In Hamlet there is the following conversation:

GUILDENSTERN: Prison, my lord!

HAMLET: Denmark's a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ: Then is the world one.

HAMLET: A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o' the worst.

What does "goodly" mean here? After consulting some dictionaries, I tend to think it means "considerable", "grand" in a sense of scale. However, I encountered an Italian translation (Google returns more than 500,000 entries for this search) which says

"È una bella prigione, il mondo",

It basically means "the world is a beautiful prison", which interprets "goodly" in the sense of "pleasing".

Is this just simply a mistranslation or might "goodly" also have this meaning here?

  • 3
    First of all, bello/a means a lot more than beautiful, so it's unproductive to go through Italian to get to the English meaning. Second, you should use a Shakespearean dictionary such as Shakespeare’s Words (modern dictionaries are going to concentrate on modern definitions); third, a very good edition of the individual work in question will be one that has an extensive commentary including explanations of words and phrases. Jan 30, 2017 at 21:17
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    @Clare Well I don't think I intended to "go through Italian to get to the English meaning" anyways. I just saw that sentence in Italian and thought it looked a bit weird. I traced it down to the original sentence and thus had the question. If somebody on this site has the reference/knows the answer already, fine; if not, I'm not going to lose sleep over this or likely to spend the energy to go and get an extensive edition of Hamlet just to satisfy a bit of curiosity and skepticism.
    – xji
    Jan 30, 2017 at 21:21
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    @Clare - una bella prigione means a beautiful prison.
    – user66974
    Jan 30, 2017 at 21:29
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    @Clare Anyways, if you think there's any problem with this question, just flag it and ask the mods to deal with it. Let's see what they think. If not, then please just stop posting comments which don't contribute anything to the question itself, and which might even seem hostile. I have no time for such meaningless discussion about "enthusiasm" or whatnot. And of course I have enthusiasm to start with so that I asked this question. Otherwise why did I even bother to write so much stuff? You're really in a bad mood today aren't you?
    – xji
    Jan 30, 2017 at 21:30
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    As for telling/advising/recommending that the OP to brush up on his Shakespeare, when all he really wants to know is the word goodly used in one line, seems a bit excessive. The OP has done more research, showing his keenness, than 70% of the questions that are posted here.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 31, 2017 at 8:10

4 Answers 4


Although goodly at this point means "of considerable size", this was not the meaning that Shakespeare intended. Goodly has quite a few other archaic and rare definitions. I believe the Italian translation was accurate, and the intended (now archaic) sense was:

Of good or pleasing appearance; handsome, beautiful, good-looking; comely, fair.
OED (the premium version, since the free version is too brief)

  • Yeah, even though one is tempted to define it as "yuge", likely what Shaky meant was basically "good", with a bit of emphasis.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 31, 2017 at 1:56
  • I stand corrected. I had always thought Hamlet was saying that the world was a prison of "sufficient means." The notion that it was a pleasing, beautiful prison never came to mind.
    – Airymouse
    Jan 31, 2017 at 2:27
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    I don’t quite follow this answer — why do you feel that this is what Shakespeare intended? Is there a reason why you feel the reading with “good” fits the context better, or a source that in Shakespeare’s time “good” was the more common meaning? Since the reading with “large” seems to make just as much sense, and “large” is by the more common meaning of “goodly”, I feel this answer needs some kind of justification.
    – PLL
    Jan 31, 2017 at 12:49
  • 1
    From the context "large" makes more sense to me. The next sentence talks about the many countries the world contains. It contrast the "big prison" (the world) with the small prison (Denmark). So like @PLL I'd like to see some evidence that your interpretation is what the author intended. (And of course there is always the possibility of deliberate ambiguity) Jan 31, 2017 at 12:58
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    The online Oxford dictionary is not a "free version" of the OED. In addition, you have picked out one meaning of goodly given in the OED and given no justification beyond your opinion. Jan 31, 2017 at 15:57

In day-to-day talk, goodly means sizable or large. Like "I drank a goodly amount of orange juice, and I now feel sick." Since the world is much larger than Denmark and in the story is described as having "many confines", then goodly in this instance would most likely also mean large. I'm assuming the Italian version was just a mistranslation.

Hope this helps!

  • 1
    What support do you have for this? Is it just an opinion or a fact-based answer?
    – Hank
    Jan 30, 2017 at 21:12
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    That's irrelevant. This site is a resource site, meaning the content on here is meant to help more than just the OP. If someone stumbled upon your answer, they will be less likely to take it seriously because it's just an opinion. Answers that provide links in support of their opinions will be more credible. How are we supposed to know you did't just make it all up. My point is, provide sources and links to backup your opinions.
    – Hank
    Jan 30, 2017 at 21:18
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    Thanks for the feedback Hank! I was just trying to give a quick input, but in future I'll try provide better sources for my answers and do a bit more research.
    – Help Me
    Jan 30, 2017 at 21:21
  • 1
    I hope I didn't come off crass. Just helping out for current and future answers :)
    – Hank
    Jan 30, 2017 at 21:22
  • 2
    I have to say that there are times when an opinion is all that counts. Not everything can be googled, thank God. And I agree with this answer.
    – Lambie
    Jan 30, 2017 at 21:30

The OED says that both sizable and handsome were possible meanings for goodly in Shakespeare's time, so the 16th century meaning of the word does not help.

We can look for help to other translations of Hamlet, and we discover that there is considerable support among these for the sizable meaning. As some of the comments speculate, it's quite possible that Shakespeare meant the word to carry both meanings.

The No Fear Shakespeare supports the "sizable" meaning. It "translates" this passage as:

Hamlet: Denmark’s a prison.
Rosencrantz: Then I guess the whole world is one.
Hamlet: Yes, quite a large one, with many cells and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst.

The French translation of Hamlet also supports the "sizable" meaning. It translates this passage as:

HAMLET. − Le Danemark est une prison.
ROSENCRANTZ. − Alors le monde en est une aussi.
HAMLET. − Une vaste prison, dans laquelle il y a beaucoup de cellules, de cachots et de donjons. Le Danemark est un des pires. [emphasis added]

The French word vaste means vast.

The German translation manages to avoid the problem by choosing the word stattlich, which can mean impressive, imposing or handsome.

Dännemark ist ein Kerker.
So ist die ganze Welt einer.
Ein recht stattlicher, worinn viele Thürme, Gefängnisse und Löcher sind, unter denen Dännemark eines der ärgsten ist.



goodly adjective

1 Considerable in size or quantity: ‘a goodly number of our countrymen’

2 archaic Attractive, excellent, or admirable.

I'd suggest that in this sense it takes the archaic meaning "excellent" - and I'd dispute the allegation of archaic...

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