To Be or Not to Be

To be or not to be

Act III.1.55

This soliloquy appears in Act 3 Scene 1. This is right after Hamlet has devised his plan to discover the truth about Claudius in his so-called “mousetrap.” It occurs right after Ophelia is told to confront Hamlet while Claudius and Polonius spy on his reactions to discover the nature of Hamlet’s madness. To find out if it is unrequited love that has anything to do with it, as Gertrude has suggested. Thus the soliloquy immediately precedes the confrontation with Ophelia where he insults her and calls “get thee to a nunnery.”  This is the last soliloquy before the mouse trap that is to change his attitude considerably. It is important to note that no other soliloquy appears in between this one and the “rogue and peasant slave soliloquy” since the second half of the “rogue and peasant slave soliloquy” introduces a new rational tone that this soliloquy continues in a deeper and more philisophical approach..

This philisophical or academic approach is marked by the formal emphasis on “question.” This states from the beginning that he is engaged in a strictly intellectual exercise that characterizes Hamlet as a deep thinker. The phrase “That is the question” also adds weight to the problem developed in the soliloquy. The opening line also suggests analytically that he has two courses of action “to be, or not to be.” He has thus formally set out a structure that further asserts Hamlet as an academic thinker. In the development of Hamlet, the special usage of language is also important. There are several words that connect with the feeling that life is a terrible burden: “suffer, troubles, dies, sleep, heartache, natural shocks, mortal, calamity, bear, fardels, weary” These words develop the character of Hamlet as a the melancholy man we saw in his first soliloquy. Finally, the euphemism of sleep as opposed to death deserves attention. The sublte contrast between the two represents being and not being. It shows how Hamlet rejects death but welcomes the spiritual relief provided by sleep.

The tone, too, is entirely motivated by reason and untouched by passion. There is no other soliloquy that has such a smooth rythm as this one. It is this rythm that gives it its tone. It is almost perfectly written in the iambic pentameter that gives the soliloquy its quality of fluidity in contrast with the whirlpool of emotions and thoughts displayed in his previous soliloquies. This fluidity is essential becuase without it, we would not find Hamlet in such an imperturbablestate ratiocination as he is found here. The structure contrasts further from other soliloquis because of the frugality of hyphens and exclamation marks that gives other soliloquies their quality of disjointedness. Thus, Hamlet’s thoughts here are joined in a logical coherence that marks a great thinker and evokess the theme of man of intellect and inactivity vs. man of passion.

Althought the tone remains constant, we can still demarcate three sections to this soliloquy. These halves are determined from the use of language. The fist half uses an inclusive generalisation as seen through the “us” and the “we.” The second half uses impersonal generalisations to arrive at conclusions. It begins with “for who would Fardels bear.” And the last section begins with “Thus” demarcating the conclusion of Hamlet’s process of reasoning. It thus seems that Hamlet goes through some progress in his contemplation. As he transcends the angle of inclusive generalisation he becomes more certain of the truths that he is speaking. The impersonal generalisations take the form of self-evident axioms that apply to all of humanity. In the last section Hamlet rises to yet another level of awareness and the process of generalisation is completed. The ultimate generalisation of the soliloquy applies to the whole play. It says that thinking makes us demur.

This brings rise to one of the major themes dealt with in the play. Why is Hamlet procrastinating? Is it because he over-intellectualises and “thinks to precisely on the event.” Second there is the religious conflict. The Everlasting’s “cannon against self-slaughter” is seen again here from another stand point. Here there is nothing that prevents self slaughter but thinking itself. The prospect of nightmares, the prospect of a dreadful undiscovered country puzzles the will causing us to bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.

In the soliloquy we come across certain images that can be categorized as tools of destruction. “Slings, Arrows, Arms, Whips and Bodkin.” belongs to this category. Where as in the first soliloquy Hamlet would have himself automatically resolve into a dew, here Hamlet is faced with the conflict of having to act. It is the images of these tools that places Hamlet in this light. Second of all we should pay attention to the legal or state related imagery. The “oppressor” “law’s delay” “the insolence of office” “the proud man” and “disprized love” and “quietus” all belong to this group of images. They resemble the futility of Hamlet’s own social struggle against Hamlet’s own oppressor – Claudius. So although Hamlet has transcended inclusive generalisation, there are still strong personal attachments. The legal imagery suggests that Suffering is all-powerfull and that resitance against it is futile. The suffering is thus analogous to a social struggle that Hamlet is also undergoing.