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I read this in Hamlet act I scene IV:

                                What may this mean,
That thou, dead corpse, again in complete steel
Revisit'st thus the glimpses of the moon...

I'm unable to figure out what the correct interpretation semantically of the bold part would be. Some sources like this and this suggest that it means that the moon glimpses the earth, its light emanating from it to get a view of the earth (which I think shouldn't be considered a glimpse since the moon is there in the sky for at least 4-5 hrs generally, contrary to a typical "glimpse" duration). But other sources like this suggest that the person has come back to look at the moon or glimpse the moon. Which one is correct and why?

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3 Answers 3

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The sense of ‘glimpse’ that we need here is this one, cognate with ‘gleam’:

glimpse, n., 1.a. A momentary shining, a flash.

Oxford English Dictionary

With this sense in mind, we can imagine that on this cold night, when “the air bites shrewdly”, the wind blows clouds across the face of the moon, so that it shines for a moment and then is hidden again. Then, by metonymy, we can take “the glimpses of the moon” to stand for the scene which the Ghost revisits: the castle of Elsinore, or more generally, the Earth, by night.

Glimpse is lost, or nearly so, in the sense in which Shakespeare here uses it. The following passage in Harington’s Ariosto contains the word in the same sense:

Untill it was his fortune toward night
To come fast by a mountaine, in whose side
Forth of a cave he saw a glims of light.—Canto XII. St. 65

The Poet makes the scene thus more picturesque, by introducing the moon sending forth her beams on the platform, either through interstices of dark clouds floating in the heavens, or, what is more probable, through the openings among the battlements.

Joseph Hunter (1845). New Illustrations of the Life, Studies, and Writings of Shakespeare, volume II, pp. 222–223. London: J. B. Nichols.

(Contra Hunter, I prefer the “interstices of dark clouds” interpretation, since in my opinion the moon moves too slowly in the sky for fixed battlements to create ‘glimpses’.)

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    That was almost what I was looking for. But may you explain how "the glimpses of the moon" stands for "the castle of Elsinore"? How does the concept of Metonymy apply here?I'd be very obliged.
    – kelvin
    Commented Apr 20, 2020 at 9:11
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    The "glimpses of the moon" are literally the moonbeams, but by metonymy they can also be the scene illuminated by the moonbeams, that is, the castle. Metonymy is a rhetorical device whereby a thing can stand for something closely associated with it. Commented Apr 20, 2020 at 9:17
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T. J. B. Spencer's edition of Hamlet (New Penguin Shakespeare, 1980, page 236) provides the following endnote for "glimpses of the moon":

the earth illuminated by the uncertain light of the moon

G. R. Hibbard's edition (The Oxford Shakespeare, 1987, page 182) offers the following gloss:

flickering gleams of moonlight

A Shakespeare Glossary by C. T. Onions (revised by Robert D. Eagleson, Oxford University Press, 1986) defines "glimpse" as

Transient brightness, flash

I'm rather skeptical about the idea that the Elizabethans saw the moon flicker or flash. The more plausible explanation for this characterisation of the moon's light as unreliable is that it intensifies the changes during the lunar cycle. Remember Juliet's words in Act II, scene 2 in Romeo and Juliet:

O swear not by the moon, th'inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb

The ghost of Hamlet's father only appears at night, when the moon is shining, and disappears again at or before dawn. See for example Act I, scene 1, where Horatio says,

I have heard,
The cock, that is the trumpet of the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day, and at this warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
Th'extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine.

The description of the moonlight as uncertain fits with the uncertainty about the identity of the ghost: is it really the ghost of Hamlet's father or malicious spirit attempting to lead Hamlet to his doom (as Horatio suggests later in Act I, scene 4).

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Shakespeare is surely evoking the movement of the glimmering light on the armour [¨complete steel¨] of the ghost as he stalks through the night. This adds to the terrifying reality of the apparition as the dead corpse revisits the physical realities of the world as we know it - including the moonlight. Paradoxically, the ghost in its armour intensifies the horror of the night itself. The wonderful lines that follow show what a shattering experience this is to Hamlet and how it gives rise to ¨thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls¨. The fascination of the play is its invitation to us to probe what these thoughts might be and how they affect Hamlet.

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    Welcome to Literature Stack Exchange, take our tour! You say "Shakespeare is surely evoking..." but how are you sure? The rest of your answer appears to be analysis of the effects of if what you say is true. We'd prefer for you to explain why the interpretation makes sense rather than immediately taking it for granted. Also, there seems to be quite a bit of general analysis of the play; that's not what the question is asking.
    – bobble
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 20:20
  • Hi and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. How does the interpretation of "glimpses of the moon" as "the glimmering light on the armour" square with the grammatical fact that that phrase ("glimpses of the moon") is the direct object of the verb "Revisit'st"?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 9:03

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