The Seven Soliloquies of Hamlet


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Hamlet:  The Seven Soliloquies             


Hamlet gives us seven soliloquies, all centered on the most important existential themes: the emptiness of existence, suicide, death, suffering, action, a fear of death which puts off the most momentous decisions, the fear of the beyond, the degradation of the flesh, the triumph of vice over virtue, the pride and hypocrisy of human beings, and the difficulty of acting under the weight of a thought 'which makes cowards of us all'. He offers us also, in the last act, some remarks made in conversation with Horatio in the cemetery which it is suitable to place in the same context as the soliloquies because the themes of life and death in general and his attitude when confronted by his own death have been with him constantly. Four of his seven soliloquies deserve our special attention: 'O that this too sullied flesh would melt', 'O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!', 'To be, or not to be, that is the question', and 'How all occasions do inform against me'.

Readings of these soliloquies are varied and diverse. However, three remarks are in order:

1. The density of Hamlet's thought is extraordinary. Not a word is wasted; every syllable and each sound expresses the depth of his reflection and the intensity of his emotion. The spectator cannot but be hypnotized.

2. The language is extremely beautiful. Shakespeare was in love with words. His soliloquies are pieces of pure poetry, written in blank verse, sustained by a rhythm now smooth, now rugged, by a fast or a slow pace, offering us surprises in every line.

3. The soliloquies are in effect the hidden plot of the play because, if one puts them side by side, one notices that the character of Hamlet goes through a development which, in substance, is nothing other than the history of human thinking from the Renaissance to the existentialism of the twentieth century.

The Hamlet of the first soliloquy is an outraged man who, disgusted by his 'sullied flesh', can see no outcome to his disgust other than death. To free himself from the grip of his flesh he must put an end to his life. But there is the rub: God, the Everlasting, he tells us, does not allow one to act in this way. God still rules the universe and Hamlet must obey his strictures.

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O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew;

Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd

His canon 'gainst self-slaughter.

     Hamlet's attitude is different in 'To be, or not to be'. He asks himself about death beyond religious considerations; the nature of his dilemma has changed, as Hamlet tells us with a lucid simplicity.

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

And by opposing end them. 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 wish'd. To die, to sleep;

To sleep, perchance to dream-ay, there's the rub:

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.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,

The pangs of despis'd love, the law's delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th'unworthy takes

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

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 pitch and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.

In the first soliloquy Hamlet submits to rules and prohibitions; in the second he imagines and rationalises and decides to remain in the world, for the moment at least. But he goes much further. Throughout the final act he pictures the final scene. There, where another dramatist would have given the dying Hamlet a long discourse on death, Shakespeare has Hamlet say just a few words of disconcerting simplicity, 'the rest is silence', precisely because Hamlet has already said everything before:

Alas, poor Yorick! (Act Five, Scene One) And a man's life's no more than to say 'one'. (Act Five, Scene Two)

There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. (Act Five, Scene Two)

     The other two soliloquies are memorable because they reveal all the passionate nature of Hamlet's personality. Observing young Fortinbras and his army on their way to conquer Poland-'an eggshell', 'a wisp of straw'-Hamlet, on the edge of despair, asks himself why he, when he has so many reasons, cannot stir himself to action, why he cannot carry out the necessary act of vengeance. Why? Why? The last lines of Act Four are very revealing:

How all occasions do inform against me,

And spur my dull revenge. What is a man

If his chief good and market of his time

Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.

Sure he that made us with such large discourse,

Looking before and after, gave us not

That capability and godlike reason

To fust in us unus'd. Now whether it be

Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple

Of thinking too precisely on th' event -

A thought which, quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom

And ever three parts coward-I do not know

Why yet I live to say this thing's to do,

Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means

To do't. Examples gross as earth exhort me,

Witness this army of such mass and charge,

Led by a delicate and tender prince,

Whose spirit, with divine ambition puff'd,

Makes mouths at the invisible event,

Exposing what is mortal and unsure

To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,

Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great

Is not to stir without great argument,

But greatly to find quarrel in a straw

When honour's at the stake. How stand I then,

That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd,

Excitements of my reason and my blood,

And let all sleep, while to my shame I see

The imminent death of twenty thousand men

That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,

Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot

Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,

Which is not tomb enough and continent

To hide the slain? O, from this time forth

My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth.

     Some actors, including the very best, believe that the most beautiful soliloquy is that which comes at the end of Act Two, immediately after the first discussion between Hamlet and the travelling players. Here Hamlet is enraged, furious and rude. He lays himself, we feel, totally bare. He is no fool however. Recovering his spirits he devises a plan which will lead the king to betray himself. This is Shakespeare at the height of his theatrical prowess, stamping Hamlet's language with relentless changes in tone, the peaks of rage inter-cut with short moments of profound depression or of incredulous questioning.

O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!

Is it not monstrous that this player here,

But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,

Could force his soul so to his own conceit

That from her working all his visage wann'd,

Tears in his eyes, distractions in his aspect,

A broken voice, and his whole function suiting

With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!

For Hecuba!

What's Hecuba to him, or he to her,

That he should weep for her? What would he do

Had he the motive and the cue for passion

That I have? He would drown the stage with tears,

And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,

Make mad the guilty and appal the free,

Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed

The very faculties of eyes and ears.

Yet I,

A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak

Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause

And can say nothing-no, not for a king,

Upon whose property and most dear life

A damn'd defeat was made. Am I a coward?

Who calls me villain, breaks my pate across,

Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face,

Tweaks me by the nose, gives me the lie i'th' throat

As deep as to the lungs-who does me this?

Ha!

'Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be

But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall

To make oppression bitter, or ere this

I should ha' fatted all the region kites

With this slave's offal. Bloody, bawdy villain!

Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,

That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Must like a whore unpack my heart with words

And fall a-cursing like a very drab,

A scullion! Fie upon't! Foh!

About, my brains. Hum-I have heard

That guilty creatures sitting at a play

Have, by the very cunning of the scene,

Been struck so to the soul that presently

They have proclaim'd their malefactions.

For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak

With most miraculous organ. I'll have these players

Play something like the murder of my father

Before mine uncle. I'll observe his looks;

I'll tent him to the quick. If a do blench

I know my course. {...}

The play's the thing

Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.

The character of Hamlet is without doubt one of the roles most coveted by actors. However, some claim it is also one of the easiest. The text is so beautiful and so expressive that it merely has to be spoken; it flows by itself effortlessly and it only remains for the actor to be coherent for the duration of the performance. Yet it is here that choices have to be made. How should one approach these soliloquies? Should one treat them as pieces of music and approach them as one would the arias of an opera? Shakespeare's language certainly lends itself to such an approach. Or should one see these speeches as Hamlet's thoughts which he expresses aloud, and deliver them as if he were speaking to himself? Alternatively, isn't Hamlet in the act of saying something to the public through the special and particular magic of the theatre, isn't he taking us into his confidence in an act of communion which resembles, in some aspects, an act of love? These three approaches are possible, as well as others, of course.

 

The Seven Soliloquies

1. 'O that this too sullied flesh would melt' (Act One, Scene Two)

2. 'O all you host of heaven' (Act One, Scene Five)

3. 'O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!' (Act Two, Scene Two)

4. 'To be, or not to be, that is the question' (Act Three, Scene One)

5. 'Tis now the very witching time of night' (Act Three, Scene Three)

6. 'And so a goes to heaven' (Act Three, Scene 3)

7. 'How all occasions do inform against me' (Act Four, Scene Four)


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