The “To be or not to be” Soliloquy of Hamlet
Does the hero in Shakespeare’s Hamlet deliver a soliloquy that does not fit the dramatic context? Does the soliloquy suggest that suicide is imminent? This essay proposes to answer these and other questions relevant to the “To be or not to be” soliloquy.
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).
Marchette Chute in “The Story Told in Hamlet” describes just how close the hero is to suicide while reciting his famous soliloquy:
Hamlet enters, desperate enough by this time to be thinking of suicide. It seems to him that it would be such a sure way of escape from torment, just to cease existing, and he gives the famous speech on suicide that has never been worn thin by repetition. “To be, or not to be . . .” It would be easy to stop living.
To die, to sleep;
No more. And by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to . . .
But Hamlet has never succeeded in deceiving himself, and he cannot do so now. . . .
[He] will not . . . be able to kill himself. He has thought too much about it to be able to take any action. (39)
There are seven soliloquies of the prince in the play. The first soliloquy (“Frailty, thy name is woman”) ends with the arrival of Horatio, the hero’s closest friend (“Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man / As e'er my conversation coped withal.”), and Marcellus, who escort the prince to the ramparts of Elsinore to view the ghost of Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet, which they have seen. At one a.m. the ghost reveals to the protagonist the extent of the evil within Elsinore, “the human truth” (Abrams 467). The Ghost says that King Hamlet was murdered by Claudius, who had a...