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Hamlet is one of the most powerful and influential tragedies in English literature today, and was one of Shakespeare's most popular works during his lifetime. The play vividly portrays both true and feigned madness – from overwhelming grief to seething rage – and explores themes of treachery, revenge, incest, and moral corruption.
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Biography of Shakespeare
Since William Shakespeare lived more than 400 years ago, and many records from that time are lost or never existed in the first place, we don't know everything about his life. For example, we know that he was baptized in Stratford-upon-Avon, 100 miles northwest of London, on April 26, 1564. But we don't know his exact birthdate, which must have been a few days earlier.
We do know that Shakespeare's life revolved around two locations: Stratford and London. He grew up, had a family, and bought property in Stratford, but he worked in London, the center of English theater. As an actor, a playwright, and a partner in a leading acting company, he became both prosperous and well-known. Even without knowing everything about his life, fans of Shakespeare have imagined and reimagined him according to their own tastes, just as we see with the 19th-century portrait of Shakespeare wooing his wife at the top of this page.
William Shakespeare was probably born on about April 23, 1564, the date that is traditionally given for his birth. He was John and Mary Shakespeare's oldest surviving child; their first two children, both girls, did not live beyond infancy. Growing up as the big brother of the family, William had three younger brothers, Gilbert, Richard, and Edmund, and two younger sisters: Anne, who died at seven, and Joan.
Their father, John Shakespeare, was a leatherworker who specialized in the soft white leather used for gloves and similar items. A prosperous businessman, he married Mary Arden, of the prominent Arden family. John rose through local offices in Stratford, becoming an alderman and eventually, when William was five, the town bailiff—much like a mayor. Not long after that, however, John Shakespeare stepped back from public life; we don't know why.
Shakespeare, as the son of a leading Stratford citizen, almost certainly attended Stratford's grammar school. Like all such schools, its curriculum consisted of an intense emphasis on the Latin classics, including memorization, writing, and acting classic Latin plays. Shakespeare most likely attended until about age 15.
For several years after Judith and Hamnet's arrival in 1585, nothing is known for certain of Shakespeare's activities: how he earned a living, when he moved from Stratford, or how he got his start in the theater.
Following this gap in the record, the first definite mention of Shakespeare is in 1592 as an established London actor and playwright, mocked by a contemporary as a "Shake-scene." The same writer alludes to one of Shakespeare's earliest history plays, Henry VI, Part 3, which must already have been performed. The next year, in 1593, Shakespeare published a long poem, Venus and Adonis. The first quarto editions of his early plays appeared in 1594. For more than two decades, Shakespeare had multiple roles in the London theater as an actor, playwright, and, in time, a business partner in a major acting company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men (renamed the King's Men in 1603). Over the years, he became steadily more famous in the London theater world; his name, which was not even listed on the first quartos of his plays, became a regular feature—clearly a selling point—on later title pages.
Shakespeare prospered financially from his partnership in the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later the King's Men), as well as from his writing and acting. He invested much of his wealth in real-estate purchases in Stratford and bought the second-largest house in town, New Place, in 1597.
Among the last plays that Shakespeare worked on was The Two Noble Kinsmen, which he wrote with a frequent collaborator, John Fletcher, most likely in 1613. He died on April 23, 1616—the traditional date of his birthday, though his precise birthdate is unknown. We also do not know the cause of his death. His brother-in-law had died a week earlier, which could imply infectious disease, but Shakespeare's health may have had a longer decline.
The memorial bust of Shakespeare at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford is considered one of two authentic likenesses, because it was approved by people who knew him. (The bust in the Folger's Paster Reading Room, shown at left, is a copy of this statue.) The other such likeness is the engraving by Martin Droeshout in the 1623 First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays, produced seven years after his death by his friends and colleagues from the King's Men.
Claudius, King of Denmark.
Hamlet, Son to the former, and Nephew to the present King.
Polonius, Lord Chamberlain.
Horatio, Friend to Hamlet.
Laertes, Son to Polonius.
A Gentleman, Courtier.
Francisco, a Soldier
Reynaldo, Servant to Polonius.
Two Clowns, Grave-diggers.
Fortinbras, Prince of Norway.
Ghost of Hamlet's Father.
Gertrude, Queen of Denmark, and Mother of Hamlet.
Ophelia, Daughter to Polonius.
Lords, Ladies, Officers, Soldiers, Sailors, Messengers, and other
Scene I. Elsinore. A platform before the Castle.
[Francisco at his post. Enter to him Bernardo.]
Fran.Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.
Ber.Long live the king!
Fran.You come most carefully upon your hour.
Ber.'Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.
