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In Hamlet Act III Scene IV, Hamlet says to the Ghost,

Do not look upon me,
lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects. Then what I have to do
Will want true colour; tears perchance for blood.

This is cryptic. I think Hamlet firstly means "don't look at me unless you convert my intentions into their intended actions (to avenge him - or perhaps to have the Ghost reveal himself to his mother)", but then what is meant by "then what I have to do will want true color"? It's meant to mean he will want true motivation, but why would he need motivation if the ghost has already completed his task? And tears instead of blood?

What is the intended meaning here?

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2 Answers 2

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Hamlet says that if the ghost turns its gaze on him, then he will be moved to pity, he will lose his fixed resolve (to avenge his father), and he will weep tears instead of taking bloody revenge.

In “want true colour”, the senses that we need are:

want, v. 1.a. Not to have, to be without; to be deficient in; to lack.

true, adj. 1.d. Of an object, material, or its condition: not liable to break or give way; firm; reliable; sound. Also of a colour: not liable to alter or fade; fixed. Obsolete.

colour, n. 11. General character or disposition; nature, kind.

Oxford English Dictionary.

In “convert my stern effects”, “convert” means “turn from a course of conduct, purpose, disposition, etc.” but “effects” is not so clear. In context it needs to mean the course of conduct etc. that he would be converted (turned) from, but none of the senses of “effect” seem quite right. Singer conjectured that we should read “affects” instead:

We should certainly read affects, i.e. dispositions, affections of the mind: as in that disputed passage of Othello:—‘the young affects in me defunct.’

It is remarkable that we have the same error in Measure for Measure, Act iii. Sc. i.—

‘Thou are not certain,
For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,
After the moon.’

Dr. Johnson saw the error in that play, and proposed to read affects. But the present passage has escaped observation. The ‘piteous action’ of the ghost could not alter things already effected, but might move Hamlet to a less stern mood of mind.

Samuel Weller Singer, ed. (1836). The Dramatic Works and Poems of William Shakespeare, volume 1, p. 496. New York: George Dearborn.

The OED notes that “effect” was a spelling of “affect” in the 1600s, so we don’t have to suppose an error or misprint here, just an uncommon spelling.

Under this interpretation, “stern effects” and “true colour” have similar meanings: “stern” and “true” both mean “fixed, resolute” and “effect” and “colour” both mean “disposition”. This repetition of a idea in different words is a technique that Shakespeare often uses, especially when (as here) he has given the idea a difficult expression.

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The meaning is as follows:

Do not look upon me,
So that this piteous action [i.e. the Ghost's sympathy by Gertrude's bewilderment] does not transform
My serious intentions, then what I have to do
Will lack its true colour / character; [there may be] tears perhaps instead of blood.

In Shakespeare, "want" often means "to be without, lack" (Onions).

One of the meanings of "colour" in Shakespeare's English is "appearance, semblance" (C. T. Onions: A Shakespeare Glossary), and tears are colourless whereas blood isn't. Another meaning of "colour" is "pretext, pretence" (Onions) or "motive" (Spencer). The pity aroused by the Ghost might blunt Hamlet's revenge.

References:

  • Shakespeare: Hamlet. Edited by T. J. B. Spencer. The Penguin Shakespeare. Penguin, 1980.
  • Shakespeare: Hamlet. Edited by Bernard Lott. New Swan Shakespeare Advanced Series. Longman, 1968.
  • C. T. Onions: A Shakespeare Glossary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911.
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  • Could you include page numbers? This would help when following your references. For example, Spencer's "quibble on colour meaning motive" is on page 300. Jan 31, 2023 at 11:53
  • @GarethRees The page numbers work as long as you use the same edition. I think the Penguin Shakespeare reprints from the last 10-15 years often print notes on pages facing the text, whereas the editions I have all have them at the back (like the one on Archive.org).
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 31, 2023 at 11:57

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