Explanatory Notes for Act 4, Scene 5
From Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan.
2. indeed distract, not merely importunate, but quite out of
her senses; for distract, cp. i. 2. 20, "disjoint and out of frame."
3. Her mood ... pitied, it is impossible not to pity her condition;
for will, see Abb. § 319.
5. There's tricks i' the world, there are strange doings going
on in the world; cp. K. J. i. 1. 232, "There's toys abroad":
6. Spurns ... straws, kicks impatiently at straws in her path;
is angry at the merest trifles; cp. A. C. iii. 5. 17, 8, where it is
said of Antony in a bad temper that he "spurns The rush that
lies before him": in doubt, in dubious language.
7-13. her speech ... unhappily, her words in themselves convey
no distinct meaning, yet, used as they are in such disorder, they
provoked their hearers to try to gather some meaning from them,
to piece them together, so that they may give a coherent sense;
they (sc. the hearers) make a guess at that sense, and clumsily
endeavour to suit the words to the interpretation they put upon
them; and those words, as they are eked out by her winks, nods,
and gestures, would certainly lead one to suppose that they
possibly contain the thought of some great misfortune of which
she is conscious, though conscious only in a dim, confused way.
14. strew, unintentionally suggest.
15. ill-breeding minds, minds always ready to conceive evil, to
put the worst construction upon anything said.
17. To my ... is, to my soul, ill at ease with itself, as is always
the case when guilt is present to it; cp. above, iii. 1. 83, "Thus
conscience does make cowards of us all. "
18. toy, trifle: amiss, disaster; for the word used as a substantive, cp. Sonn. xxxv. 7, "Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss"; and cli. 3.
19. 20. So full ... spilt, so full of clumsy suspicion is guilt that
it betrays itself in the very fear of being discovered; for jealousy,
= suspicion, cp. M. A. ii. 2. 49, "There shall appear such seeming truth of Hero's disloyalty that jealousy shall be called assurance." The metaphor is that of a man who, carrying a liquid, is
so excited by his fear of spilling it that the nervous feeling causes
his hand to tremble and the liquid to run over.
23, 4. know from, distinguish from.
25, 6. By his ... shoon, by his wearing the habit of a pilgrim; cockle-shells were worn by pilgrims in their hats as emblematical of their crossing the sea to visit the Holy Land; sandal shoon,
shoes formed of sandals worn under, and attached by straps to,
the feet; shoon, an archaic plural.
28. Say you? what is it you say?
31, 2. At his ... stone, graves of the poorer classes, especially
in village churchyards, are generally covered with grass with a
slab of stone at the foot having the date of birth, death, etc.,
engraved upon it.
35. shroud, grave-clothes, winding-sheet.
37. Larded, thickly covered; cp. M. W. iv. 6. 14, "The mirth so larded with my matter"; the word in this sense is generally
used by Shakespeare in a figurative sense.
38, 9. Which ... showers, the shroud of him who went to his
grave bewept with showers of tears by his faithful lover.
41. 'ild, yield, in the sense of reward.
41, 2. They say ... daughter, an allusion to a story, told by
Douce, of Christ paying a visit to a baker's shop and asking for
a piece of bread, when the daughter rebuked her mother for
giving Him too large a piece, and as a punishment for her
niggard behaviour was transformed into an owl.
43. God ... table, be present with you when you eat.
44. Conceit ... father, her fancy dwells upon her father's death.
45. let's have ... this, let us have no dispute about this.
47. Saint Valentine's day, On the feast of St. Valentine,
birds, according to an old tradition, chose their mates for the
year. "From this notion," says Dyer, p. 280, "it has been
suggested, arose the once popular practice of choosing valentines,
and also the common belief that the first two single persons who
meet in the morning of St. Valentine's day have a great chance
of becoming married to each other." Douce traces the custom of
choosing lovers on this day to the Lupercalia of Rome, a festival
held about the same date, and during which a similar custom
48. All ... betime, at the earliest dawn of day; all, merely
49. at your window, greeting you at your window.
