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Act III,Scene 1

Hamlet enters, brooding(thinks deeply about something that makes someone


unhappy) "To be or not to be." In The Story of English, Robert MacNeil writes, "When
Hamlet says 'To be or not to be: that is the question,' he has summarized in one
sentence all that follows." Many scholars consider this speech to be one of several
existential manifestos in Hamlet.(Existentialism professes that the past and future
are intangible; the present is all that humans can be sure of. For humans, being
what IS is the only truth; everything else is nothing.)
In this soliloquy, Hamlet explores the ideas of being and nothingness by
asserting(claiming) a basic premise: We are born, we live, and we die. Because no
one has returned from death to report, we remain ignorant of what death portends.
(predicts) Hence, Hamlet's dilemma encapsulates several universal human
questions: Do we try to affect our fate? Do we take action in the face of great
sorrow, or do we merely wallow in the suffering? Can we end our troubles by
opposing them? How do we know? What is the nature of death? Do we sleep in
death, or do we cease to sleep, thereby finding no rest at all?
Hamlet hopes that death is nothingness, that death will "end the heartache and the
thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to," that death will end thinking, knowing,
and remembering. But he fears that, in death, he will be haunted interminably by
bad dreams of life itself, by dreams heavy with the memory of fear and pain.
Ultimately, he says, that's why humans dread death. We fear that our consciences
will torment us forever. Thus, human beings choose life, with its torment and
burdens, chiefly to avoid death, the great unknown. However, death is, like life,
inescapable, and Hamlet curses his luck for having been born at all.
Hamlet's dilemma underlies the entire soliloquy. If he kills Claudius, he will assuredly
be killed himself. Hamlet is not sure he is ready for death; life is all he knows, and he
fears the unknown. Further, he is not yet ready to take responsiblity for sending
another human being into the throes(agony) of death. He understands his duty to
avenge the murder that is now disclosed, and he accepts responsibility for the
Ghost's torment, but he knows that by killing Claudius he could be consigning
himself to his father's fate for all eternity. Hamlet ends his revery when he sees
Ophelia enter
1.Hamlet enters, speaking thoughtfully and agonizingly to himself about the question of whether
to commit suicide to end the pain of experience: To be, or not to be: that is the question (III.i.58).
He says that the miseries of life are such that no one would willingly bear them, except that they
are afraid of something after death (III.i.80). Because we do not know what to expect in the
afterlife, we would rather bear those ills we have, Hamlet says, than fly to others that we know
not of (III.i.8384). In mid-thought, Hamlet sees Ophelia approaching.
To be, or not to be is the most famous line in English literature. What does it mean?
Why are these words and what follows special?

One reason is that they are a stunning example of Shakespeares ability to make his
characters seem three-dimensional. The audience senses that there is more to
Hamlets words than meets the earthat there is something behind his words that is
never spoken. Or, to put it another way, the audience witnesses signs of something
within Hamlets mind that even he isnt aware of. Hamlet is a fictional character who
seems to possess a subconscious mind. How does Shakespeare manage to
accomplish this?
In the first place, Hamlet doesnt talk directly about what hes really talking about.
When he questions whether it is better to be, or not to be, the obvious implication
is, Should I kill myself? The entire soliloquy strongly suggests that he is toying with
suicide and perhaps trying to work up his courage to do it. But at no point does he
say that he is in pain or discuss why he wants to kill himself. In fact, he never says
I or me in the entire speech. Hes not trying to express himself at all; instead,
he poses the question as a matter of philosophical debate. When he claims that
everybody would commit suicide if they werent uncertain about the afterlife, it
sounds as if hes making an argument to convince an imaginary listener about an
abstract point rather than directly addressing how the question applies to him. Now,
its perfectly ordinary for characters in plays to say something other than what they
mean to other characters (this suggests that they are consciously hiding their true
motives), but Hamlet does it when hes talking to himself. This creates the general
impression that there are things going on in Hamlets mind that he cant think about
directly.
While were on the subject of whats going on inside Hamlets mind, consider his encounter with
Ophelia. This conversation, closely watched by Claudius and Polonius, is, in fact, a test. Its
supposed to establish whether Hamlets madness stems from his lovesickness over Ophelia.
Before we, the audience, see this encounter, we already think we know more than Claudius does:
we know that Hamlet is only acting crazy, and that hes doing it to hide the fact that hes plotting
against (or at least investigating) his uncle