Early Modern English Texts: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, from the First Folio of 1623.


 [Enter Hamlet, and two or three of the Players.]


Ham.:  Speake the Speech I pray you, as I pronounc’d [1]

it to you trippingly on the Tongue: But if you mouth it,

as many of your Players do, I had as liue [2] the Town-Cryer

had spoke my Lines: Nor do not saw the Ayre too much

your hand thus, but vse [3] all gently; for in the verie Tor-rent,

Tempest, and (as I say) the Whirle-winde of

Passion, you must acquire and beget a Temperance that

may giue [4] it Smoothnesse. O it offends mee to the Soule,

to see a robustious Pery-wig-pated Fellow, teare a Passi-on

to tatters, to verie ragges, to split the eares of the

Groundlings: who (for the most part) are capeable of

nothing, but inexplicable dumbe shewes, [5] & [6] noise: I could

haue such a Fellow whipt for o’re-doing [7] Termagant: [8] it

out-Herod’s Herod. [9] Pray you [10] auoid it.


Player: I warrant [11] your Honor.  


Ham.: Be not too tame neyther: [12] but let your owne

Discretion be your Tutor. Sute [13] the Action to the Word,

the Word to the Action, with this speciall obseruance:

That you ore-stop [14] not the modestie of Nature; for any

thing so ouer-done, [15] is fro[m] [16] the purpose of Playing, whose

end both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twer [17]

the Mirrour vp to Nature; [18] to shew Vertue her owne

Feature, Scorne her owne Image, and the verie Age and

Bodie of the Time, his [19] forme and pressure. Now, this

ouer-done, or come tardie off, [20] though it make the vnskil-full [21]

laugh, cannot but make the Iudicious [22] greeue; The

censure of the which One, must in your allowance o’re-way [23]

a whole Theater of Others. Oh, there bee Players

that I haue seene Play, and heard others praise, and that

highly (not to speake it prophanely) that neyther hauing

the accent of Christians, nor the gate of Christian, Pagan,

or Norman, [24] haue so strutted and bellowed, that I haue

thought some of Natures [25] Iouerney-men [26] had made men,

and not made them well, they imitated Humanity so ab-hominably. [27]


Play.: I hope we haue reform’d that indifferently [28] with

vs, Sir.


Ham.: O reforme it altogether. And let those that

play your Clownes, speake no more then [29] is set downe for

them. [30] For there be of them, that will themselues laugh,

to set on some quantitie of barren [31] Spectators to laugh

too, though in the meane time, some necessary Question

of the Play be then to be considered: that’s Villanous, &

shewes a most pittifull Ambition in the Foole that vses

it. Go make you readie. [Exit Players.]


[1] pronounc’d: why abbreviate here? probably to indicate not that a letter has been left out so much as to indicate that the –ed is not to be pronounced as a separate syllable.

[2] liue: ‘I’d rather,’ from the same root as love. What’s the town-crier, and why the comparison?

[3] vse: the letters u and v are interchangeable, though there is a clear distinction between the vowel and the consonant. Note: uu, or as it is later written, vv, is called “double u,” – it is used because the printing fonts imported from Europe did not have a symbol for Old and Middle English wynn, the rune used to represent that sound. Later the w is cast as a single letter.

[4] here u is used for the consonantal sound

[5] dumb shewes: pantomimes; note the common EmnE spelling of shew.

[6] & :  abbreviations were used in manuscript and carried over into printed texts. We no longer use them in formal writing.

[7] o’re-doing, ‘over-doing.’ We use other sorts of abbreviations in MnE writing, for example don’t, can’t, and it’s, but a word like o’er has an archaic ring to it today. Elsewhere in this speech we find several variants of the same word, over.

[8] Medieval Christians thought that Muslims worshipped the evil god Termagant, who was represented in mystery plays as violent and overbearing.

[9] Herod, king of Roman Judea, was represented in medieval plays as a wooden, ranting character. To out-Herod Herod is to overact; Shakespeare’s line has become an idiom in MnE. What does this tell us about the impact of literature on language?

[10] Pray you: The subject, I, is omitted in the imperative: “I pray you, I ask you . . .”

[11] warrant: ‘promise, guarantee’ Warrant is the Norman word; garrantie is the Parisian French version of the same word. English also borrowed the Norman ward alongside the Parisian guard, and the Norman wasp (the Parisian French term for the insect is guepe).

[12] not … neither: note the double negative – it doesn’t equal a positive.

[13] sute: the spelling makes it clear that the vowel is one that rhymes with boot, not jute.

[14] ore-stop: overstop; over is abbreviated but there is no apostrophe

[15] ouer-done: here over is not abbreviated

[16] fro: from, as in to and fro

[17] as ’twere: ’as it were’ – It’s common in EMnE to abbreviate ’twas, ’tis, ’tweren’t, but we don’t do’t any longer.

[18] to hold the mirror up to nature: the common stricture that Art imitates Nature

[19] his: probably the masculine pronoun, rather than the neuter possessive, since Vertue is personified just before as female, and Time is typically depicted as masculine.

[20] come tardie off: while tardy means slow or late, this is an idiom meaning to be done inadequately – compare the MnE expression ‘A day late and a dollar short.’

[21] vnskillful: foolish, ignorant

[22] iudicious: note i/j variation, similar to u/v; judicious is opposed to unskilful.

[23] o’reway: overweigh

[24] why Norman? is this a dig at the French? most likely, a reference to the Norman, or Northmen, soldiers as portrayed in medieval drama.

[25] Natures: there is no apostrophe indicating possessive or genitive case

[26] Iouerney-men: journeymen; the i/j again

[27] abhominably: offensively, but also a pun: to imitate humans inhumanly

[28] indifferently: to some degree, since Hamlet then advises them to reform all the way.

[29] then: ‘than’

[30] in other words, “Don’t ad lib.”

[31] barren: dull, unresponsive. Hamlet advises the players not to try to get a laugh from an unresponsive audience if that will interfere with some more important action in the play.