Passage from Hamlet

Paper Title:
Passage from Hamlet
Formal Critical Analysis of a Passage from Hamlet – Hamlets speech (III,
iv, 139-180)
Sung-Wook Han
AP English 4 / Mr. Epes
Hamlet Paper
Formal Critical Analysis of a Passage from Hamlet
Hamlet is probably the best known and most popular play of William
Shakespeare, and it is natural for any person to question what makes Hamlet a
great tragedy and why it receives such praises. The answer is in fact simple; it
effectively arouses pity and fear in the audiences mind. The audience feels
pity when they see a noble character experiencing a regrettable downfall because
of his innate tragic flaw, and they fear that the same thing might happen to
them. Hamlets speech (III, iv, 139-180) contributes to producing this feeling
of pity and fear. First it explains the thought with particular emotional
effectiveness. Second it conveys Hamlets character, both virtue and tragic
fear. Lastly, it marks the beginning of the tragic discovery and Hamlets
downfall, answering the question why does Hamlet delay? Observing the
beginning of Hamlets downfall and tragic discovery in this passage, which
happens despite his many virtues, maximizes the pity and fear at the same time.

The first contribution is that this passage conveys Hamlets thoughts with
poetic and emotional effectiveness. Hamlet denies his madness and urges Gertrude
not to make his madness an excuse for her faults. He asserts that excuses would
only cover the superficial faults and the soul would be corrupted deep within.

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He further asks Gertrude not to commit any more sins that make past faults even
worse and to confess herself to heaven. After all, Hamlet sarcastically begs her
pardon for his reproach. Hamlet explains that during the extremely rotten time,
Hamlet, who is good and of virtue, must beg pardon to and get permission from
Gertrude, who represents vice by committing many sins, to do good things such as
urging her to repent. As a method for salvation, Hamlet asks her not to go to
Claudius bed. Then he apologizes for the death of Polonius and admits his own
fault. However, he insists that Polonius and he both are punished because God
has made him the agent to punish Polonius with him and him with Polonius. He
takes the responsibility, and explains Gertrude that he is cruel only to be kind
to her and warns that worse things are yet to come.

Through out the passage, imageries are used to add poetic emotion to Hamlets
thought. One example is unction in Hamlets speech Lay not that
flattering unction to your soulIt will but skin and film the ulcerous place
whiles rank corruption, mining all within, infects unseen. (III, iv, 145)
This is a metaphor; flattering unction on soul designates an excuse for her past
faults. Unction is scab that only covers the superficial wounds; inside the body
the wounds would not heel but infect the flesh and cause more serious damage.

Here, making excuses would be same as putting unction on the ulcerous place on
skin. Making excuses would only cover the past faults; it does not correct them
but only bring more pain in the future. Hamlet is warning that if Gertrude tries
to make an excuse for her past faults, her inner soul would corrupt and suffer
more pain later. This metaphor not only conveys Hamlets thought but also adds
more emotion to the speech, arousing fear in the audiences mind for many
ordinary people do tend to make excuses for their mistakes. There is a similar
metaphor in the passage just few lines below; And do not spread the compost
on the weeds to make them ranker. (III, iv, 152) The compost designates more
faults that Gertrude may commit if she does not repent, and the weeds means the
past sins. What Hamlet means in this line is that Gertrude should not commit any
more sins because more sins would worsen the past faults. Composts are
fertilizers, which in the days of Shakespeare probably made of excrements. Here
is a brilliant poetic comparison; compost, which is made of excrements, equals
to Gertrudes faults. The audience gets the feeling that her faults are as
dirty as excrements. Use of these dictions not only provide these emotional
effects on the audience but also reveals Hamlets thought his anger,
passion, and anxiety to lead Gertrude to the right direction.

In addition to Hamlets thought, this passage further reveals many aspects
of the character Hamlet, contributing significantly to the pity and fear aroused
by the whole play; his virtue produces the pity, his tragic flaw the fear.

Hamlets virtue revealed in this passage that makes him a noble character is
his moral stand, especially his honesty and hatred against Gertrudes adultery
and lust. Passages like Mother, for love of grace, lay not that flattering
unction to your soul, that not your trespass but my madness speaks (III, iv,
145) and Confess yourself to heaven, repent whats past (III, iv,
150) show that Hamlet denounces Gertrudes dull sense of honesty and urges her
to be honest with God, revealing that Hamlet puts importance on the virtue of
honesty and loathes dishonesty. He himself practices honesty, saying For this
same lord, I do repent.I will bestow him and will answer well the death I
gave him. (III, iv, 173) He could have blamed Polonius for spying on him, but
he takes the full responsibility and admits his fault; it is clear that he is
very fair and just, compared to Gertrude.

Another moral virtue in this passage is his hatred against the evil, or
Gertrudes adultery and lust in this passage. He openly asks her to go not
to my uncles bed. Assume a virtue, if you have it no. (III, iv, 160) For a
character like Hamlet, who values morality as one of the most important virtues,
Gertrudes adultery must have been a great pain and inhumane act. These two
virtues, honesty and hatred against adultery and lust, make Hamlet the noble
character in this passage, and the audience feel pity for him because they
regret the downfall of such moral man.

However, a tragic hero should have a tragic flaw that makes him more like
ordinary people, for only then the audience feels the fear that the same thing
might happen to them. In this passage, the same lines that describe Hamlets
virtues also convey his tragic flaw; his excessive morality becomes
morbidity. His innate tragic flaw is excessive disgust for Gertrudes
adultery and obsessive pursuit of honesty. His excessive loathing is indicated
in other lines as well; rank sweat of an enseamed bed, stewd in
corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty- (III, iv, 93) a
murderer and a villainand put it in his pocket. (III, iv, 96) He is so
enraged and concentrated on Gertrudes immorality that the ghost has to step
in to remind him of his ultimate goal of killing Claudius; Do not forget.

