To Be or Not to Be - Hamlet's Answer

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To Be or Not to Be - Hamlet's Answer

As Hamlet approaches a waiting Ophelia, he begins one of the most famous soliloquies in all of literature with the immortal line: 'To be or not to be?that is the question' (III. i. 64). Yet this obvious reference to suicide only scratches the surface of the heart-rendering conflict felt by the young Dane.

Hamlet's impetuous desire to take his own life is only an impassioned reaction to the heavy burden of revenge that his father's murder has placed upon him. His greater struggle, and the focus of Hamlet itself, involves the questioning of the purpose and meaning of a life well-lived. The character of Hamlet pursues this knowledge through his manipulation of reality, his search for the courage necessary to fulfill his quest, and his eventual acceptance of his true responsibility.

Soon after the death of his father, Hamlet discovers the deceptive nature of appearances.

When the queen questions why he is so distracted by the appearance of those mourning, he replies by describing the facades of others:

These indeed ?seem,?

For they are actions that a man might play;

But I have that within which passes show,

These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (I. ii. 86-89)

Hamlet knows that his grief is genuine, and he is angered by what he believes are the superficial responses of others. Yet that anger soon turns to introspection as he considers the power of such role-playing. As he banters with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as they feebly attempt to discover the source of his bizarre behavior, Hamlet tells them that ?there is / nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it / so? (II. ii. 268-270). He has quickly learned that appearances can be altered and actions feigned...

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...what is?t to leave betimes? Let be. (V. ii. 234-238)

In his search to better understand his own purpose in life, Hamlet has inadvertently answered the question he so profoundly posed earlier in the play. Through observing the nature of reality and man?s ability to shape it, he learned more about the nature of truth. In discovering an inner sense of courage upon which he could draw, he found the strength he needed to follow his convictions. And finally, by accepting the reality of man?s temporal existence, he came to believe that integrity of thought and action is what gives life its meaning. ?To be or not to be ?? (III. i. 64). Shakespeare?s Hamlet offers a resounding answer to this enigma: if life is lived righteously and with conviction of purpose, then ?Let be? (V. ii. 238).


Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Washington Square, 1992.
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