The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?

Is there a veracious etymological basis for the interpretation offered on Bardweb.net defining patient as

bearing evils with calmness and fortitude,

while remaining constant with its status as a noun, or in the case of rendering it as an adjective, that doesn't personify the noun 'merit', or being that 'merit' here is used as a verb, that doesn't render our minds awry at such nonsense?

Our modern ears would be more accustomed to hearing 'patience', up to a certain point, but still one would have to ask ourselves what is he talking about? (In the context as a whole.)

The insolence of office here can have several meanings. Is he talking about the monarch? as would be in the case if one were to say something about "the wickedness of the incumbent in office" or is he talking about the 'task at hand'. And even that (task at hand) can be ambiguous. Is he talking about

  1. Committing suicide
  2. Regicide
  3. The King's own suicide

This last of course relies on the interpretation that 'office' is referring to the king, or the one who holds his title.

Some may ask why would he be contemplating whether or not the King might commit suicide. In the beginning of the soliloquy he is contemplating being nothing, a worthless SOB, and contrasting it with making a name for himself. One theory is that the second half of the soliloquy, he is not necessarily contemplating his own thoughts and actions, but generally those that all people would face when contemplating suicide. This is evidenced by his use of the second person in "When he himself".

Many have argued that "To be or not to be" is best thus rendered "to exist or not to exist", and by continuation to live or to die, but I argue that it is not the only interpretation. When Hamlet ponders the king committing suicide, it is not merely a hope or a prayer, or any other form of diversion, but chiefly a call to action, that, in the unlikely event that the king does make amends for his sins, (as all men do in fact have a conscience) and kill himself (which he won't because he's a coward like us all) who else but Hamlet himself would amend the wrongs done?

All these possibilities to me seem plausible, but paradoxically not really possible because all seem to me to lead to a grammatical inconsistency.

  • 3
    ". . . make amends for his sins . . . and kill himself" doesn't make much sense, seeing as suicide is a mortal sin.
    – user14111
    Nov 24, 2019 at 2:47

1 Answer 1


The lines have the following meaning:

The overbearing / pride of those who hold an official position, and the insults
that the deserving have to patiently endure from the unworthy,
when they themselves could be released from the troubles of life (literally, to be released from debt)
with merely a dagger.

In the above paraphrase, "those who hold an official position" is much broader than just the king.

"Patient" is interpreted as an adjective; in Shakespeare's day, the adjective could mean "calm, serene" or "restrained and impassive" (e.g. in "Why art thou patient, man?" in 3 Henry IV, Act I, scene 4). Patience existed as a noun; according to David Crystal's glossary, it meant "endurance, fortitude, composure". There is no reason to assume that "patient" is a noun here (merit as a patient?).

Based on the above, "patient merit" can also be paraphrased as "those who have merit and are calm", i.e. referring to people by some of their characteristics. Bardweb's interpretation of "patient" as "bearing evils with calmness and fortitude" sounds over the top, since "spurns" does not mean "evils" but "scornful rejection".

The theory that Claudius might be contemplating suicide or that Hamlet thinks the King is contemplating suicide sounds far-fetched and needs much more support from the play's text than is provided in the question.

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