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When the Bard of Avon created Hamlet, he simultaneously created the famous soliloquy ever uttered by English-speaking men. Thus it is that literary critics rank Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy as the most notable ever penned. Let’s examine in this essay how such a high ranking is deserved, and what the soliloquy means.
In his essay “An Explication of the Player’s Speech,” Harry Levin refers to the fourth soliloquy as the most famous of them all:
Dwelling on gross details and imperfections of the flesh (“Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight”), Hamlet will admonish his mother that sense-perception is dulled by sensual indulgence. Here insensibility is communicated by a rhetorical assault upon the senses: primarily “the very faculties of eyes and ears,” but incidentally touch and even taste. Leaving the senseless Priam to the insensate Pyrrhus, after another hiatus of half a line (37), the speech addresses violent objurgations to the bitch-goddess Fortune, about whom Hamlet has lately cracked ribald jokes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; whose buffets and rewards he prizes Horatio for suffering with equanimity; against whom he will, in the most famous of all soliloquies [my italics], be tempted to take arms. (36)
Marchette Chute in “The Story Told in Hamlet” describes just how close the hero is to suicide while reciting his most famous soliloquy:
Hamlet enters, desperate enough by this time to be thinking of suicide. It seems to him that it would be such a sure way of escape from torment, just to cease existing, and he gives the famous speech on suicide that has never been worn thin by repetition. “To be, or not to be . . .” It would be easy to stop living.
To die, to sleep;
No more. And by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to . . .
But Hamlet has never succeeded in deceiving himself, and he cannot do so now. . . .
[He] will not . . . be able to kill himself. He has thought too much about it to be able to take any action. (39)
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).
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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)
There are seven soliloquies of the prince in the play. The first soliloquy (“Frailty, thy name is woman”) ends with the arrival of Horatio, the hero’s closest friend (“Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man / As e'er my conversation coped withal.”), and Marcellus, who escort the prince to the ramparts of Elsinore to view the ghost of Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet, which they have seen. At one a.m. the ghost reveals to the protagonist the extent of the evil within Elsinore, “the human truth” (Abrams 467). The Ghost says that King Hamlet was murdered by Claudius, who had a relationship with Gertrude prior to the murder; the ghost requests revenge by Hamlet: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” Hamlet swears to carry out vengeance on King Claudius for the murder of his father; this is the occasion of his second soliloquy:
O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?
And shall I couple hell? O, fie! Hold, hold, my heart;
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up. Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. (1.5)
With the ghost’s revelations, Hamlet resolves to put on an “antic disposition” to disguise his intentions. His girlfriend, Ophelia, is unfortunately the first to experience the hero’s new “madness,” and she is terrorized by his visit. Her father, Polonius, diagnoses Hamlet’s condition as madness resulting from unrequited love. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern interrogate him on behalf of Claudius and Gertrude. When they leave him, he speaks his third soliloquy:
Now I am alone.
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, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba! (2.2)
While the prince has been ruminating over how to establish the king’s guilt, Ophelia has been agreeing to be a decoy to lure the hero so that the king and lord chamberlain can study him. At the time of the “chance” meeting, Hamlet is already feeling quite low, and perhaps even contemplating suicide. He recites his fourth, and most famous, soliloquy:
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,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised 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? 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 pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.--Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd. (3.10
In “Superposed Plays” Richard A. Lanham discusses this most famous of all the soliloquies:
The King and Polonius dangle Ophelia as bait and watch. Hamlet sees this. He may even be, as W. A. Bebbington suggested, reading the “To be or not to be” speech from a book, using it, literally, as a stage prop to bemuse the spyers-on, convince them of his now-become-suicidal-madness. No one in his right mind would fault the poetry. But it is irrelevant to anything that precedes. It fools Ophelia – no difficult matter – but it should not fool us. The question is whether Hamlet will act directly or through drama? Not at all. Instead, is he going to end it in the river? I put it thus familiarly to penetrate the serious numinosity surrounding this passage. Hamlet anatomizes grievance for all time. But does he suffer these grievances? He has a complaint indeed against the King and one against Ophelia. Why not do something about them instead of meditating on suicide? (93)
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. Whether Hamlet is talking of his revenge or of his desire for death, or of both, one substituting for the other as mask for truth (or truth for mask) therefore becomes the problem that this speech poses. It is customary again to invoke depth psychology [. . .]. (46)
When the hero suspects Ophelia’s collaboration with others as a decoy or lure for himself, he is completely alienated from her: “Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” Shortly thereafter, the hero, an actor himself (Rosenberg 63), redesigns a standard play, The Murder of Gonzago, into The Mousetrap – a reenactment of Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet. With Horatio and Hamlet observing the king’s reaction, Claudius shows himself to be guilty of the murder of his brother. Consequently Hamlet prepares for revenge:
Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on. (3.2)
En route to his mother’s room, Hamlet passes Claudius kneeling in prayer in the chapel, but refrains from killing him:
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven. (3.3)
The hero continues on to his mother’s room. While conversing with her, the very emotionally upset Hamlet detects a spy (Polonius) behind the arras and runs him through with his rapier.
The killing of Polonius, plus the suspicion of Claudius that Hamlet knows the king murdered King Hamlet, cause Claudius to send the Prince by ship to England -- where the prince will be put to death. Hamlet laments the obstacles to his revenge:
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 god-like reason
To fust in us unused. (4.4)
In the meantime, Ophelia loses her sanity because of the rejection by Hamlet and the death of Polonius. Laertes, when he learns of his father’s death, returns from France to avenge his father’s death and sister’s insanity; he allies with Claudius to scheme Hamlet’s death (The prince has been kidnapped by pirates en route to England and is now returning to Elsinore). Ophelia dies by drowning, and following her burial Claudius and Laertes implement their plan to kill the hero either by poisoned rapier or by poisoned drink. The queen drinks the poisoned cup, and both Laertes and Hamlet are fatally wounded by the foil. As he dies, Laertes reveals Claudius as the villain and Hamlet dispatches him promptly – without a soliloquy: “The point!--envenom'd too! Then, venom, to thy work.”
Abrams, M. H, ed. “William Shakespeare.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. New York: W.W.Norton and Co., 1996.
Chute, Marchette. “The Story Told in Hamlet.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from Stories from Shakespeare. N. p.: E. P. Dutton, 1956.
Danson, Lawrence. “Tragic Alphabet.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Rpt. from Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare’s Drama of Language. N. p.: Yale University Press, 1974.
Lanham, Richard A. “Superposed Plays.” Modern Critical Interpretations: 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.
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