In the Lobby, sailors give Horatio letters from Hamlet. Horatio reads the letter to himself, and then exits with the sailors to arrange delivery of Hamlet's other letters, to Gertrude and Claudius, and then go to where Hamlet is.
Jump down to the Notes.
Scene 17 [ ~ Thieves of Mercy ~ ] (Act 4 Scene 6)
#17-Setting: Inside the Castle; The Lobby; Simultaneous with Scene 16.
#17-000-SD (Horatio and the Gentleman enter; townsmen followers of Laertes are present)
#17-001 Horatio: What are they that would speak with me? Horatio: What are they, who wish to speak to me? #17-002 Gentleman: Seafaring men, sir; they say they have letters for you. They're seafaring men, sir, and they say they have letters for you. #17-003 Horatio: Let them come in. Let them come in. #17-004 I do not know from what part of the world I don't know from where in the world #17-005 I should be greeted, if not from Lord Hamlet. I'd get a letter, except from Lord Hamlet. #17-005-SD (the Gentleman exits as two Sailors enter) #17-006 1st Sailor: God bless you, sir. God bless you, sir. #17-007 Horatio: Let him bless thee, too. May He bless you, too. #17-008 2nd Sailor: He shall, sir, and it please him; there's a letter for you sir; it came He will, sir, if it pleases Him. Here's a letter for you, sir. It came #17-009 from the Ambassador that was bound for England, if your name be from the ambassador who was bound for England - if your name is #17-010 Horatio, as I am let to know it is. Horatio, as I'm led to believe it is. #17-011 Horatio (reads the letter, aside): Horatio, Dear Horatio, #17-012 when thou shalt have over-looked this, give these After you have read this letter, provide these #17-013 fellows some means to the King; they have letters for him. fellows some way to see the King. They have letters for him. #17-014 Ere we Before we #17-015 were two days old at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment had been at sea for two days, a pirate ship very well equipped for battle #17-016 gave us chase; finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compelled pursued us. Finding our ship was too slow, we were forced to fight #17-017 valor, and in the grapple I boarded them; on the instant, they got bravely, and, with the ships grappled together, I boarded them, but at that moment, the #17-018 clear of our ship, so I alone became their prisoner; they have dealt ships separated, so that I, alone, became their prisoner. They've treated #17-019 with me like thieves of mercy, but they knew what they did; I am to me mercifully, but they knew they had a high-ranking person as hostage. I have to #17-020 do a turn for them; do a favor for them. #17-021 let the King have the letters I have sent, and Let the King have the letters I've sent with this one, and #17-022 repair thou to me with as much speed as thou wouldest fly death; then come to me with as much speed as you'd flee from death itself. #17-023 I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb, yet are I have words to confide to you that will leave you speechless, even though #17-024 they much too light for the bord of the matter; my words are much too weak to make the matter really sink in. #17-025 these good fellows These good fellows, #17-026 will bring thee where I am; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hold their will lead you to where I am. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are still #17-027 course for England, of them I have much to tell thee; farewell. sailing for England, and I have much to tell you about them. Farewell, #17-028 So that thou knowest thine, Hamlet. So that you'll know it's your friend, Hamlet. #17-029 Horatio: Come, I will give you way for these your letters, Come, I will make way for you, because of these letters of yours, #17-030 And do it the speedier, that you may direct me And I'll do it quickly, so that you can lead me at once #17-031 To him from whom you brought them. To the man from whom you brought them. #17-031-SD (Horatio and the seafaring men exit)
End of Scene 17
#17-Daily Break In the performances of Hamlet by Shakespeare's company at the Globe Theater, this point was the end of the second day of performance.
Go to: Scene 1 - Scene 2 - Scene 3 - Scene 4 - Scene 5 - Scene 6 - Scene 7 - Scene 8 - Scene 9 - Scene 10
Scene 11 - Scene 12 - Scene 13 - Scene 14 - Scene 15 - Scene 16 - Scene 17 - Scene 18 - Scene 19 - Scene 20
Jump up to the start of the Dialogue.
- Place - The Lobby.
- Time of Day - Simultaneous with Scene 16!
