Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy is questionably oneof the most famous soliloquies in the world of literature.
Even though hundredsof years have passed since it was written, many people are somewhat familiarwith this soliloquy. The recognition has allowed these powerful words tomaintain such a hold on people’s minds and has provoked a wide spectrum ofpeople to ask questions about their own existence for centuries. The questionsbeing asked is extremely complex and crucial to the story, and is seen to behighly relatable on many basis; whether it’s better for one to continue livinga life of sadness just to increase his existence in a world where he isfamiliar with the horrors he faces, or if it is simply easier to put an end toone’s existence altogether but risk entering an unavoidable reality that lacksany degree of certainty. In the soliloquy, “To be, or not to be,” the powerfulthemes of indecisiveness and uncertainty of action, and the complexities oflife and death, bring to light the key ideas that persist throughout theShakespearean tragedy, as well as many significant qualities and traits of theplay’s leading character, Prince Hamlet. Many people have seen Hamlet as aplay about indecisiveness, and thus about Hamlet’s failure to actappropriately. The uncertainty he faces is repetitively demonstrated throughoutHamlet’s soliloquy, as he unnecessarily plans over what to do with his life. Hesimultaneously considers and discards the idea of committing suicide couple oftimes; he believes that this act will serve as an escape from the pain that hislife brings upon him, but is unsure of what is to come once he does.
During hissoliloquy, Hamlet says: “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?” (3.1.57-61).
This quote describes Hamlet as a character who is uncertain if it is honorableto put up with all the trials and pain that luck throws his way, or to fightagainst all those troubles by simply putting an end to them for good; which hethinks can be achieved by ending his life. Hamlet is tortured by the death ofhis father; the appearance of his father’s ghost serves as a constant reminderof this part of his forbidding past, thus making it difficult for him to moveon and leave this pain behind. Hamlet doesn’t like his mother’s betrayal toboth him and his late father when she marries her dead husband’s brother –Hamlet’s uncle Claudius – who is now the King of Denmark. These two aspects arethe main contributions to the overwhelming feelings of pain and grief thatHamlet experiences.
He feels as if there is no other option besides suicide toease this pain, but he is still unwilling to make this decision in all itsfinality. His uncertain thoughts are in constant battle; this internal conflictis shown when he says, “No more—and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache andthe thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation/Devoutlyto be wished! To die, to sleep. /To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s therub, /For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/When we have shuffled offthis mortal coil, /Must give us pause.” (3.1.
66-67). It is evident that themain reason he hesitates to take the final step in his plan of suicide isbecause he is uncertain of what lies after death; it could either be a heavenlysleep of pleasant dreams, or a tortured sleep full of nightmares. This lack ofcertainty, along with his religious outlook on life, is what makes him sohesitant to act for so long. He is aware that committing suicide is considereda sin in the Christian faith he follows, and doing so would make him subject toeternal damnation in hell; a possibility that frightens him more than any possiblepain. Theweight of one’s mortality and the difficulties of life and death are introducedfrom the very beginning of the Shakespearean tragedy of Hamlet. After hisfather’s death, Hamlet cannot stop thinking and considering the meaning of life– and its eventual ending. Many questions arise as the story progresses; whatis to come after death, if one will go to heaven if he is murdered, and ifkings truly have a free pass to heaven. In Hamlet’s mind, the idea of dyingitself does not seem so bad.
The view that primarily frightens him away fromtaking his own life is the endless uncertainty of the afterlife. The coveredmystery of death creates a sense of unease within Hamlet’s mind. He considersthe option of suicide as the best way to instantly relieve him of his earthlytroubles. Although death may be appealing to Hamlet because of its all-endingnature, it also frightens him.
He refers to the afterlife as “The undiscoveredcountry from whose bourn/ No traveler returns” (3.1.80-81), which is an ideathat causes him to reconsider before falling into the ultimate sleep; becauseonce he does it, there is no going back, even if the supposed horrors of theafterlife prove too much to handle. The fact that Hamlet is still planning theact of suicide even after he has sworn to avenge his father reveals that theseearthly troubles lie much deeper than simple grief over the murder of hisfather. Hamlet’s anger against his mother’s betrayal stalks from the fear thatif his mother can so easily forget his father’s life after death, then lifeitself must have no meaning at all. With the pure lack of decency and moralitythat Hamlet’s society possesses, causes a negative shadow to be cast on the wayhe values life; leading up to his thought of suicide.
