Hamlet's very last words are

The rest is silence.

What do they actually mean? This being Shakespeare, I reckon the significance of these words cannot be only the banal comparison between death and silence.

I wonder if these words have a theological connotation, too, which would not be surprising at all when we learn, early on in the play, that Hamlet was a student at Wittenberg, where Luther himself also studied.

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    Great question, although I wouldn't categorize the death/silence connection as banal, particularly in that period--Shakespeare is a contemporary of Donne. The play is filled with existential themes. In the words of Marx: "Last words are for fools who haven't said enough." Hamlet has said everything he is ever going to say. (Some of the implications of this are covered in Matt Throwers excellent answer.) The connection may be obvious, but the implications are profound, as centuries of analysis of the line demonstrate.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 17:36

6 Answers 6


There appear to be multiple ways of reading this sentence, depending on how you interpret the context of "rest" and "silence".

Hamlet has been experiencing a great deal of upset and distress during the course of the play. Enough to drive him to madness. So one possible reading of this sentence is that the "silence" of death will finally allow him to "rest". "Going to your rest" is, of course, a common euphemism for death.

It is also the end of the play, as well as the end of Hamlet. "The rest is silence" can be read literally in the context of the performance: there is little left to watch, after which the characters will be silent. And in the context of the play itself, Hamlet himself will be silenced by death.

However, it can also be read as a continuation of the speech and little to do with death itself. Before expiring, Hamlet is talking about the possible outcome of Fortinbras's election. "The rest is silence" could be interpreted as a statement saying Hamlet would vote for him, but the outcome is otherwise uncertain. "The rest" of the possible outcome is "silent": one can imagine a personification of fate or prophecy refusing to speak more on the matter.

If you like puns, and Shakespeare seems to have done, there's one here. Shortly before his dying speech, Hamlet personifies Death and refers to the act of dying as an "arrest". So here he is saying "th'[e/a]rest [i.e. dying] is silence".

Finally, a major theme of the play is mortality and the question of what comes after. We see this in Hamlet's statements about the ghost of his father, about Yorick, about men going to die in battle. We see it, most famously in "to be or not to be" and in an "undiscover'd country". "The rest is silence" could be a statement of uncertainty: Hamlet is about to find out the answer to this question but he cannot tell anyone what it is. In fact, the answer may be "silence", i.e. oblivion. This is your theological connotation.

So the literary value in this short line appears to be one of substantial ambiguity. Which is fitting, given the questions of uncertainty and faith at the heart of the play.

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    Ambiguity is a powerful "hermeneutical" literary device. Outstanding answer!
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 15:21
  • Is there any connection with the musical meaning of "rest" (i.e., silence)?
    – texdr.aft
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 16:05

With Shakespeare's characters, you usually know what they're thinking. With Hamlet, you're never sure. In the second scene he goes over recent events but says, "I must hold my tongue!" He agonizes over his situation, considers every alternative, and finds reasons to avoid action, but he never tells us what drives him.

He behaves as if there are voices in his head, not one but several, each pulling him in a different direction. He can't commit to one course of action because he knows he'll change course sooner or later. He is the first to admit he might be insane. Is he "crazy like a fox," only pretending to fool his enemies, or is he truly schizophrenic? You're never sure.

One might suppose that the fatal poison (or his impending death) is enough to silence the voices for a moment. In that moment he is the rightful king of Denmark, and he gives Horatio instructions. Before he dies, he gives us the only indication of his mental state. The voices will be gone forever. "The rest is silence."

That's one interpretation. Another is that Hamlet, like several other characters in Shakespeare, is aware of being a fictional construct. He forgoes action because, as the ringmaster, he has others to manipulate. He even puts on a play within the play. It's only in the denouement that he takes on his rightful role. His final words are a stage direction to himself.