- Calendar Time -
(Horatio and the Gentleman enter; townsmen followers of Laertes are present)
The townsmen who are present are those Laertes asked to remain outside, in Scene 16, and to keep the door, while he spoke to Claudius, (Scene 16#110 ff,) plus any of the common rabble who got this far.
Horatio: What are they that would speak with me?
Horatio finds it curious that someone would not simply approach him, here in the Lobby, to speak to him. Why use the Gentleman, or anyone, as a middle man? The pirates are being extremely cautious. Being inside the Castle, with all its soldiers and guards, makes them nervous.
Gentleman: Seafaring men, sir; they say they have letters for you.
Seafaring men - The Gentleman is judging them by their appearance. From their garb, he can tell they're sailors.
Horatio: Let them come in.
I do not know from what part of the world
what part of the world - where in the world. Horatio is surprised by this.
I should be greeted, if not from Lord Hamlet.
(I do not know ...) if not from Lord Hamlet - this should not be read to conclude that Horatio has no friends or family who would write to him. It's a matter of where he is. Everyone who would normally write to Horatio will think he's back in Wittenberg by now, and will be sending any letters for him there. The only one who might write to him here, knowing he's still at Elsinore, would be Hamlet.
1st Sailor: God bless you, sir.
Horatio: Let him bless thee, too.
2nd Sailor: He shall, sir, and it please him; there's a letter for you sir; it came
and it - if it. The Elizabethans sometimes used and where we now use "if."
from the Ambassador that was bound for England, if your name be
Ambassador - informs us that the pirates did not discover Hamlet is the Prince.
Horatio, as I am let to know it is.
Horatio (reads the letter, aside): Horatio,
The reading of the letter is not necessarily aside. The pirates know what the letter says. They reviewed it before permitting it to be delivered. It does not matter if the pirates hear him read it.
However, Horatio does not usually read to himself out loud, we can safely take it. Here, in concept, he is reading the letter for himself. By that, the reading is probably best done as an aside.
when thou shalt have over-looked this, give these
fellows some means to the King; they have letters for him.
Ere we (were two days old at sea) - Permits an estimate of the passage of time until Hamlet returns.
We're expressly told the attack happens less than two days out, that is, on the second day of the voyage. The pirates must have continued to follow the Danish ship for some time, to conclude that it was still on course for England, as Hamlet will go on to state. Say, a day for that, anyway. It will then take three days to place Hamlet back within walking distance of Elsinore. Toss one more day into the mix, for this or that, and it takes a week until we see Hamlet on stage again.
(About Laertes going to Paris, and returning, we do not worry about how long that takes. Hamlet is the star, so we "calendar" by him. We "time" Laertes by Hamlet, not vice versa. We do not make Hamlet, our star, wait for Laertes. In Scene 20, when speaking to Ostrick, Hamlet will mention Laertes's "quick sail," which is partly tongue-in-cheek from Shakespeare about how quickly he sent Laertes to Paris and brought him back. Line 20-116, "quick sail.")
were two days old at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment
two days old - Hamlet expresses it in a way that reveals he felt reborn when he sailed away from Denmark.
In Scene 18 Claudius will receive a letter from Hamlet, in which Hamlet writes, "I am set naked on your kingdom." Once again, that is a "baby" idea. Scene 18#047
In "Le Morte D'Arthur" by Sir Thomas Malory there is an incident where King Arthur sent his nephew Mordred away in a ship, when Mordred was a baby, intending that Mordred should die, but Mordred did return. Hamlet's "baby" language, in connection with his sea voyage in Hamlet, is reminiscent of that event in the King Arthur Legend. I do not think it's an accidental coincidence from Shakespeare. I think it's an intentional literary allusion, for conceptual purposes, to provide an "omen." The return of Mordred is ominous for Arthur's fate, since Merlin had foretold that one who was born on Mordred's birthday, May 1, would kill Arthur. By analogy, Hamlet's return is ominous for Claudius.
We are to put ourselves in the place of those who are hearing Hamlet for the first time, and who do not yet know the ending, but we do know the legend of Arthur. If we notice the "baby returns" concept, we can feel how ominous this is for Claudius, (albeit we should guess that anyway, but our knowledge of the Arthur incident is confirmation.)
