In William Shakespeare’s dramatic tragedy Hamlet the fourth of the seven soliloquies by the hero is generally considered exceptional and more famous than the others. This essay will examine and analyze this soliloquy, and explore the reasons for its fame.
This famous soliloquy manifests the expression of very deep and conflicting emotions. Ruth Nevo in “Acts III and IV: Problems of Text and Staging” explains the basic conflict within the hero’s most famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy:
Since we know what Hamlet’s obligatory task is, we cannot but register the possibility that the taking of arms and the “enterprises of great pitch and moment” refer to the killing of Claudius, though the logic of the syntax makes them refer to the self-slaughter which is the subject of the whole disquisition. And conversely, because self-slaughter is the ostensible subject of the whole disquisition, we cannot read the speech simply as a case of conscience in the matter of revenge – Christian revenge and the secular sanctions and motivations of honor. (46)
Is the fourth soliloquy addressing only the prince’s specific situation? Or is it applicable universally to humankind? 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...
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...ons: Hamlet. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. Rpt. from The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance. N.p.: Yale University Press, 1976.
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.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995. http://www.chemicool.com/Shakespeare/hamlet/full.html No line nos.
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