Read Shakespeare’s ‘O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven’ soliloquy from Hamlet below with modern English translation and analysis, plus a video performance.
‘O, My Offence Is Rank It Smells To Heaven’, Spoken by Claudius, Act 3 Scene 3
O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what’s in prayer but this two-fold force,
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardon’d being down? Then I’ll look up;
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but ’tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell’d,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? what rests?
Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!
Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!
All may be well.
‘O, My Offence Is Rank It Smells To Heaven’ Soliloquy Translation
His offence was rank, it smelt to heaven. It had the most primal ancient curse on it. A brother’s murder! He tried to kneel but couldn’t. He couldn’t pray, even though his need to was as powerful as it could be. His guilt outweighed his strong desire. He didn’t know where to begin as there were two main considerations: his crime against a human being and his sin against God. And so he could only stand there doing nothing. What if this cursed hand of his were thicker than itself with brother’s blood; wasn’t there enough rain in the sweet heavens to wash it white as snow? What was mercy for if not to help him fight the effects of his crime? And what was prayer for if not to prevent his fall before it happened? Or if it did happen, to pardon him when it did? Then he would be able to look up because his sin would be behind him. He prepared to kneel but still, what kind of prayer would help him? ‘Forgive me my foul murder?’ That was no good because he still possessed those things that he had done the murder for: his crown, his ambition, and his queen. Could one be pardoned for a sin and still keep the benefits of it? In the corrupt ways of the world one could shove justice aside and the power and wealth one achieved by one’s crimes could be used to bribe the dispensers of law. But that wasn’t the case in heaven. There’s no crooked dealing there. Our actions’ true nature is laid bare before God and we ourselves are forced to give full and true evidence. What should he do then? What could he do? Only try what repentance he could. It couldn’t do any harm. But it wouldn’t help if one simply couldn’t repent. Oh wretched condition! Oh heart as black as death! Oh soul trapped in sticky lime, that struggling to free itself, was becoming even more entangled! Help angels! Make him do it! Make his stubborn knees bow, and make the steel strings of his heart as soft as the sinews of a newborn baby! It may work. He knelt slowly in front of the altar, bowed his head and clasped his hands together.