Hamlet and the legend of Arthur have some story elements and some concepts in common, (and some dramatic differences, clearly.) See the Extended Note for the relevant "baby" excerpt from "Le Morte D'Arthur."
gave us chase; finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compelled
compelled (valor) - Those on the Danish ship were left with no choice except to be brave enough to fight. Hamlet is being modest, downplaying his bravery, since as he goes on to describe, he was very bold.
valor, and in the grapple I boarded them; on the instant, they got
in the grapple - while the ships were grappled together. When the pirates got close enough, they threw grappling hooks across, to pull the ships close, and board the Danish vessel.
I boarded them - The pirates were probably quite surprised that, as they were preparing to board the Danish ship, some crazy Danish fool brandishing a sword, jumped onto their ship!
on the instant - at that moment.
clear of our ship, so I alone became their prisoner; they have dealt
(they got) clear of our ship - It was probably actually the other way around. The Danish ship got clear of the pirate ship. That is, unless Hamlet means by our ship whichever ship he happens to be on, i.e. the Danish ship got clear of "our" pirate ship. A deliberate ambiguity from Shakespeare would not be surprising.
The Danish sailors levered the grappling hooks loose, or just cut the ropes, and the ships separated again.
I alone - Hamlet was the only one crazy enough to jump onto the pirate ship.
with me like thieves of mercy, but they knew what they did; I am to
thieves of mercy - thieves who have stolen mercy. Hamlet means the pirates are the kind of characters who, of themselves, would not have any mercy. Therefore, for them to show mercy to him, they must have stolen some mercy from somebody else. If they hadn't stolen it, they wouldn't have any mercy to show. For plain reading, thieves of mercy can be taken as "merciful thieves."
The standard idea is "angels of mercy." Hamlet is playing off that phrase. Hamlet may view the pirates as "heaven-sent" in providing him with a prompt return to Denmark, so he can continue to try for revenge against Claudius.
they knew what they did - in fact, they did not. They wouldn't speak of Hamlet as "ambassador" if they knew he was the Prince. Hamlet managed to conceal his true status.
do a turn for them;
do a turn for them - do a favor for them. We know what the "favor" is that the pirates want. They want Hamlet to kill the King of Denmark for them. Pirates like leaderlessness, because the lack of command cripples the effectiveness of naval forces, and gives pirates better chances for piracy, without getting caught.
In the Closet Scene, Scene 11, Hamlet said, "'tis most sweet / When in one line, two crafts directly meet." (Scene 11#227) In the pirate encounter, Hamlet's craft, and the pirate's craft, have met in more ways than one. They both want the King of Denmark dead.
Hamlet had documentation to convince the pirates he'd give it a try, to kill the King of Denmark. As we'll see in Scene 20, Hamlet was carrying the order from King Claudius to have him executed. The pirates found that persuasive, that yes, Hamlet would make an attempt against Claudius. It was not a case of the pirates having to take only Hamlet's word for it.
When the pirates searched Hamlet, they found both his credentials as a Danish ambassador, and that order from Claudius. Hamlet spun some verbiage at them, to explain it, without revealing he was the Prince. Hamlet could tell them very nearly the whole truth, viz. that he was closely connected to the Danish royal court (true,) that he was in political opposition to King Claudius (true,) that the King had therefore sent him on the mission as a ruse to try to kill him (true,) and that if given the chance, he'd do his best for revenge against Claudius (true.) One can see how the pirates could be so convinced, they'd let Hamlet go, to try it.
turn - a spin of Fortune's Wheel. Meaning, give it a try, and hope for luck.
let the King have the letters I have sent, and
Hamlet has also written to Claudius and to Gertrude, as we'll be informed in Scene 18.
repair thou to me with as much speed as thou wouldest fly death;
repair - is a superbly well-chosen word. The phrase repair to means to go to a place. In that usage, repair is from Latin 'repatriare' ("return to one's country.") The same Latin is the root of "repatriate."
That is indeed what Hamlet has done, he has done the exact root meaning of repair, he has returned to his country. Shakespeare chose the absolutely perfect word to use in this context.
