Here are some lines from Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1 (The Arden Shakespeare edited by Harold Jenkins)

To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why, may
not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander
till a find it stopping a bung-hole?

’Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.

No, faith, not a jot, but to follow him thither with
modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it.

Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of
earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he
was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?

I'm wondering about the following questions.

  1. What is the structure of the sentence in italics above?

  2. What does it in the sentence refer to?

  3. What is the meaning of the sentence?

  4. How do you paraphrase the sentence in present day English?

It seems to me the sentence is grammatically imperfect. For example, is the subject omitted? If so, what is it?

Secondly, I wonder if "likelihood" is the object of the verb "follow" or that of "with".

The meaning, or at least the gist , of the sentence is rather obvious judging from the context. The main problem is the grammatical structure of the sentence.

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    This sounds just a bit like a homework assignment. Is it one? – Sven Yargs Sep 3 '14 at 22:09
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    @SvenYargs No. I'm not a student. Why do you think it looks like homework? – ivanhoescott Sep 3 '14 at 22:12
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    I could imagine that a teacher or professor might have as an assignment, "Discuss this passage from Hamlet, analyzing the structure of Hamlet's 'No, faith, not a jot' sentence, identifying what the pronoun 'it' refers to, and paraphrasing the sentence in modern English." I think it would make a pretty good homework assignment, actually. But I don't mean to impugn your motives in using this site. – Sven Yargs Sep 3 '14 at 22:28
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    Regarding the various editions of Hamlet, I understand your point and do not disagree with it. However, the other bit is part of policy: we are actually instructed to remove noisy “thanks in advance” type stuff when we come across it. Here’s why. Please do not use that sort of thing, nor be surprised when it is again removed from your posting. – tchrist Sep 4 '14 at 2:15
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    @ivanhoescott What you call “courtesy” is here perceived as something else altogether, ranging from gratuitous noise to obsequious kowtowing. People who would be “offended” by direct questions should probably avoid question-and-answer sites; they might do better on social-networking sites or forums. You should not worry about thinking that someone out there, somewhere and somewhen, will be offended by something you have said or by something that you have failed to say: of course they will! The point is that SE has a network-wide policy regarding signatures and salutations on postings. – tchrist Sep 4 '14 at 3:13

"It" is the imagination. Horatio's preceding line can be roughly translated into modern colloquial English as:

It's a bit weird to think about stuff like that.

Hamlet replies:

Not at all. Let it (your imagination) follow his body's voyage, without letting it get out of control, but following the probabilities. Alexander died. Alexander was buried. His body decomposed and became fertilizer for the soil. And who knows? From that soil may have grown something that was made into a bung for a barrel.

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  • Thanks. Could you tell us about the grammar structure of the sentence? For example, is the subject omitted? – ivanhoescott Sep 3 '14 at 23:05
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    Loam is more aptly interpreted as clay here. And why not, of that clay, make a stopper... – anongoodnurse Sep 3 '14 at 23:07
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    I think it might help if you explained how but is used in the phrase. That might be the OP's sticking point. But that he understood that construction, he might well grasp its meaning. – Kit Z. Fox Sep 4 '14 at 2:31
  • Loam has always been fertile soil (a mixture of sand, clay and organic material). – bye Sep 4 '14 at 5:49

You asked about the sentence structure. Most editors punctuate that passage a little differently to bring out the structure more clearly.

No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?

The first bit 'No, faith, not a jot' is easy. It is a straightforward rejection of Horatio's position with a negative particle 'No', an exclamation ('faith'), and an emphatic negative particle 'not a jot' (= 'not at all').

The next bit I see as an introduction to the elaboration of Alexander's journey. 'But' functions like 'however'; then there are two non-finite clauses. We can use similar constructions to introduce what we want to say, for example,

To cut matters short, I will make the main decisions for the day.


To put it mildly, we have been taken for a ride.

In other words, the consideration of how Alexander died, was buried, etc. is the way in which imagination can be led.

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