‘Good night sweet prince’ is a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The final scene – at the end of which almost every lies dead on the stage – has Hamlet dying in his friend, Horatio’s arms. In that scene, all those who have plotted the death of Hamlet have fallen into their own traps. As Hamlet put it earlier in connection with the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who also fell into the trap they had help set for him, in a sentence that has become an idiom:
”tis the sport to have the engineer/Hoist with his own petard.’
The corruption has collapsed around the corrupt, and as Hamlet has observed, all he had to do was let it happen. All he had to do was be ready for it. ‘Readiness is all,’ he says as he prepares for his final hour. Stabbed with a poison-tipped rapier, he dies, and utters his last words: ‘The rest is silence.’
Horatio is left alone with the bodies all around him. He looks down at his friend and says, ‘Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’
As is so often the case with Shakespeare, he finds the most perfect combination of words to put a thought or idea or an emotion into a character’s mouth, which then becomes a way of expressing that emotion in a way that simply can’t be bettered. And so ‘good night, sweet prince’ has become a poignant way of bidding a deceased loved one farewell. It is more than that, though, as it also expresses respect, and has been used many times at the funerals of national figures – political leaders and social achievers. It is also used on social media to pay tribute to celebrities, such as Whoopi Goldberg’s tribute to Li’l Wayne, and Zach Galifianakis’ tribute to Johnny Knoxville, both quoting the phrase.
When the great 20th Century dramatist, Harold Pinter died, as the coffin was about to be lowered into the grave, his widow, Lady Antonia Fraser, came forward, gazed at it and, with tears in her eyes, said, ‘Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’ thereby expressing in those few words, everything that could be said about her emotions on bidding her husband, friend, and lover farewell. It would be difficult for anyone to produce words more perfect than these by Shakespeare for such an occasion.
The line is often used in films, sometimes ironically. The most famous of those is in the Coen Brothers 1998 film, The Big Lebowski. John Goodman, playing the character Walter, says “goodnight sweet prince,” as he dumps the ashes of his late friend, Donny.
As with most aspects of the written and spoken words, Shakespeare was a master at giving his characters fantastic farewell speeches and quotes. We’ve listed plenty of them here, whilst our very top favourites are:
‘Adieu! I have too grieved a heart to take a tedious leave.’
(Antony and Cleopatra)
‘Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.’
(Romeo and Juliet)
‘And whether we shall meet again I know not.
Therefore our everlasting farewell take:
For ever, and for ever, farewell,’
‘Fare you well, your suit is cold.’ Cold indeed, and labour lost, Then farewell, heat, and welcome, frost’
(The Merchant of Venice)
Spelling correction. It is the “Coen” brothers, not Cohn. Just thought you’d want to know.
thanks, typo fixed!
Taught this play in high school English in gr. 12. I called one of the heavies along with King Lear and Othello.