Hamlet, himself, is merely telling Horatio to come to him.
I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb, yet are
make thee dumb - leave you speechless.
they much too light for the bord of the matter;
bord - is the correct word in the play dialogue, exactly as spelled. It means the side of a ship. See the image from the Century Dictionary online, and notice the root bord, and what it means.
Bord is a Middle English word that means, as the dictionary shows, the side of a ship.
See Chaucer, Legend of Good Women (c. AD 1500): "Behynde the mast begynneth he to fle / And out Agayn dryueth hem ouer the bord."
Also Sir Eglamour of Artois (c. AD 1500): "To that schypp he come..The lady leynyd hur on the borde And made sygnys."
Shakespeare gave Hamlet the right word. "Board" is a very closely related word, but not quite the same, and the modern word "board" doesn't have the right meaning to do a direct substitution. When spoken in performance it makes no difference, bord / board.
too light for the bord - Hamlet is saying that the "cannonballs" of his words are too light to penetrate the side of the ship of truth (about the matter of what Claudius did,) so that the truth will "sink in" (by analogy with the way a ship "sinks in" when it goes down.) More briefly, Hamlet doesn't have strong enough words to make the truth really sink in. Hamlet's figurative speech follows perfectly from the battle with the pirates, where neither ship was sunk. Apparently for both ships, their cannons were too light to break through the opposition's bords.
these good fellows
good fellows - actually they're bad fellows, to the world in general, but they haven't hurt Hamlet, and they're now helping him. Hamlet has sense enough not to call the pirates bad fellows in a letter they're going to screen.
will bring thee where I am; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hold their
course for England, of them I have much to tell thee; farewell.
(R & G hold their) course for England - informs us of two things. The pirate ship followed the Danish ship for a while, long enough to conclude it wasn't trying to make for a nearer friendly port, but was indeed continuing on to England.
As for the reason why the pirates were able to catch the Danish ship at first, but not after the battle, we take it the Danes were lucky enough with their cannon fire, or skillful enough, to break a mast, or a yard, on the pirate ship, slowing it down. We're expressly told of the battle at sea, and of course some damage is to be expected. The pirate ship suffered more loss of sail than did the Danish ship.
The fact that R & G continue to England without Hamlet assures us they know nothing of Claudius's evil intent against Hamlet on the voyage to England. If R & G knew of that, they would not continue without Hamlet. They would know it was pointless.
So, R & G must think it is, indeed, a mission to collect the tribute England owes Denmark. Since they have Claudius's order, they believe, R & G think they can complete the mission without Hamlet. They probably suppose that when Claudius learns they followed through, even without Hamlet, and completed the mission successfully, Claudius will be even more pleased with them, and he will reward them even more highly. When they slept that night, R & G probably dreamed of wealth, glory, and acclamation. Well...
So that thou knowest thine, Hamlet.
So that thou knowest thine - "So that you'll know it's me" (is why I've written the closing like this.)
Hamlet knows Horatio may be suspicious of the letter, because of what it says, and the nature of the characters who brought it. So, Hamlet has added this line which Horatio will recognize as the kind of thing Hamlet would write. It isn't any prearranged code, Hamlet is simply relying on Horatio knowing him well. Horatio does recognize, "yeah, that's Hamlet," the letter is real.
We will hear later why Hamlet has become especially sensitive on the possibility of a letter being forged.
The pirates read the letter before allowing its delivery, of course, but they are not such literate men, able to catch nuances. They were mainly interested in whether the letter contained anything that might become legal evidence against them, such as the name of their ship. Seeing nothing like that, they okayed delivery.
Y'know, Sir Francis Drake's ship Golden Hind was originally named the Pelican, a word we saw in the previous Scene. I am not able to identify that Shakespeare intended a nod toward Francis Drake, it's only that word "pelican." It's probably nothing. Drake also captained the ship Revenge, by the way.
Horatio: Come, I will give you way for these your letters,
And do it the speedier, that you may direct me
To him from whom you brought them.
Since Hamlet didn't reveal to the pirates that he was the Prince, Horatio doesn't mention the fact.
(Horatio and the seafaring men exit)
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