Hamlet's Soliloquy - To be, or not to be
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Hamlet's Soliloquy - To be, or not to be
Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" soliloquy is arguably the most famous soliloquy in the history of the theatre. Even today, 400 years after it was written, most people are vaguely familiar with the soliloquy even though they may not know the play. What gives these 34 lines such universal appeal and recognition? What about Hamlet's introspection has prompted scholars and theatregoers alike to ask questions about their own existence over the centuries?
In this soliloquy, Shakespeare strikes a chord with a fundamental human concern: the validity and worthiness of life. Would it not be easier for us to simply enter a never-ending sleep when we find ourselves facing the daunting problems of life than to "suffer / the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune"? However, it is perhaps because we do not know what this endless sleep entails that humans usually opt against suicide. "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause." Shakespeare seems to understand this dilemma through his character Hamlet, and thus the phrase "To be, or not to be" has been immortalized; indeed, it has pervaded our culture to such a remarkable extent that it has been referenced countless times in movies, television, and the media. Popular movies such as Billy Madison quote the famous phrase, and www.tobeornottobe.com serves as an online archive of Shakespeare's works. Today, a Shakespeare stereotype is held up by the bulk of society, where they see him as the god of drama, infallible and fundamentally superior to modern playwrights. However, this attitude is not new. Even centuries ago, the "holiness" of Shakespeare's work inspired and awed audiences. In a letter dated October 1, 1775, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, commenting on David Garrick's production of Hamlet (1742-1776) to his friend Heinrich Christian Boie, likens the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy to the Lord's Prayer. He says that the soliloquy "does not naturally make the same impression on the auditor" as Hamlet's other soliloquies do,
But it produces an infinitely greater effect than could be expected of an argument on suicide and death in tragedy; and this is because a large part of the audience not only knows it by
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Soliloquy Universal Appeal Hamlet Character Hamlet Ending Mortal Georg Scholars Stereotype Heinrich
heart as well as they do the Lord's Prayer, but listens to it, so to speak, as if it were a Lord's Prayer, not indeed with the profound reflections which accompany our sacred prayer, but with a sense of solemnity and awe, of which some one who does not know England can have no conception. In this island Shakespeare is not only famous, but holy; his moral maxims are heard everywhere; I myself heard them quoted in Parliament on 7 February, a day of importance. In this way his name is entwined with most solemn thoughts; people sing of him and from his works, and thus a large number of English children know him before they have learnt their A.B.C. and creed. (Tardiff 19)
Despite the extreme popularity of Hamlet's famous soliloquy, there are some scholars who have criticized its imperfections, and even have been so bold as to say that Hamlet speaks out of character when he delivers the famous words. Tobias Smollett, a major eighteenth-century English novelist, and his contemporary Charles Gildon see the soliloquy as unnecessary in that it does not further the dramatic action of the play. Tobias Smollett writes in an essay dated 1756:
...there are an hundred characters in [Shakespeare's] plays that (if we may be allowed the expression) speak out of character. ... The famous soliloquy of Hamlet is introduced by the head and shoulders. He had some reason to revenge his father's death upon his uncle, but he had none to take away his own life. Nor does it appear from any other part of the play that he had any such intention. On the contrary, when he had a fair opportunity of being put to death in England he very wisely retorted the villainy of his conductors on their own heads. (Vickers 266-7)
In 1721, Charles Gildon bluntly writes, "That famous soliloquy which has been so much cry'd up in Hamlet has no more to do there than a description of the grove and altar of Diana, mention'd by Horace" (Vickers 369). Indeed, many think the soliloquy is out of place, and some assert that he is not contemplating suicide at all. In 1765, Samuel Johnson explains the thought, or inner monologue, of Hamlet as he delivers the soliloquy in a manner that eliminates any struggle with thoughts of suicide:
Before I can form any rational scheme of action under this pressure of distress, it is necessary to decide whether, after our present state, we are to be or not to be. That is the question which, as it shall be answered, will determine whether 'tis nobler and more suitable to the dignity of reason to suffer the outrages of fortune patiently, or to take arms against them, and by opposing end them, though perhaps with the loss of life. If to die were to sleep, no more, and by a sleep to end the miseries of our nature, such a sleep were devoutly to be wished; but if to sleep in death be to dream, to retain our powers of sensibility, we must pause to consider in that sleep of death what dreams may come. (Harris 83)
A Change in Place over Time
Whether or not you agree that the soliloquy is out of place within the play or that Hamlet speaks out of character, it is interesting to note that the placement of the soliloquy within the play has changed over time. At one point in history, Hamlet's famous soliloquy was placed earlier in the play than it is now. A year later it was changed to occur later, after Hamlet devises the play within the play. H.B. Charlton, in an essay dated 1942, explains the importance of whether the soliloquy lies before or after Hamlet devises his incriminating play:
