“The Tragedy of Hamlet” is one of those plays that hovers around a thousand on the quotability meter. “To be, or not to be” and the ensuing inner debate on suicide is one of the earliest and most important moments of existentialism in Western literature. Hamlet’s soliloquy is so good, in fact, that sometimes one forgets how brilliant the rest of the play is.
In fact, Prince Hamlet is arguably at his best when he’s in the room with other people. Never has the description “crazy smart” been more applicable; pretending to have lost his mind, Hamlet manages to squeeze in serious accusations and veiled threats amidst his ramblings, which the court stupidly assumes are meaningless. Take, for example, the scene where he reminds Claudius that worms democratically eat beggars and kings alike:
Hamlet: “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”
King Claudius: “What dost thou mean by this?”
Hamlet: “Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.”
There’s crazy, and then there’s threatening-the-leader-of-your-country-with-indirect-cannibalism crazy.
Another highlight is when Hamlet infamously barks at his poor ex-girlfriend, “Get thee to a nunnery.” What really irks people on either side of the Did They / Didn’t They debate is that since nunnery was slang for brothel when Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet,” the young prince is either calling Ophelia an ice queen or a whore. So much for putting that one to bed. Er, rest.
And then there’s “to thine own self be true,” of course, which is probably the most feel-good of the Hamlet quotes. What we forget, however, is that this line is not only spoken by Polonius, the play’s least intelligent character, but also followed by the lines, “And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man” – which is laughable, considering that Polonius is also one of the play’s most deceptive characters. There goes that affirmation.
If you’re looking for quotes a little more on the uplifting side, look no farther than Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, whose courtroom speech alone has a reputation for inspiring young idealists to study law. Atticus famously declares, “I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system—that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality.” Right before getting his ass handed to him, of course, but you get the idea.
Actually, the fact that Atticus never stood a chance is precisely what makes him so awesome; according to his philosophy, courage is “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” No wonder Scout thinks her dad is “the bravest man who ever lived.”
Scout is another great source of To Kill a Mockingbird quotes. Her level-headedness allows her to spout off some true gems of 8-year old wisdom, like this criticism of school: “I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.” Good on ya’, Harper Lee, for making those years just a little bit brighter.