The Soliloquies of Shakespeare's Hamlet - To be or not to be Soliloquy

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The “To be or not to be” Soliloquy of Hamlet

Does the hero in Shakespeare’s Hamlet deliver a soliloquy that does not fit the dramatic context? Does the soliloquy suggest that suicide is imminent? This essay proposes to answer these and other questions relevant to the “To be or not to be” soliloquy.

Lawrence Danson in the essay “Tragic Alphabet” discusses the most famous of soliloquies as involving an “eternal dilemma”:

The problem of time’s discrediting effects upon human actions and intentions is what makes Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy eternal dilemma rather than fulfilled dialectic. Faced with the uncertainty of any action, an uncertainty that extends even to the afterlife, Hamlet, too, finds the “wick or snuff” of which Claudius speaks: “Thus conscience” – by which Hamlet means, I take it, not only scruples but all thoughts concerning the future –

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. – (III.i.83). (75)

Considering the context of this most notable soliloquy, the speech appears to be a reaction from the determination which ended the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy. In fact, in the Quarto of 1603 the “To be” speech comes BEFORE the players’ scene and the nunnery scene – and is thus more logically positioned to show its emotional connection to the previous soliloquy (Nevo 46).

Marchette Chute in “The Story Told in Hamlet” describes just how close the hero is to suicide while reciting his famous soliloquy:

Hamlet enters, desperate enough b...

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Levin, Harry. “An Explication of the Player’s Speech.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. Rpt. from The Question of Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Nevo, Ruth. “Acts III and IV: Problems of Text and Staging.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. Rpt. from Tragic Form in Shakespeare. N.p.: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Rosenberg, Marvin. “Laertes: An Impulsive but Earnest Young Aristocrat.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from The Masks of Hamlet. Newark, NJ: Univ. of Delaware P., 1992.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995. http://www.chemicool.com/Shakespeare/hamlet/full.html
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