53. cannot ... weep, cannot help weeping; cannot choose to do
anything but weep; to think, at the thought that; the infinitive
57. give ... watch, watch her carefully.
6l, 2. they come ... battalions, they do not come like single
spies sent to discover the strength of the enemy, but in full force
to attack his position.
63, 4. and he ... remove, and he by his violence the cause of
his richly-deserved banishment; for remove, = removal, cp. Lear,
ii. 4. 4, "This night before there was no purpose in them Of this
remove"; muddied, like a stream made muddy by heavy rain.
Delius points out that this word and unwholesome refer primarily
to the blood, and then to the mood of the people.
65. Thick ... whispers, their thoughts and their language, so
far as they dare let it be heard, are polluted with unwholesome
matter, i.e. dangerous ideas.
66. For, on account of; greenly, without ripe judgement; cp.
Oth. ii. 1. 251, "the knave ... hath all those requisites in him
that folly and green minds look after"; A. C. i. 5. 74, "My salad
days, When I was green in judgement."
67. In hugger-mugger, in this secret and hasty way; a reduplication like hotch-potch, hocus-pocus, mingle-mangle. Malone
quotes Florio's Dictionary, "Dinascoso, secretly, hiddenly, in
68. Divided ... judgement, estranged from her own sane judgement; out of her senses; cp. v. 2. 219.
69. the which, see Abb. § 270: are pictures, are no better than
70. and as ... these, and a circumstance as full of import as all
these put together.
72. Feeds on his wonder, broods over the amazement caused
by his father's death: keeps ... clouds, shuts himself up in gloomy
73. wants not, is not without: buzzers, chattering fellows;
fellows who go buzzing ahout him like noxious insects.
74. of his father's death, as to the manner in which his father
met his death.
75-7. Wherein ... ear, in which suggestions the speaker, driven by necessity to substantiate his story, and having no actual circumstances to bring as proof, will not hesitate to accuse me from
one person to another.
78. a murdering-piece, or murderer, was a cannon which discharged case-shot, i.e. shot confined in a case which burst in the discharge and scattered the shot widely; hence the superfluous death in the next line, any one of the missiles being sufficient to cause death.
80. my Switzers, Swiss mercenaries were frequently employed
as personal guards of the king in continental countries and even
now form the Pope's bodyguard.
82. overpeering of his list, when it raises its head above the
boundary which usually confines it; the idea is that of the great
billows raising their crests as they dash over the shore; list,
limit, literally a stripe or border of cloth; for the verbal followed
by of, see Abb. § 178.
83. Eats not the flats, does not swallow up the level stretches
of country; cp. K. J. v. 6. 40, "half my power this night
Passing these flats are taken by the tide."
84. in a riotous head, with an armed force of riotous citizens; for head, cp. i. H. IV. iv. 4. 25, "a head Of gallant warriors."
85. call him lord, acknowledge his supremacy.
86. as the world ... begin, as though the world had only now
to be started on its career.
87. Antiquity ... known, antiquity being treated by them as
something that never had any existence, and custom as something
which needed no recognition.
88, 9. The ratifiers ... king', they, as though it rested with
them to ratify or annul, to support or overturn, every proposition,
90. Caps ... clouds, throwing up their caps, clapping their
hands, and shouting at the top of their voices, they applaud
their own decision to the very skies.
92. How cheerfully ...cry! with what "gallant chiding'"
(M. N. D. iv. 1. 120) these hounds hunt the false scent which
they have so eagerly taken up! for cry, cp. T. S. Ind. i. 23,
"He cried upon it at the merest loss," said of a hound.
93. this is counter, to hunt counter was to hunt the wrong
way of the scent, to trace the scent backwards; and here two
ideas are combined, that of being on the wrong scent, and that
of being on the right scent, but hunting back in the direction
from which the game started instead of in the direction in which
it had gone.
