In Hamlet, Act 1, scene 2 I read the following line (emphasis added):

This to me in dreadful secrecy impart they did.

For making it easily comprehensible, let me tell you that "impart" here means "tell or make known". The part I'm not getting here is in bold. According to Shakespeare dictionary "dreadful" here means exactly what it does in modern English (fearful, terrified) and according to this site it means "extreme", yet according to this one, "dreadful secrecy" here means "swearing to secrecy". I, personally, tend toward the interpretation provided by "Genius" but don't know if "dreadful" was really supposed to mean "extreme" in Shakespeare's times. Furthermore, the Shakespeare dictionary is a very trusted resource which runs contrary to the interpretation. Please help me out.

  • I'd say there's no chance that Shakespeare intended / anticipated the modern sense of "extreme". In context, dreadful here would just carry the "original, literal" sense of "anxious, fearful" (the people divulging what they saw are scared). Apr 13, 2020 at 14:22
  • @FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica- then how would you interpret the verse? Do you agree with the use of "transferred epithet" as suggested by Jack O'Flaherty?
    – kelvin
    Apr 13, 2020 at 14:34
  • 1
    Yes, I'm sure Jack's quite right about the syntactic terminology. All I'm saying is you'd be completely mistaken if you thought there were any overtones of the modern "extreme" sense (I'm dreadfully sorry, my room is in a dreadful mess), where it's effectively no more than a general-purpose "intensifier" (a dreadful shame = a terrible / awful / real / bloody / fucking / ... pity). Apr 13, 2020 at 15:29

2 Answers 2


The preceding text is this:

"Thrice he walk'd By their oppress'd and fear-surprised eyes,
Within his truncheon's length; whilst they distill'd
Almost to jelly with the act of fear,
Stand dumb and speak not to him. This to me
In dreadful secrecy impart they did, "

They were full of dread, and "dreadful" is a transferred epithet:
Thoughtco "transferred epithet"
that went from the men who saw the ghost, through their secret, to the hearer, and maybe to the audience.

  • So, you're saying the interpretation provided by "Genius" where "dreadful secrecy" means "extreme secrecy" is wrong?? Also, can you provide any authoritative source to back your claim?
    – kelvin
    Apr 13, 2020 at 12:53
  • No, that's how I read it. Take it or leave it. Apr 13, 2020 at 12:57
  • If that "dreadfulness" was transferred to the hearer from the speaker, then the speaker would, most likely, not have gone to see it the very next day. Correct me if I'm wrong.
    – kelvin
    Apr 13, 2020 at 13:05
  • The linked examples include wide-eyed amazement, which could directly replace dreadful secrecy as actually under the microscope here. And I wouldn't see any allusion to the hearer's (or audience) "reaction, mental state" there - it entirely reflects the perspective of the speaker(s). Apr 13, 2020 at 15:41
  • @kelvin Well, the next few lines say that the speaker accompanied the other two, who were scared to jelly, to see the thing again. so it's not impossible they tried to face their fears. And Shakespeare is telling a ghost story here - the audience should be a little nervous too. Apr 13, 2020 at 21:08

Wiktionary lists two meanings of "dreadful":

  1. Full of something causing dread, (...)
  2. (obsolete) Full of dread, (...)

Which of these applies? For comparison, A Shakespeare Glossary by C. T. Onions (enlarged and revised by Robert D. Eagleson, Oxford University Press, 1986) gives the following definition, giving the Hamlet quote as an example:

Full of dread.

This matches the meaning that marks as obsolete. This corresponds with T. J. B. Spencer's gloss for "dreadful" in his edition of Hamlet for The New Penguin Shakespeare (Penguin, 1980).

The other examples listed in A Shakespeare Glossary are the following:

Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures. (Richard III, Act 1, scene 1),


Silence that dreadful bell: it frights the isle
From her propriety. (Othello, Act 2, scene 3).

(The meaning of "dreadful" in the last quote appears to be an example of the first meaning given on Wiktionary, which presumably explains why the adjective is not glossed in the Othello editions by Kenneth Muir (New Penguin Shakespeare) and Norman Sanders (New Cambridge Shakespeare).)

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