Brush up your Shakespeare: Did you know these Hamlet quotes?

By | Posted on 23-Jan-2015

Brush up your Shakespeare: Did you know these Hamlet quotes?

Many audiences can be daunted at the prospect of understanding Shakespeare’s text, but Hamlet contains many quotes and phrases that have slipped into everyday usage. You may even find you’ve been quoting Shakespeare without even knowing it! After seeing the play, we decided to share our top quotes to listen out for – proving the scale of Shakespeare’s impact on the English language that we all use today.

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Hamlet quotes to listen out for

“This above all: to thine own self be true.” (Act I, Scene III)

Roughly translated simply as “be yourself”, this quote sees Polonius attempt to offer reasoned advice to his son Laertes. He encourages him to be a gentleman – advice neither men heed throughout the rest of the play which ultimately leads to their deaths. The phrase is often used as a source of inspiration, and has even inspired a song in the brand new Broadway musical “Something Rotten”.

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” (Act II, Scene II)

The more common use of this phrase, “method in the madness” implies that there is some sense or reasoning behind someone’s actions, regardless of how reckless they may at first seem. Within the context of the play, the lines are spoken by Polonius in an aside to the audience. After recognising Hamlet’s descent into madness, he feels he understands the affliction, but wrongly assigns it to Hamlet’s love of his daughter Ophelia.

“To be, or not to be: that is the question.” (Act III, Scene I)

Whilst this isn’t exactly a quote that is used in every day conversation, the line, and indeed the soliloquy itself, are probably among Shakespeare’s most famous and often quoted. Here the Danish Prince questions the notion of suicide, wondering if one particular route may be nobler than an other. Whilst he has sworn to avenge his father’s death, he is frustrated in his inability to act and meditates on his potential outcomes. The quote has since transcended the play and context and is used throughout pop culture all over the world.

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” (Act III, Scene II)

Another line that has found its way into pop culture comes from Queen Gertrude, spoken aloud whilst watching the play at court and recognising a parallel with the Queen in the play and her own position. The phrase is frequently used as an insult to suggest that the act of protesting too much can often conceal hidden desires.

“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” (Act II, Scene II)

This short phrase, or indeed the first half of it, is used in multiple situations from review pull quotes to internet marketing to the name of theatre companies. Hamlet producer Sonia Friedman was involved with a Channel 4 TV programme of the same name in 2006 which used the reality show format to find a brand new playwright. Kate Betts was the overall winner, and Friedman produced her play ‘On The Third Day’ for a six week run at the New Ambassador’s Theatre in the West End. Within the context of the play – Hamlet uses a troupe of players to try and oust the truth from his murderous uncle and is convinced it will help him in his search for truth.

“I must be cruel only to be kind” (Act III Scene IV)

This is a phrase that enjoys every day use with many not even realising they are quoting Shakespeare. The idea of having to tell someone bad news in order for them to find a later happiness is something that happens in many of Shakespeare’s plays as well as everyday situations. Hamlet tells his mother Gertrude that although he is acting out of turn, he has good intentions and is attempting to protect her later down the line.

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! (Act II Scene II)

This phrase comes from a speech Hamlet gives to his University friends  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who have come to visit him in order to help cure his perceived madness. The speech is  of interest as unlike much of the text, it is written in straight prose rather than verse. The phrase may be familiar to fans of the rock musical ‘Hair’ which quotes it verbatim, in a song titled “What a Piece of Work is Man”. Those who have seen Bruce Robinson’s British film ‘Withnail & I’, will also recognise it as the speech that Withnail to an audience of wolves in London Zoo at the end of the film.

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him (Act 5 Scene I)

Along with ‘To Be or Not to Be’ this short utterance, and scene with a skull is one of the defining moments of the play and is instantly recognisable. Spoken by Hamlet in the final act when he encounters the Gravedigger, he picks up the skull and realises it belongs to Yorick, a court jester he remembers from his younger days at court. The moment often breaks the tension of the final act and creates a light moment of comic relief.

“Get thee to a nunnery.” (Act 3 Scene I)

Hamlet mockingly tells Ophelia that he doesn’t love her, after previously toying with her affections. By telling her to live a celibate life, he wishes for her to have not children that could potentially live a similar fate to his own. Academics have also suggested that Shakespeare was using the word ‘nunnery’ as bawdy language to suggest a brothel – giving a different meaning to the phrase and creating an intended double entendre.

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Act 1 Scene 4)

This statement has again transcended the world of the play, most recently being used as the title of a satirical Shakespeare inspired musical ‘Something Rotten’ which is currently running on Broadway. In the show, William Shakespeare is portrayed as a rock star in Renaissance England, and is searching for his next big idea. A rival writer, Nick Bottom, seeks the help of a soothsayer to predict his next success, and rather than reveal the details of ‘Hamlet’, sees ‘Omelette’ – resulting in a hilarious mix up.