[If] the play within the play was devised by Hamlet to give him a really necessary confirmation of the ghost's evidence, why is this the moment he chooses to utter his profoundest expression of despair, 'To be, or not to be, that is the question'? For, if his difficulty is what he says it is, this surely is the moment when the strings are all in his own hands. He has by chance found an occasion for an appropriate play, and, as the king's ready acceptance of the invitation to attend shows, he can be morally certain that the test will take place; and so, if one supposes him to need confirmation, within a trice he will really know. Yet this very situation finds him in the depths of despair. Can he really have needed the play within the play? The point is of some importance, because in the 1603 Quarto of Hamlet, this 'To be, or not to be' speech occurs before Hamlet has devised the incriminating play. In the 1604 and later versions, the speech comes where we now read it. I know no more convincing argument that the 1604 Quarto is a masterdramatist's revision of his own first draft of a play. (Harris 166)
Analysis of the “To Be or Not to Be” Soliloquy in Hamlet by William Shakespeare
The meaning of the “to be or not to be” speech in Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been given numerous interpretations, each of which are textually, historically, or otherwise based. In general, while Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy questions the righteousness of life over death in moral terms, much of the speech’s emphasis is on the subject of death—even if in the end he is determined to live and see his revenge through.
Before engaging in the soliloquy itself, however, it is important to consider Hamlet’s lines that occur before the passage in question. In the first act of the play, Hamlet (full character analysis of Hamlet here)curses God for making suicide an immoral option. He states, “that this too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! / Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!” (I.ii.129-132). At this early point in the text it is clear that Hamlet is weighing the benefits versus drawbacks of ending his own life, but also that he recognizes that suicide is a crime in God’s eyes and could thus make his afterlife worse than his present situation. In essence, many of Hamlet’s thoughts revolve around death and this early signal to his melancholy state prepares the reader for soliloquy that will come later in Act III.
When Hamlet utters the pained question, “To be, or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles” (III.i.59-61) there is little doubt that he is thinking of death. Although he attempts to pose such a question in a rational and logical way, he is still left without an answer of whether the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” can be borne out since life after death is so uncertain.
At this point in the plot of Hamlet, he wonders about the nature of his death and thinks for a moment that it may be like a deep sleep, which seems at first to be acceptable until he speculates on what will come in such a deep sleep. Just when his “sleep” answer begins to appeal him, he stops short and wonders in another of the important quotes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To sleep: perchance to dream:—ay there’s the rub; / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come” (III.i.68-69). The “dreams” that he fears are the pains that the afterlife might bring and since there is no way to be positive that there will be a relief from his earthly sufferings through death, he forced to question death yet again.
After posing this complex question and wondering about the nature of the great sleep, Hamlet then goes on to list many sufferings men are prone to in the rough course of life, which makes it seem as though he is moving toward death yet again. By the end of this soliloquy, however, he finally realizes, “But that dread of something after death, / The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns—puzzles the will / And makes us rather bear those ills we have” (III.i.81-84). Although at this last moment Hamlet realizes that many chose life over death because of this inability to know the afterlife, the speech remains a deep contemplation about the nature and reasons for death.
The "To Be or Not To Be" speech in the play, "Hamlet," portrays Hamlet as a very confused man. He is very unsure of himself and his thoughts often waver between two extremes due to his relatively strange personality. In the monologue, he contemplates whether or not he should continue or end his own life. He also considers seeking revenge for his father’s death. Evidence of his uncertainty and over thinking is not only shown in this speech, but it also can be referenced in other important parts of the play.
The topic of Hamlet’s soliloquy is his consideration of committing suicide. Throughout the speech, it is obvious that Hamlet is over thinking and wavering between two different extremes: life and death. "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them" (3, 1, 56-60). In this quotation, Hamlet wonders whether he should live and suffer the hardships that his life has to offer him or die in order to end the suffering. He believes that life is synonymous with suffering. The "whips and scorn of time, Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of th'unworthy takes" (3, 1, 70-74) are all the suffering he sees in life. Hamlet wonders if living is worth enduring these numerous pains. "To die, to sleep -no more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks...To sleep, perchance to dream" (3, 1, 60-65). Should Hamlet choose to kill himself, all of his heartaches would be put to rest. He would no longer have to watch his uncle reign over the kingdom that he believes should belong to him and his father. He would no longer have to feel obligated to avenge his father’s death. He would also never again have to watch the actions of Claudius and Gertrude, which he believes to be incestuous. Hamlet realizes that in death, his...
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