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Hamlet: Vocabulary/Glossary of Terms

Hamlet: Vocabulary/Glossary of Terms

Since Hamlet was written, many words in English have changed their meaning, and some are no longer used. If you remember the slang you used a few years ago, it seems dated. Who now uses the word “groovy”? Shakespeare used the rich vocabulary of his day within his plays. Below you will find just a sample of words we don’t often see today and an example of how it might be used today.


adoption tried: friendship that has stood the test of time.

“Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried…” Polonius 1.3.63

You have friends who have proven themselves faithful.


apoplex'd: paralyzed

“But sure, that sense is apoplex'd; for madness would not err.” Hamlet 3.4.75

Surely your senses are paralyzed, otherwise you would behave this way.


arras a tapestry wall hanging.

“Be you and I behind an arras then…” Polonius 2.2.155

We will hide behind this tapestry to spy.


bodkin a dagger or stiletto.

“When he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?” Hamlet 3.1.78

He could just as easily take out his knife and end it all.


candied sugared/sweet.

“No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp, and crook the pregnant hinges of the knee where thrift may follow fawning.” Hamlet 3.2.54

No, give sweet flattery to those who can pay well for it.


cozenage treachery.

“And with such cozenage--is't not perfect conscience, to quit him with this arm?” Hamlet 5.2.72

And because he’s so treacherous would it not be moral to kill him now with this sword.


distemper mental disturbance.

“Good my lord, what is your cause of distemper?” Rosencrantz 3.2.302

What’s making you so upset?


fain wish.

“I have a speech of fire, that fain would blaze, but that this folly doubts it.” Laertes 4.7.187

I have some fiery words to say, and I wish I could say them, but my tears are drowning them out.


fishmonger a dealer in fish, or someone who sells women.

“Yet he knew me not at first; he said I was a fishmonger.” Polonius 2.2.80

He didn’t recognize me at first, he called me a fish seller.


gib tomcat.

“Would from a paddock, from a bat, a gib, such dear concernings hide?” Hamlet 3.4.194

Why would you hide such things from a toad, a pig, a cat, a monster like him?


harbingers persons or things that come before to announce of what is coming

“As harbingers preceding still the fates and prologue to the omen coming on…” Horatio 1.1.122

We’ve had similar omens of terrible things to come.


mountebank quack doctor.

“I bought an unction of a mountebank…” Laertes 4.7.138

I bought this poisonous oil from a quack doctor


scullion a servant doing the rough, dirty work in a kitchen.

“Unpack my heart with words, and fall a-cursing, like a very drab, a scullion!” Hamlet 2.2.548

I want to act upon the anger in my heart, but all I can do is stand around cursing like a common kitchen wretch.


tenures titles to property.

“Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?” Hamlet 5.1.90

Where is his eloquent speech, his important legal cases, his titles and his courtroom tricks?


to the manner born accustomed to it since a child.

But to my mind, though I am native here and to the manner born, it is a custom more honour'd in the breach than the observance.” Hamlet 1.4.16

Even though I was born here and am used to the tradition, I think I’d rather not celebrate it.


unfold yourself to make known or lay open to view.

“Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.” Francisco 1.1.2

No, answer me. Show yourself.