Fran.For this relief much thanks: 'tis bitter cold,And I am sick at heart.
Ber.Have you had quiet guard?
Fran.Not a mouse stirring.
Ber.Well, good night.If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.
Fran.I think I hear them.--Stand, ho! Who is there?
[Enter Horatio and Marcellus.]
Hor.Friends to this ground.
Mar.And liegemen to the Dane.
Fran.Give you good-night.
Mar.O, farewell, honest soldier;Who hath reliev'd you?
Fran.Bernardo has my place.Give you good-night.
Ber.Say.What, is Horatio there?
Hor.A piece of him.
Ber.Welcome, Horatio:--Welcome, good Marcellus.
Mar.What, has this thing appear'd again to-night?
Ber.I have seen nothing.
Mar.Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy,And will not let belief take hold of himTouching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us:Therefore I have entreated him alongWith us to watch the minutes of this night;That, if again this apparition comeHe may approve our eyes and speak to it.
Hor.Tush, tush, 'twill not appear.
Ber.Sit down awhile,And let us once again assail your ears,That are so fortified against our story,What we two nights have seen.
Hor.Well, sit we down,And let us hear Bernardo speak of this.
Ber.Last night of all,When yond same star that's westward from the poleHad made his course to illume that part of heavenWhere now it burns, Marcellus and myself,The bell then beating one,--
Mar.Peace, break thee off; look where it comes again!
[Enter Ghost, armed.]
Ber.In the same figure, like the king that's dead.
Mar.Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.
Ber.Looks it not like the King? mark it, Horatio.
Hor.Most like:--it harrows me with fear and wonder.
Ber.It would be spoke to.
Mar.Question it, Horatio.
Hor.What art thou, that usurp'st this time of night,Together with that fair and warlike formIn which the majesty of buried DenmarkDid sometimes march? By heaven I charge thee, speak!
Mar.It is offended.
Ber.See, it stalks away!
Hor.Stay! speak, speak! I charge thee speak!
Mar.'Tis gone, and will not answer.
Ber.How now, Horatio! You tremble and look pale:Is not this something more than fantasy?What think you on't?
Hor.Before my God, I might not this believeWithout the sensible and true avouchOf mine own eyes.
Mar.Is it not like the King?
Hor.As thou art to thyself:Such was the very armour he had onWhen he the ambitious Norway combated;So frown'd he once when, in an angry parle,He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.'Tis strange.
Mar.Thus twice before, and jump at this dead hour,With martial stalk hath he gone by our watch.
Hor.In what particular thought to work I know not;But, in the gross and scope of my opinion,This bodes some strange eruption to our state.
Mar.Good now, sit down, and tell me, he that knows,Why this same strict and most observant watchSo nightly toils the subject of the land;And why such daily cast of brazen cannon,And foreign mart for implements of war;Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore taskDoes not divide the Sunday from the week;What might be toward, that this sweaty hasteDoth make the night joint-labourer with the day:Who is't that can inform me?
Hor.That can I;At least, the whisper goes so. Our last king,Whose image even but now appear'd to us,Was, as you know, by Fortinbras of Norway,Thereto prick'd on by a most emulate pride,Dar'd to the combat; in which our valiant Hamlet,--For so this side of our known world esteem'd him,--Did slay this Fortinbras; who, by a seal'd compact,Well ratified by law and heraldry,Did forfeit, with his life, all those his lands,Which he stood seiz'd of, to the conqueror:Against the which, a moiety competentWas gaged by our king; which had return'dTo the inheritance of Fortinbras,Had he been vanquisher; as by the same cov'nant,And carriage of the article design'd,His fell to Hamlet. Now, sir, young Fortinbras,Of unimproved mettle hot and full,Hath in the skirts of Norway, here and there,Shark'd up a list of lawless resolutes,For food and diet, to some enterpriseThat hath a stomach in't; which is no other,--As it doth well appear unto our state,--But to recover of us, by strong hand,And terms compulsatory, those foresaid landsSo by his father lost: and this, I take it,Is the main motive of our preparations,The source of this our watch, and the chief headOf this post-haste and romage in the land.
Ber.I think it be no other but e'en so:Well may it sort, that this portentous figureComes armed through our watch; so like the kingThat was and is the question of these wars.
Hor.A mote it is to trouble the mind's eye.In the most high and palmy state of Rome,A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted deadDid squeak and gibber in the Roman streets;As, stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,Disasters in the sun; and the moist star,Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands,Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse:And even the like precurse of fierce events,--As harbingers preceding still the fates,And prologue to the omen coming on,--Have heaven and earth together demonstratedUnto our climature and countrymen.--But, soft, behold! lo, where it comes again!
