The Player King and Player Queen (John)

This passage is from 3.2.148-220 (I should note, I am working from the Arden Shakespeare edition of Hamlet, so there may be some variation, apologies!)

Player King:

Full thirty times hath Phoebus’s cart gone round
Neptune’s salt wash and Tellus’ orbed ground
And thirty dozen moons with borrowed sheen
About the world have times twelve thirties been
Since love our hearts and Hymen did our hands
Unite commutual in most sacred bands.

Player Queen

So many journeys may the sun and moon
Make us again count o’er ere love be done.
But woe is me, you are sick of late,
So far from cheer and from our former state,
That I distrust you. Yet, though I distrust,
Discomfort you, my lord, it nothing must.
For women fear too much, even as they love,
And women’s fear and love hold quantity—
Either none, in neither aught, or in extremity.
Now what my love is proof hath made you know
And, as my love is sized, my fear is so.
Where love is great, the littlest doubts are fear,
Where little fears grow great, great love grows there.

Player King

Faith, I must leave thee, love, and shortly too,
My operant powers their functions leave to do,
And thou shalt live in this fair world behind
Honoured, beloved, and haply one as kind
For husband shalt thou—

Player Queen
O, confound the rest!

Such love must needs be treason in my breast.
In second husband let me be accurst:
None wed the second but who killed the first.


That’s wormwood!

Player Queen

The instances that second marriage move
Are base respects of thrift, but none of love.
A second time I kill my husband dead
When second husband kisses me in bed.

Player King

I do believe you think what now you speak.
But what we do determine oft we break.
Purpose is but the slave to memory,
Of violent birth but poor validity,
Which now like fruit unripe sticks on the tree
But fall unshaken when they mellow be.
Most necessary ‘tis that we forget
To pay ourselves in passion we propose,
The passion ending doth the purpose lose.
The violence of either grief or joy
Their own enactures with themselves destroy.
Where joy most revels grief doth most lament,
Grief joys, joy grieves, on slender accident.
This world is not for aye, nor ‘tis not strange
That even our loves should with our fortunes change,
For ‘tis a question left us yet to prove
Whether Love lead Fortune or else Fortune Love.
The great man down, you mark his favourite flies,
The poor advanced makes friends of enemies,
And hitherto doth Love on Fortune tend,
For who not needs shall never lack a friend,
And who in want a hollow friend doth try
Directly seaons him his enemy.
But orderly to end where I begun,
Our wills and fates do so countrary run
That our devices still are overthrown.
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own:
So think thou wilt no second husband wed
But die thy thoughts when thy first lord is dead.

I’ve chosen this passage from the play within a play in Act 3 because the play, particularly in who it is designed to address, is a particularly productive site for thinking about “time” in Hamlet. The play, The Murder of Gonzago, is of course Hamlet’s way of gauging whether what the ghost has told him of his father’s murder is true; by observing how his uncle and mother (the King and Queen) respond he hopes to judge their guilt or innocence in the affair. At the macro-level, the play stages the question of whether these “ghosts” of the past are still visibly manifest—is the play out of the times of Claudius’ court, or, is it very much in time?

The epic opening of the performance, given in the Player King’s classical allusion to “Phoebus,” “Neptune’s salt wash,” and “Tellus’ orbed ground, suggests that this play is out of time with the Court, and that the regicide it depicts is one that, as Hamlet sinisterly jokes, “touches us not” (3.2.235). All the while, the Player Queen responds to the Player King’s classicism in jarringly literal language, which seems to bring this play-within-a –play right back into the present. The Player Queen’s “sun and moon,” as opposed to the Player King’s allusive register, re-situates the language of the play in what Terttu Nevalainen might include in her discussion of the English “common core,” or words that maintain their currency across time. Then, too, the Player King’s own lexical pool contains words that mar the epic time-stamp of his lines with the stain of the present. The first cited use of “Orbed,” according to the O.E.D, is in 1598, rather contemporary with the period in which Shakespeare is writing. While “orb” as a noun has currency as far back as c. 1400, “orbed” as it appears here, as an adjective, is much newer in its use. And, perhaps most notably, “commutual” is a word appearing in English for the first time in this scene, which the Player King uses to describe the reciprocity of the marriage vow between the Player Queen and himself. The vexed time of the language, current language to describe what is supposedly guarded by the distance of the past, seems to aid Hamlet’s heavy-handed suggestion to his uncle that this play within a play has relevance in their present moment.

