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To be or not to be - Hamlet (soliloquy, Act Three, Scene One)

Hamlets to be or not to be soliloquy is one of the most famous of Shakespeares lines, and can be
analysed using many language features to understand the message behind the words. The soliloquy is part
of Act Three, Scene One, and so helps shape the developing action in the play as it is when Hamlet realises
he must take action. Previously in the play, his fathers ghost has charged him to take revenge on Claudius
for murdering him, and he is torn between carrying out this vengeance and thus suffer the consequences, or
ignoring the ghosts pleas. During this scene, Hamlet is onstage with Ophelia nearby, though unable to hear
him, and the audience are also aware that Claudius and Polonius are hidden and spying to Hamlet seeing
A common cause of debate is the meaning behind Hamlets complex speech. There is a degree of ambiguity
in this soliloquy, however the prevalently accepted interpretation is that Hamlet is considering whether or
not to commit suicide, however another interpretation is that Hamlet is wondering if he should kill Claudius.
An aspect that is commonly debated is whether or not Hamlet is aware he is being spied upon by Claudius
and Polonius which, dependent on whether or not this is the case, can completely change the meaning
behind Hamlets words. If Hamlet does know he is being watched, and thus is putting on an act of madness,
then the soliloquy may be interpreted as a considering whether or not to kill Claudius. However if Hamlet
truly is mad and debating with himself over the recurrent themes of death, the afterlife and suffering, then it
is easily interpreted as Hamlet debating suicide. The soliloquy itself begins with Hamlet discussing suicide; he
weighs it up, contemplating whether it is a noble action, and then further discusses nobility and coward-
ness. Is the most noble course to suffer all lifes hardships or fight against them? This leads on to Hamlet
discussing the idea of death as sleep though we may suffer nightmares we wake up from them, while
deaths sleep is eternal and it is unknown what suffering and nightmares will assault us. Hamlet uses this to
reflect on what stops people from committing suicide nobility, or fear of the unknown? He ponders the
question, what is one most afraid of, the possibility of damnation for taking ones life, or the certainty of
suffering on Earth? The audience is lead to realise that it is conscience, our moral compass, that prevents us
from doing the ignoble act of suicide; but also as Hamlet concludes, that such thinking in itself prevents
decisive action, and makes us too cowardly to embrace a course which reason tells us is noble. The overall
themes of death, afterlife and suffering present in the soliloquy allow the audience to see that he is feeling
pressured (though we are unsure if he is mad) by lifes burdens and his problems, and so has a morose, bleak
outlook on life.
This translates into a pessimistic and depressed mood in the soliloquy, as Hamlet contemplates his
problems. Most of Hamlets negative emotions are displayed as he speaks; grieving his fathers death,
disgusted by his mothers hasty and incestuous marriage, angry at his disloyal lover and friends spying on
him, as well as the pressures from the ghost. He is dejected and his words express his despair and
unwillingness to carry on living. The mood of the speech also highlights his uncertainty about what to do
concerning the ghost and its revenge, which leads to more questions as he sees a bleak and ruined future no
matter what he chooses. Shakespeare uses many language techniques to convey this mood to the audience.
The vocabulary used in this soliloquy is one such language technique used to convey this sombre mood.
Shakespeare uses certain words and phrases to highlight Hamlets inner turmoil and despair; his
preoccupation with death using words and phrases such as; not to be, to suffer, die, heartache, and
shocks is one such indication of these thoughts, as the negative connotations associated with this
highlights to the audience Hamlets despairing state of mind. Shakespeare further creates an ominous tone
by using euphemisms such as not to be, sleep, shuffled off this mortal coil, quietus and this
undiscovered country, which centre around death to highlight the negative tone of the soliloquy.
To further enrich the soliloquy and convey the tone Shakespeare uses plentiful imagery to show the
audience how Hamlet currently sees life in this world. The entire soliloquy is rich in imagery, and
Shakespeare begins with the metaphors, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and take arms
against.. to show that he feels like fate is armed against him as he is assaulted by life. The metaphor is
extended to take arms against.. further displaying his attitude that he is under attack but he then
confuses the metaphor by describing a sea of troubles, as it is impossible to fight the sea. However the
meaning behind his words is clear, as it gives the impression that the troubles piled against him are not
something he can fight against, but merely stand and be battered by the tide of problems fate has dealt him
his fathers death, mothers hasty remarriage, and friends betrayal. Further significant imagery in this
soliloquy is the whips and scorns of time, and the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that
suggest Hamlet is in constant pain as he struggles to push through the betrayals and heartache of living. This
is further emphasised when he goes into depth concerning other times life becomes painful the
oppressors wrongs when those more powerful abuse their power and treat those lower than them badly.
The pangs of disprized love unrequited love, the laws delay when justice seems slow in coming, if at
all, to those in the wrong. The imagery created is relatable to us as we suffer from these inflictions life puts
upon us as well, and thus helps us understand and feel for Hamlet as he essentially describes life as being
under assault. A final pattern of imagery talks of the undiscovered country where no traveller returns
from death. During this time, he seems to forget the ghost, or simply does not consider the ghost as being
alive. As he describes death he comes to the conclusion that taking his own life is not really an option, as we
would rather bear those ills..., than to fly to others we know not of.