I'll cross it, though it blast me.--Stay, illusion!If thou hast any sound, or use of voice,Speak to me:If there be any good thing to be done,That may to thee do ease, and, race to me,Speak to me:If thou art privy to thy country's fate,Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid,O, speak!Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy lifeExtorted treasure in the womb of earth,For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death,[The cock crows.]Speak of it:--stay, and speak!--Stop it, Marcellus!
Mar.Shall I strike at it with my partisan?
Hor.Do, if it will not stand.
We do it wrong, being so majestical,To offer it the show of violence;For it is, as the air, invulnerable,And our vain blows malicious mockery.
Ber.It was about to speak, when the cock crew.
Hor.And then it started, like a guilty thingUpon a fearful summons. I have heardThe cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throatAwake the god of day; and at his warning,Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,The extravagant and erring spirit hiesTo his confine: and of the truth hereinThis present object made probation.
Mar.It faded on the crowing of the cock.Some say that ever 'gainst that season comesWherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,The bird of dawning singeth all night long;And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm;So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.
Hor.So have I heard, and do in part believe it.But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill:Break we our watch up: and by my advice,Let us impart what we have seen to-nightUnto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him:Do you consent we shall acquaint him with it,As needful in our loves, fitting our duty?
Mar.Let's do't, I pray; and I this morning knowWhere we shall find him most conveniently.
Scene II. Elsinore. A room of state in the Castle.
[Enter the King, Queen, Hamlet, Polonius, Laertes, Voltimand, Cornelius, Lords, and Attendant.]
King.Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's deathThe memory be green, and that it us befittedTo bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdomTo be contracted in one brow of woe;Yet so far hath discretion fought with natureThat we with wisest sorrow think on him,Together with remembrance of ourselves.Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,Th' imperial jointress to this warlike state,Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy,--With an auspicious and one 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'dYour better wisdoms, which have freely goneWith this affair along:--or 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 deathOur state to be disjoint and out of frame,Colleagued with this dream of his advantage,He hath not fail'd to pester us with message,Importing the surrender of those landsLost 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 writTo Norway, uncle of young Fortinbras,--Who, impotent and bed-rid, scarcely hearsOf this his nephew's purpose,--to suppressHis further gait herein; in that the levies,The lists, and full proportions are all madeOut of his subject:--and we here dispatchYou, good Cornelius, and you, Voltimand,For bearers of this greeting to old Norway;Giving to you no further personal powerTo business with the king, more than the scopeOf these dilated articles allow.Farewell; and let your haste commend your duty.
Cor. and Volt.In that and all things will we show our duty.
King.We doubt it nothing: heartily farewell.
[Exeunt Voltimand and Cornelius.]
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 lose 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?
Laer.Dread my 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.
King.Have you your father's leave? What says Polonius?
Pol.He hath, my lord, wrung from me my slow leaveBy laboursome petition; and at lastUpon his will I seal'd my hard consent:I do beseech you, give him leave to go.
King.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--
Ham.[Aside.] A little more than kin, and less than kind!
King.How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Ham.Not so, my lord; I am too much i' the sun.
Queen.Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.Do not for ever with thy vailed lidsSeek for thy noble father in the dust:Thou know'st 'tis common,--all that lives must die,Passing through nature to eternity.
Ham.Ay, madam, it is common.
Queen.If it be,Why seems it so particular with thee?
Ham.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 'havior 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.
King.'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 termTo do obsequious sorrow: but to persevereIn obstinate condolement is a courseOf 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 commonAs 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 themeIs 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 earthThis unprevailing woe; and think of usAs of a father: for let the world take noteYou are the most immediate to our throne;And with no less nobility of loveThan that which dearest father bears his sonDo I impart toward you. For your intentIn going back to school in Wittenberg,It is most retrograde to our desire:And we beseech you bend you to remainHere in the cheer and comfort of our eye,Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.
Queen.Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet:I pray thee stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.
Ham.I shall in all my best obey you, madam.
King.Why, 'tis a loving and a fair reply:Be as ourself in Denmark.--Madam, come;This gentle and unforc'd accord of HamletSits smiling to my heart: in grace whereof,No jocund health that Denmark drinks to-dayBut the great cannon to the clouds shall tell;And the king's rouse the heaven shall bruit again,Re-speaking earthly thunder. Come away.
[Exeunt all but Hamlet.]
Ham.O that this too too solid flesh would melt,Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!Or that the Everlasting had not fix'dHis canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God!How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitableSeem to me all the uses of this world!Fie on't! O fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,That grows to seed; things rank and gross in naturePossess it merely. That it should come to this!But two months dead!--nay, not so much, not two:
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