After Hamlet returns from speaking with the Ghost, he initially resists questioning about it, then suggests he will reveal what it said if the others can keep a secret,

How say you then? Would heart of man once think it? But you'll be secret?
(Hamlet Act 1 Scene 5)

What does this mean? I have read that one can translate it as "can you keep a secret, Horatio/Marcellus?"

But what is meant by "heart of man"? To "once think it" is meant to refer to what the ghost has said, but why is this relevant to the "heart of man"?

1 Answer 1


"Once" here means "ever", so Hamlet is asking, "Would the heart of man ever think it or imagine it / this?"

The phrase "the heart of man" may refer to a conception of the heart as "the seat of intelligence, motion, and sensation", which goes back to Aristotle [1]. (Aristotle also held that "the heart as being the hottest of all the bodily parts, is the counterpoise of the brain." [2]) Based on this theory of anatomy, Hamlet's question means, "Would man's intelligence ever think it / this?"

However, Galen's theory of physiology was also very influential. According to Galenist medicine, "[r]eason is located in the brain, emotion (particularly anger) in the heart, and desire in the liver" [3]. With this in mind, one may paraphrase Hamlet's question as asking how his emotions would deal with this. His anger about what the ghost has revealed is very clear, for example in lines such as "O villain, villain, smiling damnèd villain!" earlier in the same scene.

[1] Paula Findlen: A History of the Heart (History Department, Stanford University)

[2] Aristotle: On Sense and the Sensible, translated by John Isaac Beare.

[3] Amy M. Schmitter: Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance Theories of the Emotions. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010.

  • So why the “but you’ll be secret”? Is Hamlet referring to the thought of the heart as like telling a secret? So the heart speaks “but” Horacio/Marcellus will be silent?
    – apg
    Jan 19, 2021 at 21:44
  • "But you'll be secret?" is addressed to Marcellus and Horatio, urging them to keep secret what Hamlet will tell them (i.e. what he heard from the ghost).
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 19, 2021 at 21:47
  • So why does this relate to “heart of man” thinking something?
    – apg
    Jan 19, 2021 at 21:47
  • 1
    Hamlet is still wavering between telling them and keeping it secret. This is why he also says (a few lines down), "There's ne'er a villain dwelling in all Denmark / But he's an arrant knave": when he adds "But he's an arrant knave" he pulls back from the revelation that he started to make in the preceding line. The line about the "heart of man" is an expression of how shocked he still is by the ghost's revelations.
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 19, 2021 at 21:52

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