Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Act II Scene 2

William Shakespeare
The monologue, spoken in the play by Prince Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and queene: moult no feather. 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; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. ‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! 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? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.

One interpretation

Hamlet is speaking to his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, although they would better be described as colleagues, and Hamlet has guessed that they were sent by the king and queen to quiz him about his strange behaviour. Hamlet tells them he will explain what is wrong before they find out although we know he has no intention of doing this. He adds, to reassure them, that the secrecy of the assignment they are carrying out for the king and queen will not be compromised to even the smallest extent. The expression ‘moult no feather’ means that it will not be diminished, as when an animal moults, to the slightest degree, not even a single feather.

Hamlet first admits he is no longer the jolly character he used to be but he adds what is the biggest lie of entire monologue ‘wherefore I know not’. It is clear to us that he knows very well, and, as his mother guesses, he is distraught to distraction by his mother marrying his uncle shortly after his father’s death. He therefore knows exactly why he lost his mirth but pretends otherwise. He has also stopped all those activities that he used to undertake as a matter of custom.

Hamlet moves slowly from this point into a rising crescendo of denunciation of the world although, as we shall see, it ends in a question. He starts with the earth which he dismisses as a sterile promontory a simple and basic rejection of the fecundity of the planet. He switches to the sky and rather than simply reject it he stops in mid speech with the powerful phrase ‘look you’. One can image that  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not paying attention, they probably have no idea what he is talking about, and so he tries to grab their attention by stopping and saying ‘look you’, that is, pay attention. Having got their attention he is able to launch into a two-part flowery description of the sky as a ‘firmament’ and a ‘majestical roof’. He has almost overplayed the rhetoric but continues with an equally flowery denunciation of the sky as foul vapours. It is as if he now feels he has almost gone too far as he switches the topic from the features of the world to man himself. He starts with a sentence that seems like a rhetorical statement which emphasizes the complete change of pace and tone.

Note that he also says ‘is a man’ rather than ‘man’. One is reminded of the Neil Armstrong statement during the first moon landing and the argument about whether he said ‘one small step for man’ or ‘one small step for a man’. Hamlet is obviously talking about all men, or in a modern interpretation all people. He then quickly and in short sentences builds, layer upon layer, an image of the multiple god-like wonders of a person. One expects him then to demolish this wonderful construct he has verbally created as he did with the earth and the air. But he does not.

At the point we expect the killing blow that demolishes all the false qualities of a person he stops and a question hangs in the air. ‘What is this quintessence of dust?’ Even the word quintessence is unexpected as it harks back to the spiritual essence of life from ancient antiquity, the magical fifth element. Having reach this deep philosophical question Hamlet has probably completely lost Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and ends one of the most profound monologues ever spoken with a joke. The joke tells us that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are operating at the level of the seaside postcard and the smutty joke. It could be that Hamlet also feels he was becoming too lucid, not mad enough to fool them and so wants to lighten the conversation to hide his saneness.

The Soldier

Rupert Brooke (1887–1915), from a series of poems entitled 1914

IF I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Sonnet 116

William Shakespeare

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Sea Fever

John Masefield (1878-1967), Poet Laureate 1930-1967, from Salt-Water Ballads (1902)

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking,

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), originally published 1951

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

One Interpretation

Thomas wrote this poem for his dying father. It has the strict form of a villanelle consisting of five stanzas of three lines and a final stanza of four lines.

The narrator is suggesting the way we should respond to the inevitability of death. Thomas has divided people into four types—wise, good, wild and grave—and the implication is that these are all the possible types of humanity. That is, some people are essentially rational in their approach to the world, some are moral, some are action orientated and some are serious.

People who approach the world rationally have thought about death and know that it is inevitable, a requirement for life to have evolved. However, because nothing they ever said or wrote made any difference (‘forked no lightning’), when death comes they do not accept it as inevitable but fight against it.

Good people see with hindsight that their moral acts were as nothing (‘frail’) and that if they had been better those deeds might have been ‘bright’. However, even then they would only have ‘danced in a green bay’, suggesting a bright flash of sunlight on the breaking crest of a wave. So, even the best people’s deeds last a fraction of a second and therefore they do not go gently towards death.

Action orientated people (‘wild men’) may have performed the most amazing feats (catching the sun in flight) but even they see, looking back on their lives, that it just resulted in sadness and grieving so they also fight the coming of death.

Serious people understand, too late, that their lives could have been different and they could have seen the world as a bright and happy place. But it is too late and so they also rage against death approaching.

Thomas then discusses his father. Someone who has been sad, perhaps a serious person, a ‘grave’ man. He wants him now to react strongly towards his son, whether it is cursing or blessing him, and through that reaction fight against the inevitability of death.