S.T.  Coleridge, “Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare and Other English Poets” (1818)

It was the lecture on Hamlet given on 2 January 1812 that has influenced Hamlet studies ever since. Before Coleridge, Hamlet was often denigrated and belittled by critics from Voltaire to Dr. Johnson. Coleridge rescued Hamlet and his thoughts on the play are often still published as supplements to the text.

THESIS: Thought Sick Hamlet: “Hamlet is brave and careless of death; but he vacillates from sensibility, and procrastinates from thought, and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve.”


·         Who’s there?

o   ordinary conversation tends to produce the sense of reality, and at once hides the poet, and yet approximates the reader or spectator to that state in which the highest poetry will appear, and in its component parts, though not in the whole composition, really is, the language of nature.

·         Hamlet’s wordplay: A little more than kin and less than kind

o   ‘an exuberant activity of mind; the language of suppressed passion, and especially of a hardly smothered personal dislike’

·         ‘Seems’, madam, Nay it is. I know not ‘seems’”

o   ‘[his] aversion to externals… betrays his habit of brooding over the world within him, coupled with a prodigality of beautiful words, which are the half embodyings of thought, and are more than thought, and have an outness, a reality sui generis, and yet retain their correspondence and shadowy affinity to the images and movements within.

·         "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!"

o   taedium vitae caused by disproportionate mental exertion, which necessitates exhaustion of bodily feeling.

o   the mind's appetency (longing for) of the ideal is uncheckedpassion combines itself with the indefinite alone

o   He mistakes the seeing of his chains for the breaking them, delays action till action is of no use, and dies the victim of mere circumstance and accident.’

·         Polonius:

o   in inwardness and uncontrollable activity of movement, Hamlet's mind is the logical contrary to that of Polonius

·         Hamlet's speech concerning the wassail-music –

o   so finely revealing the predominant idealism, the ratiocinative meditativeness, of his character

·         Hamlet’s reaction to seeing the Ghost

o   The co-presence of Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo is most judiciously contrived; for it renders the courage of Hamlet and his impetuous eloquence perfectly intelligible. The knowledge, – the unthought of consciousness, – the sensation, – of human auditors, – of flesh and blood sympathists – acts as a support and a stimulation a tergo (from the rear), while the front of the mind, the whole consciousness of the speaker, is filled, yea, absorbed, by the apparition.

·          Hillo, ho, ho, boy! come bird, come"

o   This part of the scene after Hamlet's interview with the Ghost has been charged with an improbable eccentricity. But the truth is, that after the mind has been stretched beyond its usual pitch and tone, it must either sink into exhaustion and inanity, or seek relief by change

o   the terrible by a law of the human mind always touches on the verge of the ludicrous

o   a sort of cunning bravado, bordering on the flights of delirium. For you may, perhaps, observe that Hamlet's wildness is but half false; he plays that subtle trick of pretending to act only when he is very near really being what he acts.

o   this Ghost, as a superstition connected with the most mysterious truths of revealed religion

·         “if the sun breeds maggots in a dead dog,
Being a god, kissing carrion –“

o   "Why, fool as he is, he is some degrees in rank above a dead dog's carcase; and if the sun, being a god that kisses carrion, can raise life out of a dead dog, – why may not good fortune, that favours fools, have raised a lovely girl out of this dead-alive old fool?"

·         "The rugged Pyrrhus – he whose sable arms,"

o   The fancy, that a burlesque was intended, sinks below criticism: the lines, as epic narrative, are superb.

·         "The spirit that I have seen,
May be a devil
: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and, perhaps
Out of my weakness, and my melancholy,
(As he is very potent with such spirits)
Abuses me to damn me."

o   See Sir Thomas Brown: "I believe – that those apparitions and ghosts of departed persons are not the wandering souls of men, but the unquiet walks of devils, prompting and suggesting us unto mischief, blood and villainy, instilling and stealing into our hearts, that the blessed spirits are not at rest in their graves, but wander solicitous of the affairs of the world." – Relig. Med. Pt. I. Sect. 37.

·         "That undiscover'd country, from whose bourne
No traveller returns –"

o   surely, it were easy to say, that no traveller returns to this world, as to his home, or abiding-place.

·         "Ha, ha! are you honest?”

o   the penetrating Hamlet perceives, from the strange and forced manner of Ophelia, that the sweet girl was not acting a part of her own, but was a decoy; and his after speeches are not so much directed to her as to the listeners and spies

o   Hamlet is beginning with great and unfeigned tenderness; but perceiving her reserve and coyness, fancies there are some listeners, and then, to sustain his part, breaks out into all that coarseness.

·         "Now could I drink hot blood,
And do such business as the bitter day
Would quake to look on."

o   The utmost at which Hamlet arrives, is a disposition, a mood, to do something… but what to do, is still left undecided, while every word he utters tends to betray his disguise.”

·         Now might I do it, pat, now he is praying:
And now I'll do it: – And so he goes to heaven:
And so am I revenged? That would be scann'd,

o   Dr. Johnson's mistaking of the marks of reluctance and procrastination for impetuous, horror-striking fiendishness! – Of such importance is it to understand the germ of the character. But the interval taken by Hamlet's speech is truly awful!  

·         "Ros. Take you me for a spunge, my lord?
Ham. Ay, Sir; that soaks up the King's countenance, his rewards, his authorities,"

o   Hamlet's madness is made to consist in the free utterance of all the thoughts that had passed through his mind before; – in fact, in telling home-truths.

·         Hamlet’s capture by pirates

o   This is almost the only play of Shakespeare, in which mere accidents, independent of all will, form an essential part of the plot, – but here how judiciously in keeping with the character of the over-meditative Hamlet, ever at last determined by accident or by a fit of passion!

·          "Queen. Your sister's drown'd, Laertes.
Laer. Drown'd! O, where?"

o   Ophelia, – who in the beginning lay like a little projection of land into a lake or stream, covered with spray-flowers quietly reflected in the quiet waters, but at length is undermined or loosened, and becomes a faery isle, and after a brief vagrancy sinks almost without an eddy!

·         From the "Table Talk" (June 15, 1827):

o   Hamlet's character is the prevalence of the abstracting and generalizing habit over the practical.”