Hamlet describes thecorrupt nature of the society he lives in when he says, “For who would bear thewhips and scorns of time, / Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, /The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, / The insolence of office, and thespurns/ That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,” (3.1.71-75). Through thisdescription, Hamlet’s grim outlook on life is shown to be evident. He trulydoes carry the burden of pain and suffering in his life, which makes him wantto end it. He is distressed by this decision that, in the end, he ironicallyleaves undecided; his fate of life or death was not in his hands after all. Hamletis a character that has fascinated audiences and readers of all sorts forcenturies. One of the notable traits to point out about his character is thathe is remarkably mysterious.
There always seems to be more to him than theother characters in the play can figure out. Hamlet tells other characters –including his mother, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – that there is more to himthan meets the eye. In fact, he single-handedly manages to deceive the othercharacters in the play when he falsely presents himself as a madman. However,this is not the only aspect of his character that leaves people so fascinatedby him. Hamlet, being an aspiring student, whose studies are interrupted by thedeath of his father, is exceptionally logical and thoughtful.
Hamlet ispresented with reasonable evidence that his uncle murdered his father, whichany other character in the play would readily accept and believe. However,despite having learnt this awareness, Hamlet instead becomes obsessed withproving his uncle’s guilt for himself before considering taking any realaction. The idea of just readily believing what people say is simplyunacceptable to him. Being the highly inquisitive character, he is, he tends toquestion everything, and overthink; including questions about the afterlife,suicide, and what happens to people after death. He finds himself drawn todifficult questions, some of which cannot be answered with any certainty. Hamletalso behaves quite rashly and impulsively, revealing himself to be a paradox ofa character.
On the very rare occasion when he does act, he does so withsurprising swiftness and little to no prior thought or reasoning. This can beseen through the way he stabs Polonius through the curtain, without eventhinking to confirm who was behind it before doing so. Hamlet’s cowardice isanother very important part of his character, and serves as one of his manytragic flaws. His never-ending observation and hesitation to act shows the hugeweakness he possesses. He’s not strong or brave enough to actually carry outthe deeds he sets out to do; just in this soliloquy alone, he shows signs ofcowardice when he continually suggests and then refuses the idea of suicide outof fear of the unknown; “the dread of something after death,/ The undiscoveredcountry from whose bourn/ No traveler returns, puzzles the will/ And makes usrather bear those ills we have/ Than fly to others that we know not of?/ Thusconscience does make cowards of us all” (3.1.79-84).
This part of Hamlet’ssoliloquy clearly describes the parts of death that frighten him from takingaction, and he blatantly admits that the fear of death makes him a coward.Another one of the major character traits that Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be”soliloquy reveals about him is his extremely depressed and discontentedattitude towards the state of affairs in Denmark and in his own family. When hedescribes the state of Denmark, he speaks of “Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proudman’s contumely, / The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,/ And Theinsolence of office” (3.1.
72-75), which portrays the place he lives in as vileand corrupt. As a result of his hatred towards his mother’s betrayal, Hamletimmediately generalizes all women as being foul and troublesome, and harshlyrejects his former lover Ophelia because of this. It is both remarkable andironic that Hamlet, the privileged Prince of Denmark who supposedly should haveeverything he wants in the world, is the one character in the play that is themost depressed and unhappy with his life. Hamletis a complex character, which is reflected by the thoughts and conflictedfeelings he displays in his soliloquy.
“To be, or not to be” truly is theessential question that Shakespeare sensibly leaves unanswered. This convincingquestion and the thoughts that Hamlet associates with it creates a powerfulpiece of literature, through which many parts of the Shakespearean tragedy areenhanced and explored. The powerful themes of indecisiveness and uncertainty ofaction, and the complexities of life and death, are emphasized through thissoliloquy; along with many of the key qualities and traits that draw so muchattention to the play’s leading character, Prince Hamlet. Hamlet’s tragicexperiences do call into sharper focus why humans are so ready to face hardshipto survive, rather than pursuing the possibility of a peaceful end in death.When looking deeper into the work, it is quite fascinating to consider that theplay has a way of showing its audience how many uncertainties people’s livesare built upon; and how these uncertainties play a considerable part in thedecisions people make.