Famous Hamlet Quotes & Expert Analysis

March 21, 2024

hamlet quotes

If you’re here, you’ve probably been asked to read Shakespeare’s longest play, Hamlet. Don’t worry if you’re feeling overwhelmed – it’s not an easy play. First, I’d recommend you take a look at this scene-by-scene summary, then, when you know what’s going on, come back and we can identify, discuss, and analyze some specific quotes in Hamlet that will enrich your understanding of the “melancholy Dane.”

Famous Hamlet Quotes

Act I, Scene II

After we meet the ghost of Hamlet’s father in the first scene of act I, scene II introduces us to Hamlet, Gertrude (the Queen, Hamlet’s mother), Claudius (the King, Hamlet’s Uncle), Polonius, and his son Laertes. In this scene, everyone wants to know why Hamlet is still so moody two months after his father’s death. As Claudius tells Hamlet, death is normal – to wallow in prolonged sadness is “unmanly grief.” The queen then asks Hamlet directly, “Why seems it so particular with thee?” to which Hamlet replies,

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 forc’d breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shows 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.

Famous Hamlet Quotes (Continued)

Quite simply, Hamlet is insisting that his melancholy is more than just skin deep. Any outward sign of grief (e.g., “suits of solemn black,” “dejected haviour of the visage,” or “windy suspirations”) is mere semblance. According to Hamlet, his grief is the real deal – he “[has] that within which passeth show.”

On first read, this could feel a tad petulant. (You can almost picture Hamlet rolling his eyes and huffing off, and slamming the door to his room, yelling, “You just don’t get me, mom!”) But let’s give Hamlet the benefit of the doubt. He’s having a tough time – his father’s dead and his mother has jumped into bed with his uncle.

It’s clear that in this quote Hamlet is insisting that his melancholy is genuine. He’s not merely an “inky cloak” and “suits of solemn black” – he’s got very real grief. At the same time, I want to read something deeper into this moment. For me, it feels like Hamlet is insisting on the legibility of the world. It’s not just that he’s genuinely sad – I think he is trying to reassure himself that the world is comprehensible. For the world to be legible, the inner must match the outer – the signified must match the signifier –  he wants to insist that appearance must correspond to reality. At this moment of personal and political chaos, Hamlet needs for there to be a knowable relation between essence and appearance.

Act I, Scene II (cont.)

After Hamlet describes his melancholy, Claudius asks Hamlet to reconsider going to Wittenberg, a request that Hamlet agrees to. When everyone leaves the stage, Hamlet delivers this banger of a soliloquy:


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! O God!

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie on’t! Oh fie! ’tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely. 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 followed 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 mine 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.

Famous Hamlet Quotes (Continued)

(Firstly, I’d recommend you check out the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of this soliloquy. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to understand Shakespeare’s language when it’s performed.)

This soliloquy sketches the dramatic motivations of the entire play. Let’s look at it more closely. Hamlet begins by ruing his existence. He’d like his flesh to “melt away” and regrets that God prohibits suicide (“self-slaughter”). The cause of his despair is the fact that the world has gone to seed. The world is “an unweeded garden” in which “things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely [completely].” It’s worth pausing to think about why Hamlet is upset. He’s not upset at his father’s death – rather, Hamlet is upset because the rules and structure of his world have been upended.

We understand the nature of this disorder in the next few lines. What bothers Hamlet is not the death of his father but the fact that “within a month…[my mother] married with mine uncle.” In other words, at the heart of Hamlet is the dissolution of a son’s image of his mother’s love for his father. Now, one can certainly wonder at Gertrude’s personal motivations for marrying Claudius, but ultimately, marrying Claudius is a political act. The king’s death isn’t just a personal tragedy – it’s a political crisis for Denmark. So while Hamlet sees his mother’s choice as “frailty,” in reality, Gertrude’s choice lends political stability to Claudius’s rule. Given the choice between individual commitments (love for a spouse) and political commitments (the Danish monarchy), Gertrude chooses the political – which enrages Hamlet.

Act I, Scene III

If Hamlet is all melancholy and grief, Polonius is his optimistic foil. In scene III, as his son Laertes prepares to leave for France, Polonius delivers the following lines:

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.

