Hamlet -- the “To be or not to be” Soliloquy
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 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)
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).
There are seven soliloquies of the prince in the play, and the “To be” soliloquy is the most famous. The first soliloquy (“Frailty, thy name is woman”) ends with the arrival of Horatio, the hero’s closest friend, and Marcellus, who escort the prince to the ramparts of Elsinore to view the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The ghost reveals that King Hamlet was murdered by Claudius, who had a relationship with Gertrude prior to the murder. Hamlet swears to carry out...