In “Hamlet”, the question of how to act is affected not only by rational considerations, such as the need for certainty, but also by emotional, ethical, and psychological factors. Hamlet himself appears to distrust the idea that it’s even possible to act in a controlled, purposeful way. When he does act, he prefers to do it blindly, recklessly, and violently. The other characters obviously think much less about “action” in the abstract than Hamlet does, and are therefore less troubled about the possibility of acting effectively. They simply act as they feel is appropriate. But in some sense they prove that Hamlet is right, because all of their actions miscarry. Claudius possesses himself of queen and crown through bold action, but his conscience torments him, and he is beset by threats to his authority (and, of course, he dies). Laertes resolves that nothing will distract him from acting out his revenge, but he is easily influenced and manipulated into serving Claudius’s ends, and his poisoned rapier is turned back upon himself.
“To be or not to be” is the opening phrase of a soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. It is perhaps the most famous of all literary quotations but there is deep disagreement on the meaning of both the phrase and the speech. Even today, 400 years after it was written, most people are vaguely familiar with the soliloquy even though they may not know the play.
Pros and Cons of the 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,—
…With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.”
This soliloquy, probably the most famous speech in the English language, is spoken by Hamlet in Act III, scene i (58–90). His most logical and powerful examination of the theme of the moral legitimacy of suicide in an unbearably painful world, it touches on several of the other important themes of the play. Hamlet poses the problem of whether to commit suicide as a logical question: “To be, or not to be,” that is, to live or not to live. He then weighs the moral ramifications of living and dying. Is it nobler to suffer life, “[t]he slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” passively or to actively seek to end one’s suffering? He compares death to sleep and thinks of the end to suffering, pain, and uncertainty it might bring, “[t]he heartache, and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to.” Based on this metaphor, he decides that suicide is a desirable course of action, “a consummation / Devoutly to be wished.” But, as the religious word “devoutly” signifies, there is more to the question, namely, what will happen in the afterlife.
In this soliloquy, Shakespeare strikes a chord with a fundamental human concern: the validity and worthiness of life. One reason is that they are a stunning example of Shakespeare’s ability to make his characters seem three-dimensional. The audience senses that there is more to Hamlet’s words than meets the ear—that there is something behind his words that is never spoken. Or, to put it another way, the audience witnesses signs of something within Hamlet’s mind that even he isn’t aware of. Hamlet is a fictional character who seems to possess a subconscious mind. How does Shakespeare manage to accomplish this?
In the first place, Hamlet does not talk directly about what he’s really talking about. When he questions whether it is better “to be, or not to be,” the obvious implication is, “Should I kill myself?” The entire soliloquy strongly suggests that he is toying with suicide and perhaps trying to work up his courage to do it. But at no point does he say that he is in pain or discuss why he wants to kill himself. In fact, he never says “I” or “me” in the entire speech. He is not trying to “express” himself at all; instead, he poses the question as a matter of philosophical debate. When he claims that everybody would commit suicide if they weren’t uncertain about the afterlife, it sounds as if he’s making an argument to convince an imaginary listener about an abstract point rather than directly addressing how the question applies to him.
He then decides that the uncertainty of the afterlife, which is intimately related to the theme of the difficulty of attaining truth in a spiritually ambiguous world, is essentially what prevents all of humanity from committing suicide to end the pain of life. He outlines a long list of the miseries of experience, ranging from lovesickness to hard work to political oppression, and asks who would choose to bear those miseries if he could bring himself peace with a knife, “[w]hen he himself might his quietus make / With a bare bodkin?” He answers himself again, saying no one would choose to live, except that “the dread of something after death” makes people submit to the suffering of their lives rather than go to another state of existence which might be even more miserable. The dread of the afterlife, Hamlet concludes, leads to excessive moral sensitivity that makes action impossible: “conscience does make cowards of us all . . . thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”
In this way, this speech connects many of the play’s main themes, including the idea of suicide and death, the difficulty of knowing the truth in a spiritually ambiguous universe, and the connection between thought and action. In addition to its crucial thematic content, this speech is important for what it reveals about the quality of Hamlet’s mind. His deeply passionate nature is complemented by a relentlessly logical intellect, which works furiously to find a solution to his misery. He has turned to religion and found it inadequate to help him either kill himself or resolve to kill Claudius. Here, he turns to a logical philosophical inquiry and finds it equally frustrating.
