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“Goodnight Sweet Prince” is an expression used to bid farewell and pay respect to someone who has recently passed away. Online, the phrase has gained notoriety through its usage in image macros that are designed to propagate celebrity death hoaxes by intentionally misidentifying the deceased celebrity with the name of another individual.
In Act V Scene II of the play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare, written between 1599 and 1602, the character Horatio says “Goodnight, sweet prince” to his dying friend Hamlet.
Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
In the 1998 American comedy film The Big Lebowski, the character Walter (played by John Goodman) says “goodnight sweet prince” before dumping the ashes of his deceased friend Donny (played by Steve Buscemi).
On February 28th, 2006, YTMND user Dashren2001 submitted a page titled “Goodnight Sweet Prince”, which featured a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip in which a medicated Calvin ignores his stuffed animal friend to focus on school work with the song “Only Time” by Enya playing in the background (shown below).
The earliest archived instance of the quote on 4chan was posted to the /prog/ (programming) board on November 22nd, 2006 in a thread requesting help with Java code.
On March 17th, 2008, Urban Dictionary user angelbot submitted an entry for the phrase, which described its use in captions for celebrity death hoax image macros. On November 3rd, YouTuber AapoJoki uploaded a video mourning the death of comedian Eddie Murphy, which included a slideshow of photographs featuring comedian Dave Chapelle (shown below).
On December 11th, Body Building Forums member Soxfan1978 submitted a thread asking where the phrase originated, to which members cited both Shakespeare and 4chan. On June 25th, 2009, the title of the /b/ board was changed to “Goodnight Sweet Prince – RIP” in memoriam of Michael Jackson’s death.
On August 12th, 2010, an entry for “Goodnight, Sweet Prince” was created on TV Tropes. On June 20th, 2011, Redditor spatchcock submitted a photograph titled “Goodnight Sweet Prince” of comedian Zach Galifianakis identifying him as actor Johnny Knoxville to the /r/4chan subreddit, where it gathered upwards of 1,600 upvotes (83% upvoted) before it was archived (shown below).
On March 15th, 2013, Redditor Phrockit submitted a photo titled “Goodnight sweet prince” featuring comedian Whoopi Goldberg with the caption “R.I.P. Lil Wayne” to the /r/toosoon subreddit, where it gained over 2,100 votes (91% upvoted) prior to being archived (shown below).