One of all my all time favorite Shakespeare speeches is pretty kick-ass, and plays wonderfully even today, 400 years later. It’s a speech actors love to sink their teeth into (it’s not a true monologue since there’s some interjections from another character, and it’s not a soliloquy, but it’s still a hell of a thing). And more than its marvelous theme, it tells a great story, acting as the springboard to Hamlet’s madness. Yes, it’s the Ghost, Hamlet’s slain father, recounting his tale of woe, speaking from the depths of purgatorial torment. It’s long, but delicious.
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combinèd locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand an end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love–
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder–
Murder most foul as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.
I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this. Now, Hamlet, hear:
‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forgèd process of my death
Rankly abused. But know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.
O my prophetic soul! My uncle!
Ay, that incestuous, that adulterous beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traiterous gifts–
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce! — won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there,
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!
But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel linked,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.
But soft, methinks I scent the morning air.
Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigor it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine,
And a most instant tetter barked about
Most lazar-like with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body.
Thus was I sleeping by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched,
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,
No reck’ning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damnèd incest.
But howsomever thou pursues this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once.
The glowworm shows the matin to be near
And gins to pale his uneffectual fire.
Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me.
—Hamlet, Act I, Scene v
Regret, love, betrayal, murder, incest, suffering and a longing for redemption. Who could ask for more?
Here’s the other evocative thing about this speech: Our best scholarly evidence tells us that Shakespeare was primarily a playwright and not a player–that he didn’t play the leads in his plays. But there’s strong evidence that Shakespeare did play the Ghost in Hamlet’s premiere at the Globe Theatre. Imagine these inspired words issuing from the lips of the Bard himself…
The image is of Brian Blessed playing the Ghost in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film of Hamlet.