Now, it’s perfectly ordinary for characters in plays to say something other than what they mean to other characters (this suggests that they are consciously hiding their true motives), but Hamlet does it when he is talking to himself. This creates the general impression that there are things going on in Hamlet’s mind that he cannot think about directly.
While we are on the subject of what is going on inside Hamlet’s mind, let us consider his encounter with Ophelia. This conversation, closely watched by Claudius and Polonius, is, in fact, a test. It’s supposed to establish whether Hamlet’s madness stems from his lovesickness over Ophelia. Before we, the audience, see this encounter, we already think we know more than Claudius does: we know that Hamlet is only acting crazy, and that he is doing it to hide the fact that he is plotting against (or at least investigating) his uncle. Therefore, it cannot be true that he is acting mad because of his love for Ophelia. But witnessing Hamlet’s encounter with her throws everything we think we know into question.
Does Hamlet mean what he says to Ophelia? He says that he did love her once but that he does not love her now. There are several problems with concluding that Hamlet says the opposite of what he means in order to appear crazy. For one thing, if he really does love her, this is unnecessarily self-destructive behavior. It is unnecessary because it doesn’t accomplish very much; that is, it does not make Claudius suspect him less. His professions of former love make him appear fickle, or emotionally withdrawn, rather than crazy.
Is Hamlet really crazy or just pretending? He announced ahead of time that he was going to act crazy, so it is hard to conclude that he (coincidentally) really went mad right after saying so. But his behavior toward Ophelia is both self-destructive and fraught with emotional intensity. It does not obviously further his plans. Moreover, his bitterness against Ophelia, and against women in general, resonates with his general discontentedness about the state of the world, the same discontentedness that he expresses when he thinks no one is watching. There is a passionate intensity to his unstable behavior that keeps us from viewing it as fake.
Perhaps it is worthwhile to ask this question: if a person in a rational state of mind decides to act as if he is crazy, to abuse the people around him regardless of whether he loves those people or hates them, and to give free expression to all of his most antisocial thoughts, when he starts to carry those actions out, will it even be possible to say at what point he stops pretending to be crazy and starts actually being crazy?
In spite of the utmost fame of Hamlet’s well-known soliloquy, there are some scholars who have criticized its flaws, and even have been so bold as to say that Hamlet speaks out of character when he delivers the famous words. The main points of disagreement about this speech are
- whether it is about suicide or merely the condition of being dead
- whether – if it is about suicide – Hamlet is suicidal or merely philosophising about it
- what the apparent theme of endurance vs. action (“to suffer..or..take arms”) has to do with being and nonbeing
- what the conclusion means and how it follows from the preceding parts of the speech.
1. It is hard to interpret ‘making one’s own quietus’ as anything other than suicide but it is odd that having dismissed suicide earlier in the play (in the ‘Too too solid flesh’ soliloquy) as an option closed to him on religious grounds Hamlet should return to the subject apparently without those qualms.
2. Since he last expressed suicidal thoughts the situation has worsened in that he is now convinced his father’s death was murder and he must take revenge on his uncle, who is now also his king and stepfather, and Ophelia has apparently rejected his love: more reasons for suicide, one may think. On the other hand while Hamlet’s other soliloquies are intensely subjective and agonised, ‘To be’ is almost studiously abstract, not containing a single ‘I’ or ‘me’ nor much obvious passion.
3. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer..Or to take arms” seems clearly to ask whether it is better to be stoically passive to life’s troubles or heroically active against them. The trouble is how this relates to ‘to be or not to be’. Some regard it as a different question, dismissing the problem by claiming Hamlet’s thoughts have already moved on, while others perceive a logical continuity; of these, some think the equivalence is between ‘to be’ and ‘to suffer’ and others that ‘to be’ is ‘to take arms’. Considering the full context of the lines, however, it is apparent that “to suffer The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune” equates to living a hard life (“to be”), and that “to take Arms against a Sea of troubles, And by opposing end them” equates to the act of killing oneself (“not to be”). This explains why the sentence comes directly after “To be, or not to be.” The theory is further evidenced by what comes after the colon: “to die, to sleep No more.”
