“To be or not to be” — this dictum is one of the most prominent phrases in the world. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy starts with this expression. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” is a play written by William Shakespeare. The speech under consideration is a representation of Shakespeare’s brilliant mind that investigates the problems of existence and signifies Hamlet as an intellectual titan, active performer, egoist, and coward at the same time.
William Shakespeare was an outstanding English playwright and poet. His creativity and versatile talent gave the world the best artworks. He was a genius of his time. Shakespeare developed the language itself and influenced people’s minds. Shakespeare’s masterpieces are eminent in the whole world. His famous works are “Hamlet”, “Othello”, “King Lear”, “Romeo and Juliette”, “Macbeth”, and many others.
“The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” was the most popular play of Shakespeare’s lifetime. The play has not lost its topicality even nowadays. Hamlet is a protagonist of the play who aims at revenge for his father’s death. Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, is a murderer who married Gertrude — the wife of the late king. Hamlet is furious because of this, and he is ready to avenge his father. However, revenge is a dangerous thing. It can make Hamlet go out of his mind.
The soliloquy takes place in Act III, Scene I. There is no doubt that it differs from the rest of the play drastically. Hamlet declares with other intonation. In all previous acts, he is brave and self-confident. Nevertheless, he starts his soliloquy in a diverse manner. He expresses hesitation. Researchers have made many attempts to interpret the meaning of the passage, as well as the connotation of the whole play. Hamlet commences the monolog with a question. The first line appears to be thought about suicide; however, the idea of it is much deeper. “To be or not to be: that is the question” — these are the initial words of Hamlet. They correspond not only to the idea of suicide; they reflect the notion of existence and non-existence. It is a kind of thesis statement. It gives readers the impression of Hamlet’s state of mind and soul. The verb “to be” in this context has a meaning of “being” or “existing”. Still, it would be wrong to assume that the idea of existence versus non-existence is the core one. Shakespeare put his own meaning into the first line. One can understand its purpose only after reading the next passages. Thus, “to be” means “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” while “not to be” — “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them?” That is the part when one may conclude that Hamlet suffers from the difficult inner struggle. He sticks between action and inertia. Hamlet understands that he wants revenge, but his contemplations prevent him from doing so. On the other hand, he realizes that being passive is not a solution as well. The statement of the question reveals Hamlet’s situation. That is also the part when the reader may observe his unsteady nature. One should be aware of the whole plot to see this. In the first act, Hamlet thinks that the world is full of evil. In the second, he is ready to take revenge. Then, he hesitates again. That is the way Shakespeare creates an impression that Hamlet is not a serious person who always complains. Then the author changes the direction of Hamlet’s thoughts. The prince considers the possible end of the fighting — death. Here we meet Hamlet as a thinker or philosopher. He tries to realize the nature of death. That is the part where Hamlet thinks of death as possible salvation. However, Hamlet comprehends that there are different ways out even in death. The first one is:
… To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
According to Hamlet, death may be a state of total unconsciousness. It seems so easy to fall into eternal sleep. It is the method to fight down all enemies. In the following lines, Hamlets recognizes the other variant of death:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
Hamlet understands that death seems an easy way only from first sight. Nobody knows what one will face after death. There is always a possibility that there will be something worse. The comprehension of this fact makes all people cowards, and Hamlet is not an exception. It is possible to state that death does not correspond to “non-existing”. Death requires courage and the ability to end own life. That is the point that represents the controversy of Hamlet’s nature. On the one hand, he is a coward because he is afraid of death. On the other hand, he does so because he wants to gain justice. Hamlet proceeds with his reflections:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The 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 the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?
It is important to note that Hamlet has not experienced any of these. All these troubles and disasters have nothing to do with Hamlet personally. Thus, one can observe the other part of Hamlet’s soul — his nobility. Shakespeare represents the Prince here as an altruist, humanist, who worries about the fate of all people. In such a way, the author conveys a significant aspect of the play — its social motives. Hamlet suffers from a particular case of dishonesty and humiliation, and this occasion reflects the situation in the whole world. It seems that these thoughts should inspire Hamlet to brave actions, but the last line of this part undermines this impression. “When he himself might his quietus make / With a bare bodkin?” — Hamlet considers suicide as salvation even now. The Prince of Denmark cannot execute it as far as he has to take vengeance for his father’s death. One more excerpt concerning Hamlet’s thoughts about the nature of death is worthwhile mentioning. Hamlet describes death as “The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns”. Every reader knows that Hamlet meets the ghost of his father in the play. It appears that Shakespeare creates a paradox where the words of the main character contradict the events. In my opinion, this phenomenon exemplifies that Hamlet ponders about society in general again. He is anxious about the destiny of all people. They never meet travelers from the world of death and Hamlet is an exception in this case.
