CLAUDIUS (continued)
Haply the seas and countries different
With variable objects shall expel
This something-settled matter in his heart,
Whereon his brains still beating puts him thus
From fashion of himself. What think you on't?

It shall do well: but yet do I believe
The origin and commencement of his grief
Sprung from neglected love. How now, Ophelia!
You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said,
We heard it all. My lord, do as you please,
But, if you hold it fit, after the play
Let his queen mother all alone entreat him
To show his grief: let her be round with him;
And I'll be placed, so please you, in the ear
Of all their conference. If she find him not,
To England send him, or confine him where
Your wisdom best shall think.

It shall be so:
Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go.




O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck'd the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch'd form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!


Love! his affections do not that way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,
Was not like madness. There's something in his soul,
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood;
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger: which for to prevent,
I have in quick determination
Thus set it down: he shall with speed to England,
For the demand of our neglected tribute.



At home, my lord.

Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the
fool no where but in's own house. Farewell.

O, help him, you sweet heavens!

If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague for
thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as
snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a
nunnery, go: farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs
marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough
what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go,
and quickly too. Farewell.

O heavenly powers, restore him!

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God
has given you one face, and you make yourselves
another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and
nick-name God's creatures, and make your wantonness
your ignorance. Go to, I'll no more on't; it hath
made me mad. I say, we will have no more marriages:
those that are married already, all but one, shall
live; the rest shall keep as they are. To a
nunnery, go.




Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner
transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the
force of honesty can translate beauty into his
likeness: this was sometime a paradox, but now the
time gives it proof. I did love you once.

Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.

You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot
so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of
it: I loved you not.

I was the more deceived.

Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a
breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest;
but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
were better my mother had not borne me: I am very
proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at
my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
imagination to give them shape, or time to act them
in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.
Where's your father?


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first reference to a nunnery with the implied meaning of a brothel was in Thomas Nash’s book, Christs Teares over Jerusalem (1593), which refers to prostitutes who ‘give free priviledge’ to gentlemen in ‘theyr Nunnery’. Nash had very harsh words for the city of London and its sinful ways, and he believed the city was on the brink of great peril. He was eventually sent to prison for calling London a ‘seeded garden of ‘sinne’ – which certainly might have inspired Hamlet’s own rather disillusioned description of the world as ‘an unweeded garden / That grows to seed’ (Act I Scene ii).

In this scene, Hamlet tells Ophelia five times that she should ‘Get thee to a nunnery’. Critics have debated whether this simply implies that she should enter a convent to escape corruption, or whether it also hints ambiguously that she should go to a brothel – because the world will inevitably corrupt her with its impure ways. Hamlet is riddled with Images of sexual corruption and prostitution: as Hamlet puts it, Gertrude has been ‘whored’ by Claudius. tainted by her ‘incestious’ relations with her brother-in-law. The imagery is not reserved for Gertrude alone, as Hamlet uses it against other women and even other men in the play. Hamlet suggests that Ophelia is being prostituted by Polonius, when he calls the older man a ‘fishmonger’. Hamlet even goes so far as to refer to himself  as a ‘drab’ and a ‘whore’ or ‘drab’, and earlier in this scene Claudius has described his guilt with a nod to a ‘harlot’s cheek’ (3.1.50). We have even heard fortune called a ‘strumpet’. Beauty and honesty are very much at odds in this world.



Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?

I humbly thank you; well, well, well.

My lord, I have remembrances of yours,
That I have longed long to re-deliver;
I pray you, now receive them.

No, not I;
I never gave you aught.

My honour'd lord, you know right well you did;
And, with them, words of so sweet breath composed
As made the things more rich: their perfume lost,
Take these again; for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
There, my lord.

Ha, ha! are you honest?

My lord?

Are you fair?

What means your lordship?

That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should
admit no discourse to your beauty.

Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than
with honesty?



HAMLET (continued)

…who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.

A caesura is a pause or break in a metrical line of poetry. It is frequently suggested by a punctuation mark or the end of a phrase. The caesura is a longstanding feature of rhythmic poetry, very common across multiple languages. They appear throughout Shakespeare, Beowulf, and as far back as Latin and even Ancient Greek. The first lines of two of the greatest classics, The Iliad and The Aeneid, both have notable caesurae in their opening lines. (Indeed, Virgil’s opening line echoes Homer’s - and there’s every chance Shakespeare was emulating both in the opening line of HIS war epic, Henry V…!)