96. give me leave, allow me to enter alone.
98. keep the door, guard the door to prevent any aid being
sent to the king.
102. That thy ... giant-like? that you have broken out into a
rebellion which has assumed such terrible proportions?
103. Let him go, do not try to hold him back.
104. hedge, protect as with a hedge which cannot be passed or
105. 6. That treason ... will, that treason is unable to do more
than look over the hedge which separates it from the object of
its vengeance, without being able to strike home.
110. Let him ... fill, let him state his demands in full.
111. How ... dead? how came he to die?
113. grace, religious feeling; cp. R. J. ii. 3. 28, "Two such
opposed kings encamp them still In man as well as herbs, grace
and rude will."
114. I dare damnation, in such a cause as this I am ready to
risk eternal damnation: To this ... stand, here I firmly take my
stand; this decision I am prepared to abide by.
115-7. That both ... father, that, come what may, I will give
up all my hopes of happiness here and hereafter, rather than not
pursue my vengeance for my father. The Cl. Pr. Edd. compare
Macb. iii. 2. 16, "But let the frame of things disjoint, both the
118. My will ... world, nothing in the world but my own free
119, 20. And for ... little, and as regards the means at my command, I will make such prudent use of them that, though small, they shall go far.
122. is't writ in your revenge, is it a part of the revenge you
have prescribed to yourself?
123, 4. That, ... loser, "are you going to vent your rage on
both friend and foe; like a gambler who insists on sweeping
the stakes [off the table], whether the point is in his favour or
127. life-rendering pelican, from allowing its young to take
fish of its pouch, the pelican was popularly believed to nourish
them on its life-blood; cp. R. II. ii. 1. 126, "That blood already,
like the pelican, Hast thou tapp'd out and drunkenly caroused."
128. Repast, feed, nourish. Milton, Aeropagitica, p. 18, ed.
Hales, uses the word figuratively, "repasting of our minds."
129. good, duteous.
131. And am ... it, and am deeply pained by it.
132, 3. It shall ... eye, it shall force its way as directly to your
judgement as the daylight; It, the nominative repeated owing to
the parenthesis of 1. 131.
135. heat, i.e. the heat burning in his head: seven times, i.e.
many times: cp. the heating of Nebuchadnezzar's furnace.
136. the sense ... eye, that sensibility and property by which
the eye is enabled to see; cp. L. L. L. v. 2. 348, "The virtue of
your eye must break my oath."
137,8. thy madness ... scale, I will exact such retribution as
shall be more than adequate to the deed which has driven you
mad; turn the beam, cause the beam of the balance to bow owing
to the greater weight in our scale.
138. of May! i.e. in the bloom of life's spring-time.
141. mortal, subject to destruction.
142-4. Nature ... loves, where love is concerned, nature shows
herself in her tenderest form, and in such cases it sends some
precious proof of itself (here Ophelia's soundness of mind) as a
tribute of affection to follow to the grave that which was so dear
to it (here her father); for instance, see note on iii. 2. 176.
145. barefaced; with his face uncovered.
140. Hey non ... nonny, "Such unmeaning burdens are common
in ballads of most languages" (Nares).
149, 50. Hadst thou ... thus, no words of persuasion that you
could urge, if you were in your senses, could stir me to revenge
as these disjointed, incoherent, utterances do.
152. An, if; see Abb. § 101.
153. the wheel, according to Steevens, the refrain; but the
quotation by which he supports his explanation is generally
regarded as mythical. Malone is inclined to think that
the allusion is to the occupation of the girl whose song
Ophelia quotes. Among other passages in some way bearing out
his view he quotes T. N. ii. 4. 45-7, "The spinsters and the
knitters in the sun ... Do use to chant it"; he further suggests
as possible that the allusion may be to an instrument called by
Chaucer a rote, which was played upon by the friction of a wheel.