4. On its own, ‘Conscience makes us cowards’ seems straightforwardly to condemn moral awareness for preventing action. One problem with this is the likelihood that a moral hero would condemn morality, the other is again logical: the word ‘Thus’ suggests Hamlet has deduced his conclusion but since morality has not figured in the speech it seems to many critics a nonsequitur. They suggest an alternative meaning of ‘Conscience’ such that the fault lies with our thinking about death, or with thinking per se.
These are fundamental uncertainties that make an objective summary of the speech’s meaning impossible. Even so, the speech is regardedas Hamlet’s most significant and as a jewel of world literature.
Tobias Smollett, a major eighteenth-century English novelist, and his contemporary Charles Gildon see the soliloquy as unnecessary in that it does not further the dramatic action of the play. Tobias Smollett writes in an essay dated 1756 which is cited in George Rousseau’s Tobias Smollett: Essays of Two Decades(1982):
…there are an hundred characters in [Shakespeare's] plays that (if we may be allowed the expression) speak out of character. … The famous soliloquy of Hamlet is introduced by the head and shoulders. He had some reason to revenge his father’s death upon his uncle, but he had none to take away his own life. Nor does it appear from any other part of the play that he had any such intention. On the contrary, when he had a fair opportunity of being put to death in England he very wisely retorted the villainy of his conductors on their own heads.
Charles Gildon’s comments find their expression in Margreta de Grazia’s “Hamlet” without Hamlet, “That famous soliloquy which has been so much cry’d up in Hamlet has no more to do there than a description of the grove and altar of Diana, mention’d by Horace”. Indeed, many think the soliloquy is out of place, and some assert that he is not contemplating suicide at all. In 1765, Samuel Johnson explains the thought, or inner monologue, of Hamlet as he delivers the soliloquy in a manner that eliminates any struggle with thoughts of suicide:
Before I can form any rational scheme of action under this pressure of distress, it is necessary to decide whether, after our present state, we are to be or not to be. That is the question which, as it shall be answered, will determine whether ’tis nobler and more suitable to the dignity of reason to suffer the outrages of fortune patiently, or to take arms against them, and by opposing end them, though perhaps with the loss of life. If to die were to sleep, no more, and by a sleep to end the miseries of our nature, such a sleep were devoutly to be wished; but if to sleep in death be to dream, to retain our powers of sensibility, we must pause to consider in that sleep of death what dreams may come. (Grazia, 2007: 12)
A Transformation in Position over Moment:
Whether or not you agree that the soliloquy is out of place within the play or that Hamlet speaks out of character, it is interesting to note that the placement of the soliloquy within the play has changed over time. At one point in history, Hamlet’s famous soliloquy was placed earlier in the play than it is now. A year later it was changed to occur later, after Hamlet devises the play within the play. H.B. Charlton, in an essay dated 1942, explains the importance of whether the soliloquy lies before or after Hamlet devises his incriminating play:
[If] the play within the play was devised by Hamlet to give him a really necessary confirmation of the ghost’s evidence, why is this the moment he chooses to utter his profoundest expression of despair, ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’? For, if his difficulty is what he says it is, this surely is the moment when the strings are all in his own hands. He has by chance found an occasion for an appropriate play, and, as the king’s ready acceptance of the invitation to attend shows, he can be morally certain that the test will take place; and so, if one supposes him to need confirmation, within a trice he will really know. Yet this very situation finds him in the depths of despair. Can he really have needed the play within the play? The point is of some importance, because in the 1603 Quarto of Hamlet, this ‘To be, or not to be’ speech occurs before Hamlet has devised the incriminating play. In the 1604 and later versions, the speech comes where we now read it. I know no more convincing argument that the 1604 Quarto is a master-dramatist’s revision of his own first draft of a play.
In fine, through this soliloquy, Hamlet attempts to reason out whether the unknown beyond of death is any easier to bear than life. The underlying theme remains Hamlet’s inaction and his frustration at his own weaknesses. Here, however, Hamlet seems less introspective about his failure to kill Claudius than perhaps his failure to take his own life. This is also a speech that discovers the idea of consequence.
Grazia, Margreta de. “Hamlet” without Hamlet. Paperback; Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York, 2007.
Johnson, Samuel. “Preface to the Plays of William Shakespeare.”
Rousseau, George (1982). Tobias Smollett: Essays of Two Decades (Edinburgh: T&T Clark).
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995.