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    "like several other characters in Shakespeare, is aware of being a fictional construct" - such as who? I'm intrigued; I don't remember noticing any breaking of the fourth wall in the plays I've studied.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 23:16
  • 1
    I'm with @Randal'Thor — I'm not aware of any characters in Shakespeare being aware that they are characters. You're not thinking of Tom Stoppard's Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, are you? (Characters from Hamlet, but written recently, not by the Bard. And deliberately absurdist.) Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 9:40
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    @LaurenIpsum I've now hunted around a bit and found a few instances of fourth-wall-breaking in Shakespeare's plays. Puck at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream; apparently Prospero and Richard III (haven't checked these); and of course the "chorus"/narrator who appears in several plays such as Romeo and Juliet and The Winter's Tale.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 9:54
  • 1
    I went ahead and posted it as a new question (cc @LaurenIpsum).
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 11:50
  • @Randal'Thor Of course; you're absolutely right on both counts. Richard does clearly address the audience ("Was ever woman in this humour wooed?"), and Puck's final monologue describing himself and the others as "shadows." I wouldn't put Hamlet's last line in that category, but that's part of this question's discussion. Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 12:33

Self reference is all over Shakespeare. Many asides are to the audience: "she who's a maid and laughs at my depart..."; "dive, thoughts, down into my soul" (to whom, if not to the audience, were Lear's fool and Richard talking?). It takes something decisive, like Lady Macbeth's bloody hands soliloquy or Hamlet's "to be or not to be", to actually rate rumination not directed at the audience but instead indicating a thought process. All these are moments that reveal the character more than the plot. Shakespeare, I believe, had his finger on the pulse of the audience like a good doctor.

"The rest is silence" may, in my opinion, project the irony of Hamlet's now-ended struggle to make up his mind. Hamlet could have just killed Claudius in Act 1, were he not a man of refinement and sensibilities, a prince, who didn't just believe in the supernatural. What did that get him? Stuck with a poisoned epee in revenge for stupidly killing his friend's father because he couldn't just let it go or kill the bad guy openly. Schlemozzle.


The rest is referred to in Hebrews chapters 3 and 4. esp. 4.1-3. There it is certainly an end of life event which is compared to God's entering into His rest at the end of creation (Genesis chapters 1 and 2 esp. 2.2.) For the Christian believer it is a state of being that occurs when God's work is completed and the whole universe is under his rule.

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    Hi and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. Are we speaking about the same meaning of "rest" here? In Hebrews, "rest" appears to mean "relief from work or activity"; in Hamlet, it appears to mean "that which remains". Or are you arguing that the same meaning is involved in both texts?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 11:30

The rest is silence. A response to the question: to be or not to be? To sleep perchance to dream. Death is sleep - an eternal rest - but Shakespeare’s ultimate answer: there will be no dream, the void awaits us.

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    Welcome to the site. This is an interesting idea, connecting the famous "to be or not to be" quote with "The rest is silence" much later in the play, but at the moment your answer is just a suggestion not supported by any analysis. Short answers generally don't do well on this site; we prefer answers that are backed up by something, either a more detailed analysis or citing/quoting some authoritative sources. Any chance you could edit to extend this answer?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 10:15

I’m a big fan of first lines. If a novel begins, once upon a time, that may not be significant to the plot. However, many novelists don’t dilly dally around with filler. The first line in Hamlet is Who’s there? Uncertainty established right out of the gate, followed by still more uncertainty, “unfold yourself”. Hamlet has one major act of certainty, he stabs who he thinks is Claudius, ooops it’s really Polonius, sorry, my bad. Characters get mad, Ophelia kills herself, and Laertes plots revenge all spiraling into the final death spin. The last line is, “The rest is silence.” This is an ambivalent way to end a play that began with ambivalence. However, Hamlet knows what he means by the rest is silence and this is his final chance to act and he does, by telling us his final thoughts. He is not uncertain any more. However we are still uncertain, which reinforces the main theme of the play, and stimulates multiple theories about the ending, a common strategy employed by many authors to keep interest alive, concerning their work. My point is that the ambiguity is intentional and all possible theories apply, even though that won’t stop any of us from speculating which is the best theory.

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