153, 4. It is ... daughter, the ballad is on the subject of the
false steward who, etc. No such ballad has yet been discovered.
155. This nothing's ... matter, these incoherent words stir my
soul more than sensible ones would.
156. rosemary, from Lat. ros marinus, or ros maris, as Ovid
calls it, the plant which delights in the sea spray. It was an
emblem of faithful remembrance, and, according to Staunton, is
here presented to Laertes, whom Ophelia in her distraction probably confounds with her lover; for, appropriate to, emblematical of.
157. pansies, from F. pensees, thoughts, of which the flower is
supposed to be symbolical.
158. document, a writer in the Ed. Rev. for July 1869 shows
that the word is here used "in its earlier and etymological, sense
of instruction, lesson, teaching."
159. fitted, each with its fitting emblem.
160. fennel ... columbines, presented to the king as emblems of
cajolery and ingratitude: there's rue for you, said to the queen.
161. 2. we may ... Sundays, "Ophelia only means, I think,
that the queen may with peculiar propriety on Sundays, when
she solicits pardon for the crime which she has so much occasion
to rue and repent of, call her 'rue' herb of grace "... (Malone).
162. with a difference, according to the writer in the Ed. Rev.
already quoted, one of the properties of rue was that of checking
immodest thoughts, — a herb therefore appropriate to the queen.
163. a daisy, it does not appear to whom the daisy is given; according to Greene, quoted by Henley, it was a "dissembling" flower, and was used as a warning to young girls not to trust the
fair promises of men: violets, emblematical of fidelity.
164. made a good end, died as a good man should die, at peace with all men and trusting to God's mercy; cp. H. V. ii. 3. 13, "A' made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child."
166. Thought, melancholy; cp A. C. iv. 6. 35. "If swift
thought break it not (sc. his heart), a swifter mean Shall outstrike
thought; but thought will do 't, I feel": passion, suffering: hell
itself, the most terrible thoughts.
167. She turns ... prettiness, she lends a grace and attractiveness by the words in which she clothes them.
172. Go ... deathbed, i.e. you need never hope to see him again
however long you may live; corresponding with 1. 177.
175. All flaxen, as white as flax; all, intensive.
177. And we ... moan, and we but waste our moans.
179. And of ... souls, "Many epitaphs closed with such a pious
prayer as this" (Cl. Pr. Edd.). For instances of of, used for on,
see Abb. §§ 175, 181.
180, 1. I must ... right, you do me the wrong unless you allow me
to commune with you in your grief, i.e. unless you tell me what
your wishes are in regard to your father's death, and allow me to
counsel you in the matter.
181. 2. Go but ... will, do but go aside and choose out from
your friends those who are likely to give you the best advice.
184, 5. If by ... touch'd, if their verdict is that I am implicated
in this crime directly or indirectly; find, used in the technical
sense of the finding of a jury; cp. v. 1. 4.
188. Be you ... us, allow yourself patiently to listen to what I
have to say.
189, 90. And we ... content, and you will find that I shall
endeavour as earnestly as yourself to give peace to your mind:
labour ... soul, labour with you heart and soid.
191. His means of death, the manner of his death.
192. No trophy, in which there was no memorial erected to
him; properly a monument to mark the spot at which the enemy
turned and fled: hatchment, "not only the sword, but the
helmet, gauntlets, spurs, and tabard (i.e. a coat whereon the
armorial ensigns were anciently depicted ...) are hung over the
grave of every knight" (Sir J. Hawkins).
193. No noble ... ostentation, no such rites as his rank
demanded, none of the funeral pomp which he might justly
194. 5. Cry, ... question, call so loudly, as it were with his
voice from heaven, that I am bound in all filial love to inquire
into the circumstances and find out the meaning of them; cp.
J. C. iv. 3. 165, "Now sit we close about this taper here And
call in question our necessities."
