William Shakespeare’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy delivered by our lead character Hamlet is arguably the most popular soliloquy in all of literature, but is it? The question isn’t if it is the most popular in all of literature, but is it even a true soliloquy? Is it even original thought by Shakespeare? We will examine these questions in greater detail by scrutinizing articles written about these very topics and see if there is any validity to the claims. We will even look to the playwright himself, within his own work, to determine how he viewed the idea of the soliloquy.
Let us first examine a soliloquy, what it is now, what it was then, and how it has changed. James Hirsh opens his paper “Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies” with this keen observation:
Until the middle of the seventeenth century, soliloquies in European drama represented speeches by characters and did not represent the thoughts of characters. When neoclassical canons of taste replaced Renaissance canons, it became “unnatural” for a character to talk to himself or herself, and dramatists began to employ a new kind of soliloquy that represented thought…The highest purpose of this new kind of soliloquy was to represent the innermost thoughts of a character. (1)
Since Hamlet was written at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and the term ‘soliloquy’ wasn’t used in the theater until the middle of the century, it makes little sense why scholars anachronistically apply the term to works created in prior periods. Shakespeare used the soliloquy (for lack of a better term) to represent speech rather than thought. His characters often mentioned in passing that they might be overheard, which would certainly not be possible if the soliloquy was a glimpse into the inner thoughts and feelings of the character. Shakespeare made great use of the overheard soliloquy in many of his plays of all types, written at various times of his career. Romeo overheard the balcony soliloquy of Juliet. Two characters overheard Lady Macbeth in the sleepwalking scene. There are countless examples where Shakespeare avoided the inner monologue. Hirsh points out in his 1997 article: “More profoundly than any other dramatist, Shakespeare explored the potential consequences, comic and tragic, of the fact that human beings do not have access to one another’s mind. He dramatized how intensely human beings sometimes yearn for access to the minds of others, and he vividly depicted the maddening frustration this insatiable yearning sometimes produces” (9).
One of the great issues that comes with the “To be, or not to be” speech is that it is stripped completely from the context it was placed. This was the only way to turn the thirty-three-line speech into a soliloquy. You would have to ignore the entire context of the scene to even remotely believe we were hearing the inner thoughts of Hamlet. If we ignore the fact that Shakespeare wouldn’t have written the inner thoughts for a moment, why would he...