Literary Wisdom

Literary Wisdom: Hamlet, Act Five

Hail to thee, thou lords and ladies—

Act Five of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is my favorite portion of the play. The Prince’s transformation into a tremendously faithful and God-fearing man is indescribably and beautifully profound—after all, it’s the prime reason I enjoy talking about this play so much:) Thus believing it my mission to pay proper homage for Defy Augury‘s namesake, I write to you my last Hamlet “Literary Wisdom” post, hoping that you will find an ardent love for this tragedy as well.

(Note: Spoilers abound below, so I strongly encourage you to Google the plot of Hamlet before you read below. If you have read Hamlet, all the more power to you!)

“To what base uses we may return, Horatio!…Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam, and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?” ~Prince Hamlet, Scene I, Lines 210, 218-222

Modern Translation: “How wretched are we when we die, Horatio! Think of it: Alexander the Great died, Alexander the Great was buried, Alexander the Great returned into the dust; the dust is from the earth; out of the earth we make dirt. Why would we not use Alexander’s dirt to plug a barrel of beer now, even though he seemed so magnificent as he lived?”

“Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, For my heart rejoiced in all my labor; And this was my reward from all my labor. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done And on the labor in which I had toiled; And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun.” ~Ecclesiastes 2:10-11, NKJV

“What man can live and not see death? Can he deliver his life from the power of the grave?” ~Psalm 89:48, NKJV

“Not a whit, we defy augury; there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all…let be.” ~Prince Hamlet, Scene II, Lines 221-227

Modern Translation: “Why should I be afraid? We are not controlled by the random circumstances of nature; we are held in the hands of God, who watches each sparrow fall. If I die now, then it will not come later; if death does not come later, I will die now; if I will not die now, it will come anyway. In the end, all that matters is whether we are ready to die, Horatio. Let us walk in trust.”

I’ve already discussed this passage here, so I thought I’d give you another author’s perspective on this revolutionary statement of faith, the famous words which serve as the turning point in Hamlet’s spiritual journey.

(The “all that matters” phrase and the following passage are taken from Leland Ryken’s Christian Guides to the Classics: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, pages 72 and 77, respectively.)

“Hamlet, near the end of the play, declares his trust in the future….Not filled with hopeless resignation or indifferent fatalism, Hamlet reminds Horatio of that divinely-ordained future over which no man can work his will in defiance of the purposes of Heaven….Hamlet, therefore, is a profound example of faith.” ~Daniel L. Wright, “‘Special Providence in the Fall of a Sparrow’: The Rhetoric of Religious Hope in Hamlet”

“Sir, in his audience, let my disclaiming from a purpos’d evil free me so far in your most generous thoughts, that I have shot mine arrow o’er the house, and hurt my brother.” ~Prince Hamlet, Scene II, Lines 244-248

Modern Translation: “Good Laertes, in the presence of the public, please forgive me of my evil toward you. I did not mean it, but I am truly sorry and do not wish to see my brother hurting.”

In Hamlet’s apology, we see how powerful a staunch commitment to the Creator can be. For the first time in the play, Hamlet is publicly confessing his sin and humbling himself. Because of his trust in the Lord, the prince is not simply talking about his sin as if there’s no hope to cure it; because of his trust in the Lord, he expresses true sorrow and a sincere willingness to restore his and Laertes’ friendship. Little does he know what Laertes has planned to do to him.

“Heaven make thee free of it!” ~Prince Hamlet, Scene II, Line 336

Modern Translation: “God make you free of your sin and guilt!”

This is part of Laertes’ confession of treachery. He had used a sharpened and “envenom’d” sword during the fencing match in which he killed Hamlet…and in which Hamlet accidentally murdered him with the same weapon. Suffering from the conviction of his conscience, Laertes begs for forgiveness from the prince and also pardons the murders of himself and his father. Hamlet knows, however, that he cannot truly forgive sins and points Laertes to God’s perfect cleansing. In other words, Hamlet loves Laertes as a brother, despite the agonizing death Laertes had inflicted upon him.

“Horatio, what a wounded name, things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me. If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, to tell my story.” ~Prince Hamlet, Scene II, Lines 348-353

Modern Translation: “Horatio, if my journey continues to stay unknown to the people, my name and cause will be wounded. Please, Horatio, if you’ve ever held me dear to your heart, refrain from happiness a little while–and please, despite the harshness and pain you will experience in this world, tell my story.”

In his essay, “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem,” C.S. Lewis wrote the following:

“The fact that [critics] can never leave Hamlet alone, the continual groping, the sense, unextinguished by over a century of failures, that we have here something of inestimable importance, is surely the best evidence that the real and lasting mystery of our human situation has been greatly depicted.” (sourced from Ryken’s guide)

He could seldom speak truer about classic literature–and I say that from experience. Never before had I encountered a work of fiction that set my heart face-to-face with my sin and my relationship with God. My great wish is that it will do the same to you and thus truly change your life.

The “Literary Wisdom” series for Hamlet was intended to give you a glimpse of the play, help you understand and apply Shakespeare, and (hopefully) inspire you to study the great tragedy further. With that said, here are my three favorite resources for studying Hamlet:

  1. CliffsComplete edition of Hamlet: This is my favorite unabridged edition of Hamlet. It’s loaded with commentary, quiz questions, suggestions for further study, a character map, and the like–all of which I’ve found extremely helpful.
  2. Leland Ryken’s Christian Guides to the Classics: Shakespeare’s Hamlet: I cannot overstate the importance of reading this amazing book alongside the play. In the words of Eleanor Prosser, a literary critic Ryken quotes on page 80, “We can understand Hamlet’s unrivaled power to move emotions and stimulate thought only when we grant the basic Christian perspective from which it was written.” I’ve tried to expose that in this series; however, this professor has much more insight into the play than I do and can help you appreciate Hamlet more.
  3. Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996): This is my absolute favorite film version of Hamlet…to me, it’s nearly perfect (though I recommend you skip the latter third of act I, scene iii). When my favorite Shakespearean actor both plays the prince and directs the movie, starring alongside Charlton Heston as the player king, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Billy Crystal as the gravedigger, and Robin Williams as the annoying courtier Osric, it’s great. I found it as helpful as it was entertaining and heart-wrenching. Don’t miss it.


“The rest…is silence.”


~Sarah Merly


December 6, 2017

Isaiah 53