Shakespeare further develops the richness of the soliloquy with antithesis, and thus develops his ideas so
that the audience is drawn into the depth of his discussion. A main use of antithesis is the use of opposites
and oxymorons, which is used a lot in the play. The most obvious example being to be or not to be, but
this also includes sleep/dream, calamity/long life, conscience/cowards. Hamlets way of explaining the two
sides of the argument causes the audience to become more engaged as the dramatic tension builds. A
reflective tone is created as Hamlet seems to weigh up and balance alternatives, almost as if he is debating
with himself. The opposition of life versus death explored in this soliloquy all an extension of the first line,
to be or not to be gives the impression of an internal struggle and demonstrates the complex workings of
Hamlets mind as he struggles to reconcile himself with what life is throwing at him.
A further language technique used in this soliloquy is repetition. This technique is used throughout the
soliloquy to both emphasise ideas as well as creating a reflective, musing tone. Words such as sleep, bear,
and thus are repeated frequently; who would bear, Who would fardels bear, bear those ills.
Phrases are also repeated, to be, to die, to sleep. The repetition of these words and phrases
highlights aspects of the soliloquy, such as sleep, which Hamlet uses as a metaphor for death, and bear,
which has a connotation of struggle and suffering. These help convey the mood and theme of death and
suffering explored in the soliloquy. A further technique of repetition is doubles, such as slings and arrows,
heartache and the thousand natural shocks, whips and scorns and grunt and sweat. Without going into
the meaning of each phrase, these techniques create a more reflective tone as it slows the pace of the
words, and further adds depth and sincerity to ideas as the repetition reinforces the meaning of phrases.
This reinforcement of particular ideas, such as sleep and death, also helps set the tone and atmosphere of
the soliloquy.
Listing is also a technique used in the soliloquy, notably when we are presented with a litany of Hamlets
complaints the whips and scorns of time. Hamlet lists seven items which give a cumulative sense of
humanitys burden; the whips and scorns of time, the oppressors wrong, the proud mans contumely, the
pangs of despised love, the laws delay, the insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the
unworthy takes. One interpretation of this, leading on from the theme of death and suffering present in the
soliloquy, is that Hamlet is referring to himself and listing his many problems; his fathers death, the rough
hand fate has dealt him, his mothers hasty remarriage, Ophelia pushing him away, Claudius oppression,
and his friends spying on him, among others. However a further interpretation of this is that it is Hamlets
general condemnation of how an individual is trapped in society. This is a viable interpretation as it is in
accordance with how Hamlet is feeling at the time as he struggles to decide whether to act, or not to act, as
well as feeling trapped in the state of Denmark with court and the oppression of Claudius.
A final technique used in this soliloquy is the staging opportunities, and how players are positioned on the
stage. Though Hamlets words and phrases have been studied in great detail, we must remember that it is
one of Shakespeares plays, and to be performed as such helps us understand the message Shakespeare is
trying to convey through the soliloquy. The purpose of this soliloquy is to allow Hamlet to share his thoughts
with us as an internal debate, and as a play this soliloquy is also presented to the audience. However stage
direction and positioning are important factors in the interpretation of the meaning behind the words, and
directors or actors can interpret the soliloquy very differently, and convey this to the audience through stage
direction. Several main adaptations today include leading actors such as Mel Gibson, David Tennant, and
Kenneth Branagh. Each has different interpretations of the exact same words, and this is conveyed through
stage direction. In Tennant and Gibsons versions of the play, they perform the soliloquy alone and focus on
the aspects of death and suicide though in Tennants case he is clearly not mad. However in Branaghs
version of the play, he speaks directly to the mirror behind which the audience knows Claudius and Polonius
are hiding behind. This gives the impression that Hamlet either knows he is being listened to, or is suspicious
of this, and so may in fact be putting on an act of madness and despair in the soliloquy. This changes the
interpretation from the Gibson/Tennant clear private contemplation of suicide to a public contemplation of
murder. Also on stage during this soliloquy is Ophelia, and though Hamlet does not know she is there yet,
the audience knows she is also there. The main question raised from these different stage directions and
interpretations is, does Hamlet whether or not he is being watched. Thus staging opportunities allow the
same words to have completely different meanings, but also allow the audience to have a further in depth
understanding of what the soliloquy is about.
Hamlets to be or not to be.. soliloquy are some of the most famous lines in the whole English literary
canon (Bloom), and in this way we are brought into Hamlets mind in a unique way more than any other
tragedy, our focus is on the mind, and madness, of the protagonist. This soliloquy focuses on themes of
uncertainty, death, afterlife and suffering the tragedy for Hamlet is that what he must do is both his duty
and his downfall. The interpretations of Hamlet will change with different ages and changing values is he a
chivalrous knight, gentleman or son for taking revenge? Or does he hold true to Christian beliefs by not
taking revenge and suffering the sin of sloth? Hamlet explores this theme of uncertainty and so reflects the
modern mans predicament of what to do with his free will and thus of Shakespeares plays Hamlet stays
the most closely identified with the modern age. As Ida Gaskin explains, even after centuries of study we still
know nothing for sure about Hamlet it is a play full of unanswered questions, reflecting the uncertainty
and perception of our ever-changing understanding of life, and death.
Marie Poff