This diachronic (multi-chronic?) register of the language is complimented by Hamlet’s own performative presence in the audience. Ophelia, flummoxed by Hamlet’s malicious behavior towards her, tells him “You are merry, my lord,” and certainly Hamlet’s spirits seemed to be heightened in a way that allows him to assert his own presence as an audience member present to interject (“That’ wormwood!”) after the Player Queen’s poignant observations on widowhood: “None wed the second but who killed the first.”

But even beyond Hamlet’s heightened state of being in the play-within-a-play, Shakespeare plays with the tenses of the Player Queen’s lines on widowhood in the aforementioned moment. “None wed the second but who killed the first” contains a present and an implicit future tense, the idea that none wed or none will wed, as well as the passive “who killed the first.” This creates an interesting sense of time rhetorically in the sense that the Player Queen suggests that any current or future action is predicated on the legacy of an action in the past. We see echoes of such a philosophy in the Player King’s response to her when he says “Purpose is but the slave to memory.” Of course, the Player Queen’s meditation on widows re-marrying doesn’t end here, because she goes on to say, “A second time I kill my husband dead/When second husband kisses me in bed.” Suddenly, the action is all only in the present or future/conditional tense and the Player Queen’s lines, because of this tense shift, once again move the play within a play back into time with its royal audience.

These are some of the ways I’ve been thinking about language, tense, point of reference, and time in the passage, but I hope, finally that we can also think on the Player King’s fantastic discourse on “purpose” (mentioned in brief above), passion, action, and fate. When the Player King recites his lines on “purpose” being formed in “passion” but “passion ending doth the purpose lose” he offers up a provocative temporal model for thinking through action and inaction in Hamlet writ large, once again extending the play within a play from its distanced place in time to the immediate present of its audience. I personally found myself thinking on Munroe’s “Introduction: conceptualizing archaism” and her sense of the way in which the past forms presents and there is perhaps no present but presents past. I phrase this all somewhat abstractly here, but perhaps it is framed better as a question: in what ways is Hamlet’s psychological state, his action, and indeed his inaction predicated on his sense of the past? Can Hamlet act in the present? If so, what does it look like?

See you all soon,


Richard II Passage for Emphasis: The Queen and her Grief

2.2.1-40: The Queen and Her Grief



Madam, your majesty is too much sad.

You promised when you parted with the King

To lay aside life-harming heaviness

And entertain a cheerful disposition.




To please the King I did, to please myself                                                              5

I cannot do it. Yet I know no cause

Why I should welcome such a guest as grief,

Save bidding farewell to so sweet a guest

As my sweet Richard. Yet again, methinks

Some unborn sorrow, ripe in Fortune’s womb,                                                     10

Is coming towards me, and my inward soul

With nothing trembles; at something it grieves

More than with parting from my lord the King.




Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows

Which shows like grief itself but is not so.                                                             15

For sorrow’s eyes, glazed with blinding tears,

Divides one thing entire to many objects,

Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon

Show nothing but confusion—eyed awry,

Distinguish form. So your sweet majesty,                                                               20

Looking awry upon your lord’s departure,

Finds shapes of grief more than himself to wail

Which, looked on as it is, is nought but shadows

Of what it is not. Then, thrice-gracious Queen,

More than your lord’s departure weep not. More’s

not seen,                                                                                                         25

Or if it be, ‘tis with false sorrow’s eye

Which for things true weeps things imaginary.




It may be so, but yet my inward soul

Persuades me it is otherwise. Howe’er it be

I cannot but be sad: so heavy sad,                                                                          30

As, though on thinking on no thought I think,

Makes me with heavy nothing faint and shrink.




‘Tis nothing but conceit, my gracious lady.




‘Tis nothing less. Conceit is still derived

From some forefather grief. Mine is not so,                                                           35

For nothing hath begot my something grief,

Or something hath the nothing that I grieve—

‘Tis in reversion that I do possess—

But what it is, that is not yet known; what

I cannot name, ‘tis nameless woe I wot.                                                                 40

I came to this passage particularly struck with the way in which figuration gives the Queen’s grief a life beyond the event from which it originates—Richard’s departure for Ireland. One way we might begin to discuss this is by directing our attention the use of personification in the scene. “Grief,” so says the Queen, comes to her as a “guest” displacing “sweet Richard,” her original “guest” whom she must bid farewell to. Personified, grief seems to stage an important process of exchange in the Queen’s own figuration of herself; she speaks of Richard metonymically as if he is part of her whole, a “guest” within the home of her inner being.[1] It is an odd moment, because in order for the Queen’s personification of “grief” and her metaphorical construction of “grief” as a “guest” to successfully pull off such an exchange (or is substitution a better word?), she has to disfigure Richard of his literal relationship to her as a husband and refigure him metaphorically as a “guest” to appease the economy of her figuration. Its all as if to suggest that, as the Queen at least would have it, the relationships one has with those populating the material world outside of our inner selves are figurative in nature, or depend on figuration to make them make sense to how we feel (this is merely a musing of mine, not a doctrine I’m married to).

