


For reasons that will become apparent in his upcoming soliloquy, Hamlet rebukes his mother by pointing out that while one may put on an act of mourning by adopting all the outward signs (clothing, tears, sighs, etc.) of grief, his is genuine and deeply felt.

This speech also marks the introduction of a very important theme in the play, the disparity that can exist between appearances and reality, something that is about to become a very important consideration.

In a speech that probably has several motives, Claudius next launches into a lecture, telling Hamlet that it is time to move on:
'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; 'tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool'd:
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! 'tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died to-day,
'This must be so.' We pray you, throw to earth
This unprevailing woe, and think of us
As of a father: for let the world take note,
You are the most immediate to our throne;
And with no less nobility of love
Than that which dearest father bears his son,
Do I impart toward you. For your intent
In going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire:
And we beseech you, bend you to remain
Here, in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.


While it may seem inappropriate to publicly lecture the grieving son of the late king, Claudius is likely trying to achieve several results here.  First, since he is now Hamlet’s stepfather, he is concerned on a personal level for the prince’s emotional well-being, but the fact that he essentially tries to lighten his burden by using reason (everyone dies) suggests that he really doesn’t fully appreciate the depth of Hamlet’s grief. 

That he is nettled by Hamlet’s ongoing display is evident when he describes it in unflattering personal terms, suggesting that Hamlet is immature, simple, stubborn, unmanly and irreligious in his refusal to move on:

(impious stubbornness …  unmanly grief;
… a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool'd)

In all of this, there is a deep political motivation for Claudius to try to rouse Hamlet’s spirits.  Busy as he is establishing the legitimacy of his kingship, the last thing he needs is to have the popular prince reminding everyone by his demeanor and his garb of the loss the nation has suffered.  It is therefore in his best interest to try to win Hamlet over so that they can appear to be one happy and united family.  This would seem to be why he announces that Hamlet will be his successor (“for let the world take note,
You are the most immediate to our throne;”) and why he asks the prince to remain in Denmark rather than returning to school in Wittenberg.  (The reason Hamlet did not become King of Denmark upon his father’s death will be discussed at the end of this scene’s commentary.)

Next, Gertrude echoes her new husband’s wishes:

Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet:
I pray thee, stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.

I shall in all my best obey you, madam.

Hamlet’s tart reply is clearly intended as a rebuke to Claudius, whom he does not even deign to acknowledge.  Claudius, ever aware that the eyes of the court are upon him, chooses to overlook the slight, pretending that all is well.  He concludes the session by telling everyone it is time for the celebrations to begin.

Why, 'tis a loving and a fair reply:
Be as ourself in Denmark. Madam, come;
This gentle and unforced accord of Hamlet
Sits smiling to my heart: in grace whereof,
No jocund health that Denmark drinks to-day,
But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell,
And the king's rouse the heavens all bruit again,
Re-speaking earthly thunder. Come away.

Exeunt all but HAMLET

This first of the play’s great soliloquies gives us a much needed window into Hamlet’s brooding soul:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

The depth of Hamlet’s despair is made immediately apparent as he wishes for death, lamenting the fact that suicide is against God’s law.  It is clear from his language that life holds no promise, no delight for him.

Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

In this metaphor, the prince compares life to a garden that has been left untended.  Instead of beauty, the worst of nature has taken hold.  This kind of imagery is consistent with a very depressed state of mind, the complete reasons for which become apparent:

                      That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. 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!--
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body,
Like Niobe, all tears:--why she, even she--
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn'd longer--married with my uncle,
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.

Hamlet’s deep despondency, this passage reveals, is not simply a reaction to his father’s death, but to the actions his mother took less than two months after his demise.  The Prince uses a mythological allusion to draw an unflattering comparison of Claudius with his late father, referring to the latter as ‘Hyperion’ the original Titan sun god, and the former as ‘a satyr,’ a mythical half-human, half-beast known for his lustful appetites. 

The Dane then begins to reminisce about the relationship that existed between his father and mother, depicting a marriage where they each seemed to live for the other, where the King loved Gertrude so much that he couldn’t even bear to have a strong wind buffet her face, while she seemed entranced by every word her spoke.  

As he moves to the core of his disaffection, Hamlet utters one of the most famous lines of the play, ‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’ making a sweeping condemnation of all women as weak because of his mother’s actions, revealing an incipient misogyny that will later play a pivotal role in the play.