196. And where ... fall, and let the fullest vengeance fall upon
him who deserves it; axe, as the implement used in the execution
How to cite the explanatory notes:
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan, 1919. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2010. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet_4_5.html >.
How to cite the scene review questions:
Mabillard, Amanda. Hamlet: Scene Questions for Review. Shakespeare Online. 27 Dec. 2013. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet_4_5.html >.
The first twenty lines of Act 4, Scene 5 have been subject to much editing. The First Folio (1623) omits the role of the Gentleman completely, and gives his lines to Horatio. In Q2 (the 1604 text based on Shakespeare's own manuscript) Ophelia enters before Gertrude speaks lines 17-20 and in the Folio she enters after. In Q2 line 9 reads "they yawne at it" but in the Folio it changes to "ayme (aim) at it." None of Gertrude's lines are spoken in an aside in either edition (which was added by Edward Capell in the 18th century), and most significantly, in the Folio, Horatio's lines 14-15 -- as found in Q2 -- are spoken by Gertrude. In the Great Performances production of the play starring David Tennant (2009), they follow the Folio by omitting the role of the Gentlemen and giving Horatio's lines to Gertrude. In Kenneth Branagh's version of Hamlet (1996), they divide the Gentleman's opening lines between Horatio and a Gentlewoman, and Horatio speaks lines 14-15. Giving the lines to Gertrude certainly colors her with more cunning than she normally is given credit for. If you were producing the play who would you have speak lines 14-15?
Scene Questions for Review
1. Does the Gentleman's description of Ophelia remind you of Ophelia's description of Hamlet in 2.1?
2. Is the death of Polonius the only reason for Ophelia's insanity, as Claudius believes? To what extent do you think her betrayal of Hamlet weighs on her mind?
3. The fear of Polonius and Laertes has prevented Ophelia from sharing her true feelings throughout the play; however, in her insanity, she speaks freely. Do Ophelia's explicit songs give us a better sense of her relationship with Hamlet? (Please see the note on Goethe below for more on this topic.)
4. Can you elaborate on the sorrows Claudius lists in lines 61-78? Is there any sincerity in Claudius' speech?
5. Why is Claudius' admission that they have not buried Polonius properly important later in the scene? (See lines 66-67 and lines 191-195.)
6. Much has been written on Laertes and his role as a foil to Hamlet. Hamlet is a cautious and noble philosopher, at home in the library of Wittenberg; Laertes is an impulsive and worldly fighter, at home on the streets of Paris. However, Laertes is often credited with being Hamlet's superior in his instant and decisive reaction to his father's death, even though the circumstances of Polonius' death were entirely different from those of Hamlet's father. Which lines provide the most striking contrast between Laertes' feverish resolve and Hamlet's inaction?
Points to Ponder ... "Should not the poet have furnished Ophelia, the insane maiden,
with another sort of songs? Could not one select out of melancholy ballads? What
have double meanings and lascivious insipidities to do in the mouth of this noble
maiden? In these singularities, in this apparent impropriety, there lies a deep sense.
Do we not know from the very first what the mind of the good child was busy with?
Silently she lived within herself, scarcely concealing, however, her longing, her
wishes. Secretly the tones of desire were ringing in her soul, and how often may
she have endeavored, like an unwise nurse, to sing her senses to sleep with songs
which only kept them more wide awake? At last, when all command of herself is
taken from her, when her heart hovers upon her tongue, her tongue turns traitress,
and in the innocence of insanity she solaces herself, before king and queen, with the
echo of beloved, loose songs." (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Quoted in Hamlet Ed. Horace Howard Furness. p. 274)
Did You Know? ... Patrick Stewart played the role of King Claudius in the 1980 BBC production of the play, as part of the famed BBC Shakespeare series for television. He then reprised the role in the film adaptation for PBS Great Performances. You can find his soliloquy (3.3) for the BBC production here (found at 3:34:22) and for Great Performances here (found at 7:33).