Read Shakespeare’s ‘O, What A Rogue And Peasant Slave Am I’ soliloquy from Hamlet below with modern English translation and analysis, plus a video performance.
‘O, What A Rogue And Peasant Slave Am I’, Spoken by Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing; no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn’d defeat was made. Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i’ the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?
‘Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave’s offal: bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
Fie upon’t! foh! About, my brain! I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim’d their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I’ll observe his looks;
I’ll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the 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: I’ll have grounds
More relative than this: the play ‘s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.
‘O, What A Rogue And Peasant Slave Am I’ Soliloquy Translation
What a deceitful fellow – a rogue, a peasant slave – he was! It was monstrous that this actor had only to imagine grief for his face to go pale and his eyes tostream. In a fiction! A made-up script of passion! He was able to effect a broken voice, a desperation in his body language, and everything he felt necessary to the situation he was imagining. And it was all for nothing! For Hecuba, dead for a thousand years! What was Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her? What would that actor do if he had the motive and the reason for grief that he had? He would flood the stage with tears and split the ears of the audience with the language he would find, terrifying the innocent and making the guilty mad. He would bewilder the ignorant and amaze the eyes and ears of all.
He stood up and paced. He was the opposite of the actor: he was a rascal, the mettle of whose character had become tarnished and dull. He was shrinking away from his duty like a John-o-dreams, slow to translate his purpose into action, unable to say a word, no, not even on behalf of a king who had been robbed of his property and most precious life. Was he a coward? The victim of bullies? Would he let them call him names, strike him on his head, pull his beard out and throw it in his face, assassinate his character? Ha! God, yes, he would just take it because it was impossible that he could be anything but pigeon-livered , lacking the gall to summon up enough bitterness to do anything about his father’s murder. Otherwise he would have fed this slave’s intestines to the local kites. The villain! Bloody, filthy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, cruel villain! Oh vengeance! His heart was beating fast and he was almost breathless from the thoughts that were plaguing him. He sat down again. What an ass he was! What a brave man! That he, the son of a beloved father who had been murdered, with every reason between heaven and hell to act, should unburden his heart with words and descend to cursing, like a whore – a servant. Curse it!
He sat for a moment and an idea that had occurred to him while talking to the actors began to take shape. He had to concentrate on it now. Hmmm. He had heard about guilty people who, while watching a play, had been so affected by the contents of the scene, that they had confessed to their crimes, because murder will always find a way to proclaim itself, even though it has no voice of its own.
The idea crystallized. He would get the players to perform something like the murder of his father in front of his uncle. He would watch his uncle’s reactions. He would probe his very thoughts. If his uncle so much as flinched he would know what to do. The ghost may have been the devil for all he knew, and the devil had the power to take on a pleasing shape. Yes, and perhaps the devil was taking advantage of his weakness and his grief to damn him. He was therefore going to get proof. The play was the thing in which he would catch the conscience of the king.