Hamlet devotes the last part of the soliloquy to the contemplations relating to the nature of thinking:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
These lines show Hamlet’s mind and the way he analyzes various facts. He comprehends that too much thinking hinders the activity. Having realized this, Hamlet deprives themself of unnecessary thoughts and makes the final decision to act: “Soft you now! / The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remembered”.
The soliloquy shows Hamlet in the moment of hesitation. He belongs to such type of people who carefully think over everything. Hamlet has to analyze his situation from various sides. The stretch of his imagination and thought can reach unbelievable dimensions. The Prince faces the tragedy in his own family, but this tragedy lights up the situation in the whole country. Hamlet lets his thoughts take him away from reality just for a while.
The image of Hamlet is very controversial. One can look at him from different perspectives. In my opinion, Hamlet is an egoistic person. His egoism can become apparent in various forms. Most people understand egoism as the manifestation of too much interest in oneself, in personal joy and happiness without paying attention to anything else. There is also a type of egoism that presupposes the total concentration on personal thoughts and emotions. The Prince of Denmark finds it difficult to believe in something. He is a real skeptic who finds fulfillment in analyzing his emotions and criticizing the entire world. Readers can observe his cynic remarks during the whole play. He is constantly anxious about his personal problems and sees nothing else. Hamlet’s egoism is not primitive. On the contrary, it is highly developed. He does not have mercy on himself as well. Hamlet is too smart to be satisfied with himself. He criticizes himself, acknowledges his weaknesses. Hamlet thinks about the fate of poor people, suicide, the nature of death, and thought in the soliloquy. Nevertheless, Hamlet is not ready to kill himself. Maybe selfishness is the main reason. He adores all these thoughts and feelings.
I think there is a hint of conceit typical for Hamlet, but he is not fully self-centered. Hamlet is aware of terrible things that happen in the lives of people every day. He is deeply concerned about it. These thoughts disclose such Hamlet’s traits of character as humanism and kindness. He seems to be one honest person who has been stuck in the world of lies and betrayal. Hamlet is not passive. He is an active doer. Hamlet analyzes the situation before doing something. It is a wise approach. Hamlet realizes the necessity to revenge for his father, but he does not approve of such methods. He does not support the idea that the end justifies the means. The Prince does not want to become a murderer and shed blood. This principle reminds me of the basic ideas of postmodernists. The representatives of postmodernism believe that no end can justify the means and that nobody can make evil for the sake of good. It is worthwhile mentioning that William Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet” in 1603 while postmodernists introduced and developed their ideas in the twentieth century. Taking all of these into account, one can conclude that Shakespeare was a real genius.
I have also found it interesting to evaluate Hamlet’s way of thinking in the soliloquy. Hamlet hesitates, contemplates death, and struggles at the same time. His thoughts are constantly changing. The flow of his considerations creates the impression of the instability of his mind. Maybe the terrible grief has made Hamlet insane. The other variant that crossed my mind was that Hamlet pretended to be unreasonable. He was smart and realized the danger. From the plot, readers are familiar with the fact that Claudius doubts Hamlet’s sense. I assume that Hamlet pretends to be insane in order to make his enemies weaker.
It is extremely difficult to find the core meaning of the soliloquy under consideration. It conveys a deep philosophical sense. William Shakespeare discovers the problems of existence, personal choice, and the burdens of reality. The author skillfully represents Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, as a philosopher, egoist, and humanist who is ready to face challenges and fight for the truth.
Shakespeare, W., Mowat, B. A., & Ph D, W. P. (2003). The tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark (Folger Shakespeare Library) (Illustrated ed.). Perfection Learning.