In any case, the strange quality of the Queen’s metaphorical rendering of Richard accentuates how her sorrow increasingly abstracts itself from its literal referent in a way that creates an acute tension between what is real and what is not. The Queen herself acknowledges that she has no cause for grief other than Richard’s departure, yet she “cannot but be sad” (l. 30). This confusion is, importantly, the spark for Bushy’s remarkable discourse on the “substance of a grief” (l.14). Bushy also works within the figurative economy of personification in his suggestion that “sorrow’s eyes” blind us with their tears and thus “divide one thing entire to many objects” (ll.16-17). And yet here grief is no longer personified as a guest, but as a character who takes possession of the Queen’s subjectivity. This re-figuring of her optical consciousness in turn allows him to create an elaborate simile that relates her vision of Richard’s departure, already “glazed with blinding tears,” to “perspectives,” or prismatic glasses, which, when looked upon, reveal a confused assortment of images that suggest more than is actually present, those “shapes of grief more than himself to wail” (l. 22). Bushy in effect draws our attention to the way a figurative device like personification can take over our sense of the world and from there create multiple new images of the world that shroud over our fundamental sense of what is real and what is figuratively generated.

Yet, even Bushy seems not to be exempt from the powerfully confusing influence figuration can have over how one views the world. While Bushy feels confident in his claim that the Queen’s grief is “nothing but conceit” (l. 33), the reasoning of his “perspectives” simile is rather contorted and confusing. He claims that when “perspectives” are “rightly gazed upon” (i.e. looked on from directly in front according to our editor) they “show nothing but confusion,” and that it is when they are “eyed awry” (or looked at obliquely) that they “distinguish” their true “form” (ll. 18-20). Yet, he attributes the Queen’s unfounded grief to her “looking awry upon your lord’s departure,” thus finding “shapes of grief more than himself” (ll. 21-22). His logic thus seems to get lost within his own elaborate figurative construction since the Queen’s looking “awry” in the theory of prisms he sets forth should distinguish true and concrete reasons for grief, not the more vacant manifestations of it that she stands accused of. In total, Bushy is successful in establishing the vexed relation between figurative and real, but in doing so perhaps becomes a victim of that unstable boundary. Bushy’s confused simile, this is to suggest, stands as an example of the way figuration multiples itself as it gets engaged with; what begins as Bushy adopting the Queen’s own figurative trope of personification ends in Bushy ironically getting just as lost in the Queen’s grief as she is herself.

From this notion of figurative language and reasoning multiplying itself, I hope that we can also discuss tropes of the womb, pregnancy, and parentage, which pilfer this passage. These are tropes with their own figurative relation to the idea of a mood generating and re-generating itself, but of course are also highly gendered. The scene, as I have curated it, concludes with the Queen rebuffing Bushy’s assertion that her grief is “nothing but conceit.” It is, she says, “nothing less,” for “conceit is still derived from some forefather grief” (ll. 34-35). This is a great metapoetic moment in the play, which is full of conceit, and I am struck by the Queen’s familial structuring of how conceit works: it must descend from some literal referent, some “forefather,” in order to have “begot” the definite grief she feels, which in turn begets more abstract senses of grief in her. Then, to track back to the passage’s beginning, the Queen senses some “unborn sorrow, ripe in Fortune’s womb.” Here, she of course foreshadows Richard’s fall, but also interestingly incorporates her use of personification into the cycle of figurative parentage and re-generation that she espouses at the passages end. And, as one of the few female characters in the play, that her use of figuration should be so bound up with a maternal sensibility as well as establishing the plot to come generates a lot of interesting questions about how Shakespeare incorporates gender into the figurative economy of the play and the way in which the birth and re-birth of certain figurative tropes play with the bounds of literal and real so prevalent in this passage.

I hope this can get us started with this passage, see you all tomorrow!


[1] I cannot help but peripherally note the strange way in which we—or a least I do—often fall back on figurative language to describe figuration itself in expository writing. Such a phenomenon seems to double down on the way figurative language proliferates, or expands, outward as does the Queen’s grief in this passage.