Passage from Hamlet

Formal Critical Analysis of a Passage from Hamlet - Hamlet’s 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. Hamlet’s 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 Hamlet’s character, both virtue and tragic
fear. Lastly, it marks the beginning of the tragic discovery and Hamlet’s
downfall, answering the question “why does Hamlet delay?” Observing the
beginning of Hamlet’s 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 Hamlet’s 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.
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 Hamlet’s
thought. One example is “unction” in Hamlet’s speech “Lay not that
flattering unction to your soul…It 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 Hamlet’s thought but also adds
more emotion to the speech, arousing fear in the audience’s 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 Gertrude’s 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 Hamlet’s thought – his anger,
passion, and anxiety to lead Gertrude to the right direction.

In addition to Hamlet’s 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.
Hamlet’s virtue revealed in this passage that makes him a noble character is
his moral