This visitation is but to whet thy almost blunted purposestep between her and
her fighting soul!..Speak to her Hamlet. (III, iv, 111) This shows that
Hamlet has gone off track because of his excessive disgust of Gertrudes sin.

Surprisingly, in the middle of his tragic flaw lies Hamlets another
virtue. Hamlet says at the end of the confrontation I must be cruel only to
be kind. (III, iv, 179) This is an evidence that Hamlet, although extremely
disappointed and enraged, still wants to help Gertrude. His manner might be too
cruel and violent, but his intention is to help her to escape from immorality.

It is contradictory that his obsession of morality, which is the tragic flaw
that causes his death, can be another virtue. Yet because of this, the audience
feels even stronger fear. When a virtue can be a flaw and a flaw can be a
virtue, the confusion produces more fear. And in reality there are many people
who are too moral to do anything and after all miss the point of their life,
like Hamlet. Those moral people are so concerned with living morally
that they cannot do anything in the real life. This fact arouses fear among the
audience who may be one of those morality-obsessed people. Both Hamlets
virtue and tragic flaw are well revealed in this passage, and it is obvious that
this is one of the most essential passages of the play in producing the feeling
of pity and fear.

The passage has more significant impact on the production of pity and fear
when it is evaluated in the larger structure of the whole play. In the larger
context, this passage serves two important purposes; it confirms and clarifies
the descriptions about Hamlets character and thoughts made in prior passages,
and answers the question Why does Hamlet delay? Hamlets honesty is
already revealed in his speech I know not seems.. (I, ii, 76) and
even his enemy Claudius admits this; He, Hamlet being remiss, most
generous, and free from all contriving, will not peruse the fills. His
hatred against the evil and pursuit of perfect morality have also been
introduced several times before; against drunkenness Ay, marry, ist, but
to my mindthe pith and marrow of our attribute. (I, iv, 14) and against
the wicked Rosencrantz and Guildensten Why, look you now, how unworthy a
thing you make of me!.you cannot play upon me, (III, ii, 349) These
tedious old fools!, (II, ii, 217) and several others. This passage makes the
final assertion that convinces the audience of Hamlets honesty and morality,
concreting the notion that Hamlet is indeed a tragic hero.

Yet the greater significance of this passage is that marks the beginning of
his regrettable downfall, answering the question that has been raised by the
audience throughout the entire play; Why does Hamlet delay his revenge? In
fact, the answer has been foreshadowed several times before this passage, but
those passages were preludes for this one. In the play-within-the-play, In
second husband let me be accurst! None wed the second but who killed the first
(III, ii, 171) and A second time I kill my husband dead when second husband
kisses me in bed (III, ii, 176-177) suggested the Hamlets
play-within-the-play is aimed more to Gertrude than to Claudius. Hamlets
saying Tis brief, my lord. As Womans love, (III, ii, 145) Mother,
you have my father much offended, (III, iv, 11) and Look here upon this
picture, and on thisand reason panders will. (III, iv, 54) indicate that
Gertrudes adultery and betrayal of love has hurt Hamlets conscience
deeply. With these lines, the audience can easily suspect that Hamlet delays his
revenge because he has to take care of Gertrude first. This passage confirms
this suspicion; go not to my uncles bed. (III, iv, 160-161) Hamlet
simply asks her to stay away from Claudius for her own salvation. The revenge
against Claudius must be delayed to punish and save Gertrudes soul, whom
Hamlet still loves and wants to help in spite of overwhelming disappointment and

Now the audience knows a good and just reason of delay, and sympathizes him
even more because Hamlets good intention to help Gertrude, which rooted from
his virtue of morality, sets the beginning of his tragic discovery and downfall.

Hamlet has been the righteous person before, but now having killed Polonius, he
has made himself a scourge, or a sinful person, just like Claudius, and in
fact he admits this; For this lord, I do repent; but heaven hath pleased it
so, to punish me with this, and this with me, that I must be their scourge and
minister. (III, iv, 173) He finds that his fate is sealed here and his
downfall begins because the murder of Polonius gives a good reason to open fire
against Hamlet. Even now, Hamlets another virtue shine once again; although
he became a scourge by killing Polonius, he still wants to be a minister, or an
innocent person, by repenting in the future. In this passage, the audience
observes the turning point of the play, and they feel the greatest sympathy and
fear because his virtues turned out to be the trap that marks his downfall and
starts the tragic discovery, despite his desperate desire to hold on to his

There are many other important passages that contain beautiful poetic
dictions and convey Hamlets thoughts and character masterfully. However, this
passage makes very significant contributions to the pity and fear produced by
the whole play. Containing poetic dictions and devices such as imageries, it
conveys Hamlets thoughts thoroughly with particular emotional impact on the
audiences mind. Then it reveals Hamlets virtues and tragic flaw to promote
the audiences understand of Hamlet and provide the necessary information to
feel pity and fear. Finally it provides the audience a chance to observe the
critical turning point of the play, where Hamlets tragic discovery and
downfall sets off its way toward his death, despite his many virtues and
desperate attempt to hold on to them. The understanding of Hamlets thoughts
and virtues arouse pity for Hamlet, and the knowledge of his tragic flaw and the
reason of delay bring about the fear, which together make Hamlet one of the
greatest tragedies in the history of English literature.

Work Cited
Epes, W. Perry “Against Deep meaning: An Introductory Critical Approach
to the Drama” Episcopal High School English Department (1999)