I am reading Hamlet; Act 2 Scene 2 contains the following exchange:

Hamlet: O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a
king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

Guildenstern: Which dreams, indeed, are ambition; for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.

What is the meaning of

Which dreams, indeed, are ambition

What does the "which" refer to? The previous dreams? I understand it means "dreams are a sign of ambition". How does this follow grammatically?

  • Explain further if possible. What is a relative adjective? – apkg Jun 9 at 14:46
  • so its: "those bad dreams, indeed, are ambition" – apkg Jun 9 at 20:21
  • I’ve downvoted because it appears that the question is asking about basic English grammar. It might be more suitable for the English Language Learners Stack Exchange. – Kevin Troy Jun 11 at 3:09
  • Its only about grammar once you remove any ambiguity coming from Shakespeare's poetic intentions. It could be a raw grammar question, but it could be "what does Shakespeare mean here". So not best for a grammar page, particularly given it is not clear to the OP that this is just about grammar. – apkg Jun 11 at 15:02

In this specific context, "which" is a relative adjective that refers back to the dreams Hamlet spoke of. Merriam-Webster gives the following example (emphasis mine):

Our next meeting will be on Monday, at which time a new chairman will be elected.

Below is another example from Linguapress (emphasis mine):

He reached the village, at which point he stopped for a drink.

So it is as if Guildenstern completes Hamlet's last sentence: "I have bad dreams, which dreams, indeed, are ambition; (...)". Just a moment earlier, Rosencrantz had said that it was Hamlet's "ambition" that made him regard Denmark as a prison.

Note that "ambition" did not necessarily have the positive connotations that the word has today, as can be seen from the examples at Why is Macbeth's “vaulting ambition” so important and famous?.

  • The thing is, both these examples use the more common "at which time" or "at which point". That has a totally clear meaning. If I said "our meeting will be next Monday, which time a new chairman will be elected", I think it would become confusing and unclear, particularly if the second part of the sentence was said by someone else, and it was referring to a dream. Perhaps it is fine to omit the "at"? – apkg Jun 12 at 0:49

Here is Merriam-Webster on this use of which

used as a function word to introduce a nonrestrictive relative clause and to modify a noun in that clause and to refer together with that noun to a word or word group in a preceding clause or to an entire preceding clause or sentence or longer unit of discourse

[In German, which language might … have been the medium of transmission.]

— Thomas Pyles

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