Using yet another mythological allusion, Hamlet compares his mother’s reaction to her husband’s death to that of Niobe, whose grief over the loss of her 14 children at the hands of the gods would have been well-known to Shakespeare’s more educated audience members.  Yet despite this outpouring of sorrow, in little more than a month she had married Claudius, whom he describes both as his uncle and his father’s brother, an emphasis on both the close relationship and the fact that, in the Prince’s mind, the two brothers have nothing in common (“no more like my father/Than I to Hercules”).  It is also interesting to note that Hamlet sees nothing strong or heroic in his own character, given this comparison to Hercules.

He goes on to lament that with unseemly haste, even while her eyes were still red from the hypocritical tears she had shed over her husband’s death, Gertrude married Claudius.  That Hamlet’s sense of morality has been further outraged is evident in his reference to the ‘wicked speed’ with which she posted to ‘incestuous sheets.’

What the Soliloquy Reveals about Hamlet’s Character

While there are always a number of purposes that can be achieved through a soliloquy, chief amongst them is the revelation of character.  Since questions about Hamlet’s character and motivations abound in this play, particular attention will be paid to each occasion when the Prince verbalizes his thoughts.

In this one, many facets of Hamlet’s character are revealed.  That he has religious and moral sensibilities should be immediately apparent.  His longing for death, while deep, is not absolute, as witnessed by his regret that God’s laws forbids suicide.   His disgust with his mother’s marriage to Claudius is compounded by the fact that this hasty union is incestuous, the Church forbidding marriages between brother-in-law and sister-in-law without special papal dispensation, a fact that Shakespeare’s audience would have been aware of through the behaviour of their last King, Henry V111, who was given permission to marry Catherine of Aragon, his brother Arthur’s widow.  This marriage ultimately led to the break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England when Catherine could not produce a male heir and Henry was desperate to divorce her.

Hamlet is also revealed here as an idealistic, even naïve young man whose worldview has been shattered.  Note the way he describes the relationship between his parents; it sounds perfect, doesn’t it?  But we all know, unless we have very limited experience of the world, that such marriages do not exist.  In having thought of his parents’ union in those terms, finding another reality not only disillusions him, it devastates him.

This is not to suggest in any way that the Prince is uneducated or stupid.  Indeed, the opposite is evident in the language Shakespeare has him speak in this soliloquy.  His skillful use of metaphor and mythological allusion suggest a well-tutored and keen intellect, undoubtedly very important factors in the drama that is about to unfold.

Clearly, Hamlet’s alienation from his mother and stepfather is profound.  Like so much of Shakespeare’s work, this alienation from people is something almost all of his readers/audiences can relate to. 


Hail to your lordship!

I am glad to see you well:
Horatio,--or I do forget myself.

The same, my lord, and your poor servant ever.

Sir, my good friend; I'll change that name with you:
And what make you from Wittenberg, Horatio? Marcellus?

My good lord--

I am very glad to see you. Good even, sir.
But what, in faith, make you from Wittenberg?

A truant disposition, good my lord.

I would not hear your enemy say so,
Nor shall you do mine ear that violence,
To make it truster of your own report
Against yourself: I know you are no truant.
But what is your affair in Elsinore?
We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart.

Although we rarely get the opportunity to experience the Hamlet who must have existed before the onset of his profound disaffection and depression, this is one of those moments where we see a gracious and magnanimous Prince who stands, not on ceremony, but greets warmly his old friend Horatio and is very polite and kind to people who are far beneath his rank, namely Marcellus and Bernardo. 

My lord, I came to see your father's funeral.

I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student;
I think it was to see my mother's wedding.

Indeed, my lord, it follow'd hard upon.

Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven
Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!
My father!--methinks I see my father.

Where, my lord?

In my mind's eye, Horatio.
I saw him once; he was a goodly king.

He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.

That Hamlet and Horatio are fellow students at Wittenberg University is made obvious in the above exchange.  What isn’t obvious, however, is the answer to the question of why, if Horatio came to Elsinore for King Hamlet’s funeral, this is apparently the first time he has seen Horatio, especially perplexing since the King has been dead for over a month. 

Hamlet’s sharp and bitter wit is reflected in his cynical observation that the marriage of his mother and uncle followed the funeral so quickly for matters of thrift – the same foods used at the funeral were still fresh enough to serve at the marriage feast.  Hamlet’s despondency has quickly returned, and his simple assessment of his father, “I shall not look upon his like again,” is an elegant tribute to an irreplaceable presence in his life.

My lord, I think I saw him yesternight.

Saw? who?

My lord, the king your father.

The king my father!

Season your admiration for awhile
With an attent ear, till I may deliver,
Upon the witness of these gentlemen,
This marvel to you.

For God's love, let me hear.

