…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
A 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.”