Homer: The Iliad
μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ <caesura> Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
(Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus…)

Virgil: The Aeneid
Arma virumque cano <caesura> Troiae qui primus ab oris
(Of arms and the man, I sing. || Who first from the shores of Troy...)

Shakespeare: Henry V
O for a muse of fire, <caesura> that would ascend

fardel was a bundle, a pack, a parcel or similar item. It came into English from Old French, early in the 14th century. It is a diminutive of farde , which is the root of the modern French word fardeau - still the French word for a burden. According to some French dictionaries, it comes from the old Arabic word fardah - half a camel load. Carrying that around would make any life weary.

For Shakespeare, conscience was synonymous with consciousness. It covers a variety of concepts like awareness, morality, even conscientiousness. Hamlet is already planning to “catch the conscience of the king” with the upcoming performance. Here he worries that “conscience does make cowards of us all”.

Nowadays we hear nymph and might be prompted to think of nymphomania, which suggests a negative connotation that Shakespeare did not know. Whenever nymph appears in the plays (most often in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, unsurprisingly) it is describing a beautiful woman. Hamlet is complimenting Ophelia here, likening her to a beautiful Greek spirit, the kind that lived in trees or water. Greek mythology had a great many kinds of nymphs - dryads lived in trees, naiads in rivers, nereids in the sea, oreads in mountains and maenads, the frenzied followers of Dionysus.

From the Latin word for ‘to speak’, again via French (oreison), this is another word for prayers. It shows up in Shakespeare when characters are praying for intercession - Hamlet asks Ophelia to pray for his sins, and that other trouble-maker Juliet is fully aware when she says “I am in need of many orisons.”

EPISODE 75 - To Be or Not To Be



To be, or not to be, that is the question,
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?


There’s the rub
As mentioned in the episode, what Hamlet refers to as the ‘rub’ is an impediment that would knock the ball off course during a game of bowls. Lawn bowling was popular in the 16th century, and so the reference would have made sense to Shakespeare’s audience. It’s also cleverly mentioned in his history play Richard II, where again a smart character uses it to signify her own troubles.

What sport shall we devise here in this garden,
To drive away the heavy thought of care?
Madam, we'll play at bowls.
'Twill make me think the world is full of rubs,
And that my fortune rubs against the bias.

Within this speech there are a great many words and phrases that have themselves become famous as the titles of other things. To Be Or Not To Be was the title of a play by Ernst Lubitch, and was rewritten 2BR02B (two b or naught two b) in the title of a short story by Kurt Vonnegut. Slings and Arrows was a popular Canadian comedy about an acting group. Outrageous Fortune was a comedy starring Bette Midler and Shelley Long. HIlariously I overheard a guy in New York telling his date that the Punchdrunk show Sleep No More takes its name from this speech - a clear example of mansplaining, or indeed a proud man’s contumely. (It should be noted that ‘sleep no more, Macbeth doth murder sleep’ appears in the Scottish play, on which the show is actually based!) Natural Shocks is a theatre company in Ireland, and a play about gun violence by Lauren Gunderson. Perchance to Dream was an episode of The Twilight Zone. There’s the Rub was an album by Wishbone Ash. What Dreams May Come was a fantasy film starring Robin Williams. This Mortal Coil was a British music collective, and also an episode of Stargate Atlantis. Most grimly, PD James’ novel The Children of Men refers to forced suicides as Quietus. (I’ll continue adding to this list after next week’s episode. If you have any further additions to the list, please get in touch!)



Ophelia, walk you here. Gracious, so please you,
We will bestow ourselves.


Read on this book;
That show of such an exercise may colour
Your loneliness. We are oft to blame in this,
'Tis too much proved, that with devotion's visage
And pious action we do sugar o'er
The devil himself.

O, 'tis too true!
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!
The harlot's cheek, beautied with plastering art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word:
O heavy burthen!

I hear him coming: let's withdraw, my lord.




Arras is a town in northern France famous for its tapestries. Its reputation for fine such artworks dates back at least to the 14th century, and indeed the reputation grew so great that the name of the town became synonymous with beautiful hanging tapestries. The image below is of Henry VIII in court - the hanging tapestry behind the throne is spectacular, and the curtains around it give a small sense of the distance between the tapestry and the wall behind - just enough room, perhaps, for someone to hide and eavesdrop...

Hamlet is a play full of asides, as characters turn to address the audience with their private thoughts. They are not reserved for Hamlet alone - Claudius and Polonius have some too. Eventually I will make a tall of all the asides in the play for reference.


A soliloquy is a dramatic device whereby a playwright has a character speak to themselves alone on stage. The word itself comes from Latin (solus, alone, and loquor, I speak...). Shakespeare's plays are filled with countless examples of the form, in comedy, history, and tragedy, and indeed the device has been popular from as far back as the writings of Montaigne (believed to have inspired Shakespeare). They are in continued use, all the way as far as contemporary versions of it like those in Netflix' House of Cards. 

Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper has written an excellent book on cosmetics and Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama, and a revised edition is coming out in May of this year. There’s a whole chapter on Hamlet, and it’s a brilliant read.



'Tis most true:
And he beseech'd me to entreat your majesties
To hear and see the matter.

With all my heart; and it doth much content me
To hear him so inclined.
Good gentlemen, give him a further edge,
And drive his purpose on to these delights.

We shall, my lord.


Sweet Gertrude, leave us too;
For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither,
That he, as 'twere by accident, may here
Affront Ophelia:
Her father and myself, lawful espials,
Will so bestow ourselves that, seeing, unseen,
We may of their encounter frankly judge,
And gather by him, as he is behaved,
If 't be the affliction of his love or no
That thus he suffers for.

I shall obey you.
And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish
That your good beauties be the happy cause
Of Hamlet's wildness: so shall I hope your virtues
Will bring him to his wonted way again,
To both your honours.

Madam, I wish it may.



There is a terrible price to pay for spying in this play. It is set up early in the seemingly-unimportant scene between Polonius and Reynaldo, wherein the father despatches a servant to spy on his son abroad. This is Polonius’ modus operandi, it seems. As soon as there’s another problem, his suggestion is another spying trick. Later in the play, he is dealt his own reward when he winds up behind another arras, this time with less intent, and is stabbed by Hamlet. It’s a neat trick, and at some level perhaps it is Shakespeare’s comment on the spycraft so enthusiastically employed in Elizabeth’s England.



And can you, by no drift of conference,
Get from him why he puts on this confusion,
Grating so harshly all his days of quiet
With turbulent and dangerous lunacy?

He does confess he feels himself distracted;
But from what cause he will by no means speak.

Nor do we find him forward to be sounded,
But, with a crafty madness, keeps aloof,
When we would bring him on to some confession
Of his true state.

Did he receive you well?

Most like a gentleman.

But with much forcing of his disposition.

Niggard of question; but, of our demands,
Most free in his reply.

Did you assay him to any pastime?

Madam, it so fell out, that certain players
We o'er-raught on the way: of these we told him;
And there did seem in him a kind of joy
To hear of it: they are about the court,
And, as I think, they have already order
This night to play before him.


The Mousetrap
I mentioned within this episode that The Mousetrap is an alternate name (given by Hamlet himself) for the play-within-the-play. It is also the name of the longest-running play in the history of the theatre - The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie has been running in London’s West End for decades already. They’ve already achieved the astonishing milestone of 25000 performances. (And I have never seen it!)

Although it dates back almost a thousand years to Old English, this word has very much fallen out of favour due to its close similarity to that very worst of racial slurs. Happily we now live in a world where no decent person would think of using the latter word, but as a result its homonym is likewise avoided for fear of misunderstanding. Believe it or not, there’s an entire Wikipedia entry dedicated to controversies and difficulties that surround the word niggard. It is unlikely that niggard or niggardly will come back into common use, with their meanings of stinginess or miserliness, and that’s probably for the best.



O, vengeance!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion!
Fie upon't! foh! About, my brain! I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds
More relative than this: the play 's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.

Episode 70 - Who Calls Me Villain?


HAMLET: (continued)
Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing; no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn'd defeat was made. Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i' the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?
'Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal: bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!


This is an old Middle English word for head (specifically the crown of the head).

Peter Hall
David Warner’s performance, mentioned in this episode, was directed by Peter Hall. The latter was the subject of one of our bonus episodes - you can listen to it here.

Swounds or Zwounds is the latest entry into our catalogue of minced oaths. This one is “by Christ’s wounds

Episode 69 - What's Hecuba to Him, or He to Hecuba?


O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.



As mentioned in this episode, antithesis is one of the central keys to unlocking Shakespeare’s language. Simply put, it’s a word or group of words set against its opposite. The contrast between the two juxtaposed ideas - the antithesis - enriches the imagery and depth of thought. The actor must play the antithesis in order to highlight the meaning of the text. Some recognisable examples of antithesis in Shakespeare are:

To be, or not to be. . .
Fair is foul, and foul is fair. . .
What he has lost, noble Macbeth has won. . .

Michael MacLiammoir was an Irish actor, writer, and co-director of Dublin’s Gate Theatre for much of the theatre’s history. He wrote a splendid memoir called All For Hecuba - An Irish Theatrical Autobiography. It’s out of print and rather hard to find online, but if you happen upon it in a second-hand shop, don’t hesitate!



Look, whether he has not turned his colour and has
tears in's eyes. Pray you, no more.

'Tis well: I'll have thee speak out the rest soon.
Good my lord, will you see the players well
bestowed? Do you hear, let them be well used; for
they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the
time: after your death you were better have a bad
epitaph than their ill report while you live.

My lord, I will use them according to their desert.

God's bodykins, man, much better: use every man
after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?
Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
Take them in.

Come, sirs.

Follow him, friends: we'll hear a play to-morrow.

Exit POLONIUS with all the Players but the First

Dost thou hear me, old friend; can you play the
Murder of Gonzago?

First Player
Ay, my lord.

We'll ha't to-morrow night. You could, for a need,
study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines, which
I would set down and insert in't, could you not?

First Player
Ay, my lord.

Very well. Follow that lord; and look you mock him not.

Exit First Player

My good friends, I'll leave you till night: you are
welcome to Elsinore.

Good my lord!

Ay, so, God be wi' ye;


Now I am alone.


The Murder of Gonzago

There’s sadly no record of any play with this title - in choice Italian or any other language! I feel it’s fairly safe to assume that Shakespeare made it up. We will soon have to discuss more about The Spanish Tragedy, Thomas Kyd’s enormously popular revenge tragedy, which many believe was a major influence on Hamlet.

Minced Oaths
A minced oath is an expression formed by adapting a blasphemous or taboo word or phrase, in order to reduce the offence it might cause. Since Shakespeare was writing under the watchful eye of a censor, in a time when Puritans were gaining influence, he couldn't write the full versions of any curses or swearwords or expletives. As a result we have various items - sblood, zounds, and the very common 'Marry' - which is a contraction of 'By the Virgin Mary'. There's even an argument that the word 'bloody' as a curse word came into use as a contraction of 'By Our Lady'!  Likewise in this episode we have ‘God’s bodykins’ - a rather cute way for Hamlet to swear at Polonius.



Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod 'take away her power;
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends!'

This is too long.

It shall to the barber's, with your beard. Prithee,
say on: he's for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he
sleeps: say on: come to Hecuba.

'But who, O, who had seen the mobled queen…'

'The mobled queen?'

That's good; 'mobled queen' is good.

'…run barefoot up and down, threatening the flames
With bisson rheum; a clout upon that head
Where late the diadem stood, and for a robe,
About her lank and all o'er-teemed loins,
A blanket, in the alarm of fear caught up;
Who this had seen, with tongue in venom steeped,
'Gainst Fortune's state would treason have pronounced:
But if the gods themselves did see her then
When she saw Pyrrhus make malicious sport
In mincing with his sword her husband's limbs,
The instant burst of clamour that she made,
Unless things mortal move them not at all,
Would have made milch the burning eyes of heaven,
And passion in the gods.'


In Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid, the hero Aeneas is telling his story to Dido. Obviously we hear the story from his perspective as a prince of Troy, and as such it is understandable that the Greeks are very negatively portrayed. None of them is more wickedly presented than Pyrrhus (more frequently known as Neoptolemus), the son of Achilles. What Shakespeare does not mention is that before slaughtering Priam, he killed Priam’s son Polites. The prince was clinging to the altar of Zeus desperately praying for sanctuary, and the enraged Pyrrhus killed him in full view of his father. Pyrrhus then dragged Priam to the altar too, and “minced his limbs” as Shakespeare so grimly describes it.

Fortuna was the Roman goddess of fortune, both good and bad. Of all of the ancient gods who were supplanted by Christianity, Fortune was perhaps the one who lasted the longest. Well into the Middle Ages, she remained a central part of the imagination. She was frequently depicted with a horn of plenty, or a ship’s rudder, or a ball, but more than anything else with a wheel - hence the reference to her wheel in this week’s episode. Boethius makes several references to her, and particularly to her wheel, charting how a person’s life can go through good and bad periods as their fortune increases or decreases. Fortune is also featured in the writings of Boccaccio, and I’ve included an image of an illuminated manuscript page from one of his books.

A synod is a council of a religious group, usually meeting to discuss an issue of doctrine. Historically, the word applied primarily to a meeting of bishops of the Catholic Church. Amazingly, every single time Shakespeare uses it in one of his plays, he does so to refer to the collected gods of the ancient world.

Hecuba (or Hekabe), wife of Priam, features in an impressive variety of literary works. As well as several episodes in Homer’s Iliad, she is the lead character in two separate plays by Euripides. The Trojan Women happens in the aftermath of Troy’s capture by the Greeks. All of the women are assigned as slaves to the Greek warriors, and Hecuba watches as several of them are carted off. In this part of the story, Pyrrhus gets even more revenge against Priam’s family when he ensures that the last living male Trojan prince, Hector’s son Astyanax, is murdered, thrown from the walls of Troy. Hector’s widow, Andromache, is given to Pyrrhus as a slave. Hecuba herself is given to Odysseus, and the next play, Hecuba, takes place after they leave Troy. Finally the queen is allowed just a tiny bit of revenge, against the king Polymestor who murdered another of her sons. She blinds the king and is turned into a dog, so that she can escape her captors.
Hecuba also appears in Dante’s Inferno, described as Ecuba trista, misera e cattiva - poor Hecuba, sad and captive.

I mention this here (and not in the podcast itself) because the reference is a little too far outside the scope of the play, but both Hecuba and Fortuna appear in the Carmina Burana. Although most famous in the 1930s setting by Carl Orff that has become so famous in horror films, the original text is a collection of songs and poems called “Songs from Benediktbeuern” or Carmina Burana. The most famous segment of Orff’s music is in fact an invocation to the goddess - ‘O Fortuna’. Treat yourself - play this on LOUD.

As I mentioned at the end of the episode, Kenneth Branagh went all-out in his film version of the play in 1996. He filmed the entire play, with a fabulous cast that includes Brian Blessed, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie and Kate Winslet. He also includes a good few flashbacks and extra scenes, including those described at Troy by the First Player. Here’s the full speech, performed by Charlton Heston and with John Gielgud and Judi Dench as Priam and Hecuba.

This is a page from a copy of Boccaccio’s writings, featuring this bold image of Fortune and her wheel.

This is a page from a copy of Boccaccio’s writings, featuring this bold image of Fortune and her wheel.

Episode 66 - The Unnerved Father Falls


First Player
Anon he finds him
Striking too short at Greeks; his antique sword,
Rebellious to his arm, lies where it falls,
Repugnant to command: unequal match'd,
Pyrrhus at Priam drives; in rage strikes wide;
But with the whiff and wind of his fell sword
The unnerved father falls. Then senseless Ilium,
Seeming to feel this blow, with flaming top
Stoops to his base, and with a hideous crash
Takes prisoner Pyrrhus' ear: for, lo! his sword,
Which was declining on the milky head
Of reverend Priam, seem'd i' the air to stick:
So, as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood,
And like a neutral to his will and matter,
Did nothing.
But, as we often see, against some storm,
A silence in the heavens, the rack stand still,
The bold winds speechless and the orb below
As hush as death, anon the dreadful thunder
Doth rend the region, so, after Pyrrhus' pause,
Aroused vengeance sets him new a-work;
And never did the Cyclops' hammers fall
On Mars's armour forged for proof eterne
With less remorse than Pyrrhus' bleeding sword
Now falls on Priam.


Publius Vergilius Maro, known to us as Virgil, was among the greatest Roman poets, known most particularly for his epic The Aeneid. In the vein of Homer’s equally celebrated Iliad and Odyssey, it tells the story of Aeneas, detailing his escape from Troy, his love affair with Dido and his eventual founding of what would become Rome. Among Virgil’s other works were The Eclogues and The Georgics.

Pyrrhus, more often known as Neoptolemus, was the son of Achilles and Deidamia. Achilles’ mother, the sea goddess Thetis, wanted to protect him from having to fight in the Trojan War, so she disguised him as a girl and hid him in the kingdom of Skyros. There, he fell for the princess Deidamia and she eventually gave birth to a son. Since Achilles’ name was Pyrrha while he was in his female disguise, the child was called Pyrrhus. This son goes on to be instrumental in the Trojan War - no more than his father before him - and had a reputation for being vicious. Shakespeare is drawing on that reputation in the passages he quotes in Hamlet.

Priam was the mythical king of Troy. His son Paris was caught up in the spat between competing goddesses that led to his affair with Helen, and this led to the Trojan War. Eventually nearly all of Priam’s children - among them Paris, Hector, and many, many others - are killed, as is Priam himself. The sack of Troy was massively important in the classical imagination, and figures heavily in much of the literature that has survived from classical Greece and Rome.

Ilium is another name for Troy - it is from this name that we get the title Iliad. (It literally means ‘the poem about Ilium’…) Its location has been variously disputed throughout history.

Dido was the mythical founder and queen of Carthage. She is most famous thanks to her depiction in Virgil’s Aeneid, wherein she is sometimes also called Elissa. She is also the subject of an early English opera by Henry Purcell - his Dido and Aeneas remains one of the most popular operas of the English baroque.

Carthage was a major city-state in North Africa, an almost-permanent enemy of Rome. Virgil’s depiction of its fiery foundress Dido contains many elements designed to reflect Roman history and politics, as a kind of origin-story for the conflict between the two powers. As Dido dies, she enjoins the spirit of the place to rise up in permanent vengeance and enmity between her city and that of Aeneas - and indeed this certainly came to pass. The most famous episodes in the conflict were the Punic Wars, and perhaps the most famous character of all is Hannibal, the Carthaginian warrior who marched an army - including elephants - through Spain and across the Alps into Italy. He never managed to reach Rome, but is remembered as one of the greatest military strategists in history.

The Cyclops (whose name means ‘round-eyed’) were a race of giants. They forged Zeus’ thunderbolt, and Poseidon’s trident, among other things. In Homer, one of their number became the most famous Cyclops of all when he was tricked by Odysseus. Although he is now synonymous with the word Cyclops, his name was actually Polyphemus.

Shakespeare seldom uses the Greek names for any of the gods - particularly when he’s writing something that is based on a poem by Virgil or Ovid. Mars is the Roman version of the classical god of War. 



HAMLET (continued)
One speech in it I
chiefly loved: 'twas Aeneas' tale to Dido; and
thereabout of it especially, where he speaks of
Priam's slaughter: if it live in your memory, begin
at this line: let me see, let me see…
'The rugged Pyrrhus, like the Hyrcanian beast,'
it is not so: it begins with Pyrrhus:
'The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,
Black as his purpose, did the night resemble
When he lay couched in the ominous horse,
Hath now this dread and black complexion smeared
With heraldry more dismal; head to foot
Now is he total gules; horridly tricked
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
Baked and impasted with the parching streets,
That lend a tyrannous and damned light
To their lord's murder: roasted in wrath and fire,
And thus o'er-sized with coagulate gore,
With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus
Old grandsire Priam seeks.'
So, proceed you.

'Fore God, my lord, well spoken, with good accent and
good discretion.

Hyrcania was an ancient province of the Persian Empire, south east of what is now known as the Caspian Sea. In antiquity, it was called the Hyrcanian Ocean. The tigers for which the region is famed - more often known as the Caspian Tiger - died out in the 1970s. A famous specimen was to be seen in the Berlin Zoo until the end of the 19th century.

Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness
This book was recommended to me over the summer and I haven’t managed to get a copy until quite recently. It’s quite a heavy read, as Prof. Lewis is very erudite, but his insights are fascinating. You can get it here.

Arden Shakespeare
The Arden Shakespeare is perhaps my favourite imprint - always has been. The third edition is reaching its final volumes, and indeed the editors for the fourth edition have already been selected. There have been numerous Hamlet publications from the third edition, but the revised text by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor is available here. It’s one of many editions that I use for the podcast, but it is certainly one of the best.

The Caspian Tiger at the Berlin Zoo.

The Caspian Tiger at the Berlin Zoo.



Enter the Players

HAMLET (continued)
You are welcome, masters; welcome, all. I am glad
to see thee well. Welcome, good friends. O, my old
friend! thy face is valenced since I saw thee last:
comest thou to beard me in Denmark? What, my young
lady and mistress! By'r lady, your ladyship is
nearer to heaven than when I saw you last, by the
altitude of a chopine. Pray God, your voice, like
apiece of uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the
ring. Masters, you are all welcome. We'll e'en
to't like French falconers, fly at any thing we see:
we'll have a speech straight: come, give us a taste
of your quality; come, a passionate speech.

First Player
What speech, my lord?

I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was
never acted; or, if it was, not above once; for the
play, I remember, pleased not the million; 'twas
caviare to the general: but it was--as I received
it, and others, whose judgments in such matters
cried in the top of mine--an excellent play, well
digested in the scenes, set down with as much
modesty as cunning. I remember, one said there
were no sallets in the lines to make the matter
savoury, nor no matter in the phrase that might
indict the author of affectation; but called it an
honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very
much more handsome than fine.


French Falconers
I’ve found a rather detailed description of falconry and its place in medieval life, which you can read by clicking here.

Unsurprisingly, this is the only instance of this word in all of Shakespeare. A chopine was a rather tall platform shoe, particularly associated with Venice. Perhaps Shakespeare is conflating two ideas - the received wisdom was that actors in ancient Greek tragedy wore tall platforms called kothurnoi, and maybe Shakespeare is being clever and linking theatre and fashion. In both realms, the taller the shoe, the more important the wearer. Of course there’s no guarantee that Shakespeare had any idea of what ancient actors would have worn. Regardless, he’s definitely making a nice flourish for the performer he’s speaking to, commenting that the youngster has grown at least as much taller as one of his fancy (female) costume shoes would make him.
Here are images of a pair of chopines, and a figurine of an ancient actor in his platform shoes.



Figurine of an ancient actor, probably in a female role.

Figurine of an ancient actor, probably in a female role.



O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!

What a treasure had he, my lord?

'One fair daughter and no more,
The which he loved passing well.'

[Aside] Still on my daughter.

Am I not i' the right, old Jephthah?

If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter
that I love passing well.

Nay, that follows not.

What follows, then, my lord?

'As by lot, God wot,'
and then, you know,
'It came to pass, as most like it was…'
the first row of the pious chanson will show you
more; for look, where my abridgement comes.


The Book of Judges is the seventh book of the Old Testament. It covers the time between the conquest detailed in the Book of Joshua and the establishment of a Kingdom during the Book of Samuel. Generally the narratives within the Book of Judges follow a similar pattern - people are unfaithful to Yahweh and He therefore delivers them into the hands of their enemeies, and then when they beg for mercy He sends them a champion or ‘judge’. This judge delivers them from oppression, and the Israelites prosper again, before falling away from God again and re-starting the cycle.

Jephthah has been an inspiration in many artforms, most interestingly in music. There is a beautiful cantata by Carissimi (which I had the joy of staging in 2014), and also a longer oratorio by Handel, featuring some very famous arias. Both are very much worth a look!

Connie J. Beane’s Reconsidering the Jephthah Allusion in Hamlet is the article I mentioned in this episode. It’s a brilliant read, and you can find it here.



Hark you, Guildenstern; and you too, at each ear a
hearer: that great baby you see there is not yet
out of his swaddling-clouts.

Happily he's the second time come to them; for they
say an old man is twice a child.

I will prophesy he comes to tell me of the players;
mark it. You say right, sir: o' Monday morning;
'twas so indeed.

My lord, I have news to tell you.

My lord, I have news to tell you.
When Roscius was an actor in Rome…

The actors are come hither, my lord.

Buzz, buzz!

Upon mine honour…

Then came each actor on his ass,--

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-
comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or
poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor
Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the
liberty, these are the only men.


Swaddling Clouts
The phrase “swaddling clouts” refers to the swaddling clothes familiar to Christian listeners who recognise it from the description of the Nativity. From the King James version of the Gospel of St. Luke: “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Quintus Roscius (ca. 126 BC – 62 BC) was a Roman actor. By the Renaissance, he was considered the paradigm of achievement as an actor. Presumably Hamlet is quoting a ballad or poem about him when he mentions actors riding on their asses in ancient Rome.

The Roman Actor
The Roman Actor is a Caroline-era play by Philip Massinger. Written shortly after Shakespeare died, it is an intriguing look at how contemporary England looked at Ancient Rome.

Harold Bloom - Hamlet: Poem Unlimited (here)
J. Dover Wilson - What Happens in Hamlet (here)
Michael Srigley - Hamlet, The Law of Writ, and the Universities (here)

Seven Ages of Man
As You Like It contains Shakespeare’s beloved speech about the stages of human life. Here it is, in its entirety!

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.