When Does Hamlet Cast His Nighted Color Off

Here’s another one of those teeny details that I enjoy exploring.  When we first see Hamlet he’s traditionally dressed in black, in support of this exchange with his mother:


Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.


Ay, madam, it is common.


If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?


Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Maybe I’m painting this with too broad a stroke but I’ve always taken this to mean that everybody else is done with the mourning period, that only Hamlet is still wearing black, and his mother would like him to be happy again.

My question is this — does he simply wear black throughout the rest of the play and nothing is said of it again?  A reasonable period of time passes, does it not?  When he gets back from England, he’s still mourning?  Or maybe after he’s seen the ghost and has now gone into his antic disposition, he changes his clothes?  Signifying, at least to his parents, that he’s no longer obsessed with his father?

Assuming for the moment that that’s not true, and that he spends the whole play in black. How would it change his character if, at some point in the play, you put him in some other color?  Where would you do it?

Idea – right after the play within a play, where Claudius guilt is shown, and Hamlet is whooping it up with Horatio that his plan worked, maybe there’s an opportunity for him to grab a random scarf or other bit of cloth discarded by one of the players, and wrap it around himself.  Just a glimpse, while he’s talking to Horatio.  Then, when R&G and Polonius show up, he drops it again.  There’s me being a director for you. 🙂

9 thoughts on “When Does Hamlet Cast His Nighted Color Off

  1. Anonymous says:

    I thought that in the odd scene where Hamlet inspects Ophelia's face, almost like counting of chicken pox, it is mentioned that his yellow garters or tights are around his ankles. I don't have the book in front of me, but it seems I remember something about yellow garters.

  2. @ Anonymous

    You may be thinking of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, who dons the yellow to impress Olivia. There is no mention of the color of Hamlet's garters or stockings.

  3. Re: the donning of a scarf and its removal: In the heights of his *mania* over the success of the play, as a lark, he might grab something and put it on, especially since he's proud of his prowess as a playwright. But Hamlet's not concerned *at this point* in particular with what R&G think about the level of his melancholy or his madness, so the importance of hiding his feelings from them is less than negligible, I think. In fact, on their entrance he takes them to task and ultimately soundly upbraids them for their sycophancy and deception.

    That he ever entirely loses his sense of melancholy over his father's death is highly debatable. He continues to exhibit the behavior of a manic-depressive throughout, I think, driven by the constant reminder of his yet to be accomplished purpose; any possible changes in costume notwithstanding.

    'Tis not the clothes that make the man, as he so eloquently reminds us in the scene you quoted.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I'm the one who said the yellow garters. I think you're right, it is Twelfth Night. I am going to look at that scene Ophelia describes, though, because I thought she does mention something about 'garters around his ankle'. As far as never losing his melancholy, I agree. I'm no professor, just an average mom, but I agree.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thank you. I thought it mentioned Hamlet's stockings and the ankle. And thanks for the site notation; I was looking for it, but couldn't find.

    –Anon Mom

  6. I know this is off topic, but "Seems madam!"

    What's up with the exclamation point? Is he yelling at her in the edition you quote from? If so, just curious–which one is that?

  7. to Anonymous Mom,

    You're absolutely right about that.

    "…No hat upon his head, his stockings foul'd,
    Ungartred, and downe gived to his Anckle…," 2.1.80-81

  8. J – typically I grab my cut and pastes from the MIT version, since it's formatted the easiest for general purpose like this. I believe theirs comes from the Moby public domain version, but I'm unsure where Moby came from.

  9. Duane–thanks.

    Seemes, Madam? Nay, it is: I know not Seemes.

    The exclamation point–favorite crutch of the modern editor–isn't used in more judicious edits. It's totally out of place in Hamlet's conversation with his mother, and would most certainly cause a reaction from others in the scene. As self-appointed head of the Punctuation Police, 🙂 I claim grounds for the arrest of the MIT staff.

    eg. "O too too solid Flesh" soliloquy–Moby/MIT-12 (!)
    Folio-1 (!)

    Internet Shakespeare Editions are a little better about this (9)…I say a *little*. PlayShakespeare.com even better, with (6).

    I'll shut up now.

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