The ensuing dialogue, after Horatio has delivered this startling information to Hamlet, essentially summarizes the events leading up to Horatio being summoned by the guards to be a credible and trusted witness to what they had seen:

Two nights together had these gentlemen,
Marcellus and Bernardo, on their watch,
In the dead vast and middle of the night,
Been thus encounter'd. A figure like your father,
Armed at point exactly, cap-a-pe,
Appears before them, and with solemn march
Goes slow and stately by them: thrice he walk'd
By their oppress'd and fear-surprised eyes,
Within his truncheon's length; whilst they, distilled
Almost to jelly with the act of fear,
Stand dumb and speak not to him. This to me
In dreadful secrecy impart they did;
And I with them the third night kept the watch;
Where, as they had deliver'd, both in time,
Form of the thing, each word made true and good,
The apparition comes: I knew your father;
These hands are not more like.

These last two lines of Horatio seem to contradict what he said a few moments earlier, that he saw King Hamlet once, “he was a goodly king.”  There really is no good explanation for this discrepancy.

But where was this?

My lord, upon the platform where we watch'd.

Did you not speak to it?

My lord, I did;
But answer made it none: yet once methought
It lifted up its head and did address
Itself to motion, like as it would speak;
But even then the morning cock crew loud,
And at the sound it shrunk in haste away,
And vanish'd from our sight.

'Tis very strange.

As I do live, my honour'd lord, 'tis true;
And we did think it writ down in our duty
To let you know of it.

Indeed, indeed, sirs, but this troubles me.
Hold you the watch to-night?

We do, my lord.

Arm'd, say you?

Arm'd, my lord.

From top to toe?

My lord, from head to foot.
Then saw you not his face?

O, yes, my lord; he wore his beaver up.

What, look'd he frowningly?

A countenance more in sorrow than in anger.
Pale or red?
Nay, very pale.

And fix'd his eyes upon you?

Most constantly.

I would I had been there.

It would have much amazed you.

Very like, very like. Stay'd it long?

While one with moderate haste might tell a hundred.

Longer, longer.

Not when I saw't.

His beard was grizzled--no?

It was, as I have seen it in his life,
A sable silver'd.

I will watch to-night;
Perchance 'twill walk again.

I warrant it will.

If it assume my noble father's person,
I'll speak to it, though hell itself should gape
And bid me hold my peace. I pray you all,
If you have hitherto conceal'd this sight,
Let it be tenable in your silence still;
And whatsoever else shall hap to-night,
Give it an understanding, but no tongue:
I will requite your loves. So, fare you well:
Upon the platform, 'twixt eleven and twelve,
I'll visit you.

Our duty to your honour.

Your loves, as mine to you: farewell.

Exeunt all but HAMLET

My father's spirit in arms! all is not well;
I doubt some foul play: would the night were come!
Till then sit still, my soul: foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes.


The above exchanges between Hamlet and the others show the former’s intense interest in the spectral visitation, but this interest should not be mistaken for conviction that his father has actually visited.  The key to appreciating his ambivalence about the ghost’s identity is when he says: 

If it assume my noble father's person,
I'll speak to it, though hell itself should gape
And bid me hold my peace.

The use of the word ‘assume’ is an acknowledgement that the spirit could simply be masquerading as the late King.  The possibility that it could be demonic in origin is found in his reference to ‘hell itself.’

This point can be easily overlooked if we take at face value his ensuing comment:  “My father's spirit in arms! all is not well.”  This should only be interpreted as recognition of the possibility it actually is his father, no doubt something he would dearly love to believe but is in fact too smart to simply accept.  This ambivalence will become more apparent as the play progresses.  Nonetheless, Shakespeare is providing a small element of foreshadowing when he has Hamlet voice his suspicion that the spectre’s appearance indicates some ‘foul play.’ 

                                                      Why Is Hamlet Not Now the King of Denmark?

Although the question of why Hamlet did not become king upon his father’s death is not explicitly dealt with in the play, there are certain assumptions we can reasonably make.  Given that the principle of primogeniture, the right of the eldest to inherit his father’s estate, was not established in the time the play is set, the selection of the monarch would be through a form of election which, in essence would be left in the hands of the Council, comprised of senior nobility.  Given the circumstances of King Hamlet’s sudden, unexpected death, and the absence of Hamlet, presumably studying at the University of Wittenberg, Claudius would have put himself forward as his brother’s replacement, arguing that the perilous circumstances involving young Fortinbras precluded the luxury of a more leisurely selection process.  Indeed, as has been already noted, Claudius, in his opening speech, uses language that suggests a continuity of rule.  The fact that he thanks them for freely going along with his marriage to his brother’s widow suggests the crucial role played by the Council in the entire process, an importance also reflected in his deference to Laertes, son of the King’s chief counselor, who must have played a key role in the selection process.



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