Literary Wisdom

Literary Wisdom: Hamlet, Act One

Hello, everyone–

One of the first writings I desired to post on Defy Augury was some snippet or insight on my favorite work of fiction, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Thus, I immediately set to work on that goal, outlining an analysis of the ENTIRE “To be or not to be” soliloquy. But when I started writing it, I started becoming convinced that it was much too long to be posted on a blog. With that idea either temporarily or permanently thrown out the window, I decided to go with something simpler. Enter “Literary Wisdom: Hamlet, Act One.”

I plan to post these “Literary Wisdom” writings no more than once a week, as I do not want it to become dull and repetitive. They will focus in on an author or book and give five of the finest quotes to remember, as well as my commentary on each one. Furthermore, I’ve decided to break my Hamlet posts act-by-act, because Shakespeare as-is has a huge treasury of insights to share concerning human existence. The large majority of that treasury is certainly found in Hamlet. My hope in writing these is that you will grow to love wisdom and mature as a human being, created in the image of God with a special heart, soul, and mind. You may even gain a deeper appreciation of the classics on the side!

“The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters; The wellspring of wisdom is a flowing brook.” ~Proverbs 18:4, NKJV

(NOTE: The CliffsComplete edition of Hamlet was used in locating these quotations.)

“All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.” ~Queen Gertrude, Act I, Scene II, Lines 72-73

What an uplifting, beautiful way to start off! The queen’s somber insight reminds us that even if we do great and noble things in life, we are still utterly mortal. But then what? Eternity, either filled with joy and the presence of God, or with darkness and “gnashing of teeth.” Even though this is such an abstract yet ever real idea to us mortals, Shakespeare nonetheless still manages to keep it concise and poetic.

“Weigh what loss your honour may sustain, if with too credent ear you list his songs, or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open to his unmaster’d importunity.” ~Laertes, Act I, Scene III, Lines 29-32

Laertes, the son of the king’s chamberlain, says these words to Ophelia, his sister, who is in love with Hamlet, in a speech concerning integrity and purity in romance. He’s begging her to resist her emotions when she is tempted to go too far physically. Thus, this statement is rather bittersweet to me. It’s sweet because of the wonderfully evident brotherly love and insight involved; it’s bitter because it makes me realize just how far we’ve come as a society. Shakespeare easily got away with openly promoting chastity in his plays, but I have the feeling it wouldn’t be so with Christian writers in Hollywood today. Regardless, this eloquent passage from Hamlet inspires me to think through my decisions on men in the future.

“I shall th’ effect of this good lesson keep, as watchman to my heart. But, good my brother, do not, as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine, himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, and recks not his own rede.” ~Ophelia, Act I, Scene III, Lines 45-51

Ophelia’s response to her brother’s advice. Essentially she accepts and applies the message to her heart, but she also tells her brother that his “walk should match his talk,” so to speak. (“Ungracious” here means “unsaved.”) In further detail, she tells him not to give this invaluable counsel and then not apply it to his own life, walking around in frivolousness and carelessness of conduct. Ophelia’s agricultural imagery here adds some more insight; “steep and thorny” here refers to the hardships she must face in pursuing a wholly pure romance with the Prince, while “primrose path” has the connotation of a deceptively easy, no-consequence manner of living. Concerning the first part, though–it has always reminded me of Proverbs 4:23, “Keep your heart with all diligence, For out of it spring the issues of life.” (NKJV)

P.S. “Recks not his own rede” means that someone is not applying his advice to his own life.

“This above all, to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” ~Polonius, Act I, Scene III, Lines 78-80

This is arguably one of the most famous lines of the play; it comes from the bits of fatherly wisdom Polonius attempts to give his son before he leaves for France. He tells Laertes that hypocritical behavior will not suffice in proper relationships with others; rather, he should stay true to his character and in so doing be true to others.

What’s rather ironic about this statement is the hypocriticality of the speaker behind the proverb. Polonius acts fatherly to his son when he leaves but spies on him behind his back. (Paraphrased from Folger ed. of Hamlet, “‘The Cheer and Comfort of Our Eye’: Hamlet and Surveillance,” by Michael Neill) He acts like he loves his daughter yet is quite quick to treat her harshly. (Ibid.) And if you know the rest of the play, you know that his inability to treat others with respect leads to his death.

Thus, I believe Shakespeare wants us to pay pretty close attention to his words.

“It (drinking) is a custom more honour’d in the breach than the observance.” ~Prince Hamlet, Act I, Scene IV, Lines 15-16

Finally, a quote from the Dane himself! Here the story undergoes a rather quick change of pace as the young prince stands shivering on the castle walls in the utter darkness of the wintry night air as he watches and listens to his wicked uncle’s frivolous partying and imbibing.

What I love most about this quote is how concisely, beautifully, and accurately Hamlet reveals his beliefs about drinking. He says, in paraphrase, “Drinking is a custom that is better honored by abstaining from than participating in it” yet manages to say all that in iambic pentameter and with a scholarly flourish of vocabulary. In short, it summed up my convictions about alcohol so perfectly that when I read it, I thought I’d probably quote it whenever someone asked me about drinking. To be honest, I’m known for citing Hamlet at odd moments!

That’s all for this first “Literary Wisdom” post. Hopefully I expressed my thoughts clearly:) Thank you for reading and stay tuned!


~Sarah Merly


September 28, 2017

Isaiah 53