On the surface, this is good (if cliché) advice. Indeed, these words have become a commonplace maxim for self-assured individualism. (They even made it into Clueless.) However, given that the play characterizes Polonius as a bit of a fool, I’m inclined to read this quote as a Polonius merely performing the wise father for his son. This reading is supported by the fact that Polonius subsequently tells his servant Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in France.

Act I, Scene IV

Though the play introduces the ghost of Hamlet’s father in the first scene, it’s not until scene IV that Hamlet actually talks to it. Marcellus and Horatio bring Hamlet to where the ghost first appeared. The ghost appears again and beckons Hamlet to follow it. Horatio and Marcellus (wisely) tell Hamlet not to go with the spooky ghost that looks like his dad. Hamlet doesn’t listen and follows the ghost, at which point Marcellus says,

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Famous Hamlet Quotes (Continued)

There’s no doubt that this quote speaks to the crisis in Denmark brought about by Claudius’s usurpation of the Danish throne. At the same time, the specific context of this quote tells us a bit more. As I mentioned above, the ghost refuses to speak – instead, he gestures to Hamlet to follow him. Horatio and Marcellus try to stop Hamlet, who threatens them and breaks away. Horatio then says that Hamlet “waxes desperate with imagination [delusion].” Only then does Marcellus say his famous line. When viewed in context, this famous line speaks both to the general state of Denmark and to the fact that the heir to the Danish throne is delusionally desperate to converse with his dead father.

Act I, Scene V

After his conversation with the ghost (during which the ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius killed him), Horatio and Marcellus find Hamlet in a distressed state. Hamlet makes them swear to never speak of what they’ve seen and then says the following:

The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,

That ever I was born to set it right.

Nay, come, let’s go together.

Famous Hamlet Quotes (Continued)

It’s easy to say that this is just a medical metaphor expressing that something is wrong in Denmark and that Hamlet is going to fix it. However, following Derrida, I can’t help wanting to do something more with this quote.

Let’s remember that Hamlet’s perception of his present has been disrupted by a ghost. Quite literally, the past has come back to haunt him. Add to this the ghost’s final words – “Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me.” Ultimately, Hamlet’s promise to remember the ghost is his motivation for the entire play. He strives in all his actions to make visible the memory of his father – as king, as father, as husband.

Understood in this way, Hamlet’s madness becomes more legible. Knowing what he does, Hamlet is a man out of time. Not only is he cursed with knowing, but, given the fact that he learned this truth from a ghost, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever believe him. Indeed, perhaps the final scene of the play, in which everyone dies, is the only way to set it right.

Act II, Scene II

Claudius and Gertrud are understandably concerned about Hamlet’s behavior. They send for Hamlet’s school chums, Rosencranz and Guildenstern, in the hopes that they can cheer him up (or at least figure out what’s wrong with him). Here is how Hamlet describes his mood:

“I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory…What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable; in action how like an angel, in apprehension, how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

Famous Hamlet Quotes (Continued)

Understandably, the line “What a piece of work is man…in action how like an angel, in apprehension, how like a god” is the most famous part of this excerpt. Less familiar is Hamlet’s declaration that the beauty of man is, for him, the “quintessence of dust.” This sentiment certainly aligns with Hamlet’s more general obsession with the “ashes to ashes” materiality of the world and its creatures. (As a case in point, look no further than his conversation with the gravediggers in Act V.)

Even less familiar is the line that comes after “quintessence of dust.” Hamlet, seeing that Rosencranz is smiling, asks him, “Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.” Rosencranz then tells Hamlet that a troupe of actors is coming to the castle, at which Hamlet brightens. That Hamlet should swing from “quintessence of dust” to looking forward to a play is, at first, puzzling. This swing becomes clearer when Hamlet talks about the skills of the principal actor. Hamlet contrasts his own emotional paralysis with the feelings of the player. He wonders how the actor is able to summon such semblance of feeling without anything real behind it.

Famous Hamlet Quotes & Analysis – In sum…

Shakespeare’s longest play has everything you’d want in a drama – ghosts, pirates, poison, and existential musings on the inevitability of death. If you want to know more about Hamlet, I strongly suggest you check out this post on Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be…” soliloquy). And if talking about Shakespeare is something you can see yourself doing for four years, check out this list of the best colleges for creative writing.

Hamlet Quotes & Analysis – Additional Resources 

You may also find the following blogs to be relevant and useful: