Episode 86 - The Chameleon's Dish


HAMLET (continued)

…if his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan's stithy. Give him heedful note;
For I mine eyes will rivet to his face,
And after we will both our judgments join
In censure of his seeming.

Well, my lord:
If he steal aught the whilst this play is playing,
And 'scape detecting, I will pay the theft.

They are coming to the play; I must be idle:
Get you a place.


How fares our cousin Hamlet?

Excellent, i' faith; of the chameleon's dish: I eat
the air, promise-crammed: you cannot feed capons so.

I have nothing with this answer, Hamlet; these words
are not mine.

No, nor mine now.


Vulcan was the Roman god of fire, blacksmiths, volcanoes and the like. The Romans believed that his forge - or stithy - was underneath the volcano Mt. Etna in Sicily. His Greek equivalent was Hephaistos.

Shakespeare refers to chameleons in only two other plays - Henry VI.3 and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as mentioned in the episode. In the latter play both of the references are to how the chameleon was believed to live on air alone - just as Hamlet also suggests. Unfortunately I haven’t managed to find any English images of the marvellous lizard, but this is an illustration from a French book from the 1570s with the marvellous name Des Monstres et Prodiges (Of Monsters and Prodigies) - fascinating to think that the drawing is a quarter of a century older than Hamlet.



Hamlet: (continued)

No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning. Dost thou hear?
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish, her election
Hath sealed thee for herself; for thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,
That they are not a pipe for fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee. Something too much of this.
There is a play tonight before the king;
One scene of it comes near the circumstance
Which I have told thee of my father's death:
I prithee, when thou seest that act afoot,
Even with the very comment of thy soul
Observe mine uncle:

Episode 84 - Some Necessary Question


O, reform it altogether. And let those that play
your clowns speak no more than is set down for them;
for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to
set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh
too; though, in the mean time, some necessary
question of the play be then to be considered:
that's villanous, and shows a most pitiful ambition
in the fool that uses it. Go, make you ready.

Exeunt Players

How now, my lord! I will the king hear this piece of work?

And the queen too, and that presently.

Bid the players make haste.


Will you two help to hasten them?

We will, my lord.


What ho! Horatio!


Here, sweet lord, at your service.

Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man
As e'er my conversation coped withal.

O, my dear lord…

Nay, do not think I flatter;
For what advancement may I hope from thee
That no revenue hast but thy good spirits,
To feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flattered?


There are clown characters throughout Shakespeare’s plays - from as early as Titus Andronicus through Othello and The Winter’s Tale. There is no consensus on where the word’s origin is from (the earliest recorded instance is in the 1560s) but it is perhaps of Scandinavian origin. The great clown of the generation before Shakespeare came to prominence was called Richard Tarleton. His successor has generally been assumed to be Will Kempe.

Will Kempe
Kempe was a popular actor with various companies, known for his ability to improvise. (This was so integral to his performances that often the texts of plays in which we know he acted seem rather dull, because it was left to the man himself to perform in the moment!) He was also famous for his dancing, and the jig that was so integral to Elizabethan plays was famous because of him. When Shakespeare and his colleagues founded the Globe Theatre, Kempe was one of the company. We do not know why he left soon afterwards, but it is possible that the absence of Falstaff from Henry V is a direct result of his departure. We do not know for certain if Kempe had played the role in other plays, but it is certainly possible. It is certain that he played Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing and Peter in Romeo and Juliet. It’s at very least possible that he also incarnated the roles of Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Costard in Love’ Labour’s Lost. After he left Shakespeare’s company - for whatever reason - his one other claim to fame is that he morris danced from London to Norwich (a journey that took nine full days) and wrote a book about it. It is believed that he died in 1603, but again, there is no concrete evidence.

Episode 83 - The Mirror Up to Nature


Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion
be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the
word to the action; with this special o'erstep not
the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is
from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone,
or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful
laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the
censure of the which one must in your allowance
o'erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be
players that I have seen play, and heard others
praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely,
that, neither having the accent of Christians nor
the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so
strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of
nature's journeymen had made men and not made them
well, they imitated humanity so abominably.

First Player
I hope we have reformed that indifferently with us, sir.

Episode 82 - Trippingly on the Tongue


Enter HAMLET and Players

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.

First Player
I warrant your honour.


Town Crier
The town crier was a figure with various public duties, foremost among them the announcement of important information. He also accompanied people to the workhouse, escorted criminals to the stocks, and various other duties.

A word Shakespeare made up. Something between robust, illustrious and boisterous. (Also used in Henry V!)

The first mention of the word periwig - from which we get the word wig - came in Shakespeare’s play The Two Gentlemen of Verona. In a world infested with lice and other such unpleasantries, wigs became a handy way of keeping one’s appearance while maintaining a shaved head (to prevent lice). Queen Elizabeth I famously wore a red curled wig, and it is safe to assume that others may have emulated her in this. For Hamlet, a wig-wearer is someone affected and overcompensating - like the worst kind of (unperfect!) actor on the stage.

The earliest known verse drama is Gorboduc, and it dates from 1561. It features a dumbshow - an interlude of non-spoken activity that illuminates the plot. They were very popular, a hangover from medieval morality plays, but had fallen out of fashion by the time that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. As mentioned in the episode, the play brought about something of a resurgence, and many Jacobean plays included dumbshows in the years after Hamlet was written.

The origins of the name are complicated - cases have been made for it having come from German, Latin, Italian, English or French. (You can check wikipedia for a detailed analysis of them all…) The name emerged as a personification of a god worshipped by Muslims, but it has almost nothing to do with actual Islamic worship. The character appeared in medieval poetry and drama, usually as an example of a terrible villain (and therefore an excuse for bombastic, over-the-top acting!)

There are in fact a few famous Herods in the Bible. Herod the Great (responsible for the construction of the temple in Jerusalem) was the client king of Judea at the time Jesus was born, and also ordered the massacre of the innocents. Herod Antipas, his son, is the Herod who appears in the stories of John the Baptist and Salome, and was also in part responsible for the death of Jesus. The name is associated with the worst excesses of Biblical debauchery and murder - again an excuse for exaggerated acting.



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.