Hamlet’s soul is weighed down by the moral dilemma of choosing between living and dying. He oscillates between being reckless and cautious with his conscience, the afterlife, and religion, to rationalize the thoughts in his mind in this epic soliloquy. This Penlighten article provides the analysis and meaning of ‘To Be or Not To Be’ in Hamlet.
A soliloquy is defined as ‘The act or custom of displaying one’s innermost thoughts in solitude.‘ Perhaps the most famous speech in English literature which is majorly governed by rationality and not frenetic emotion appears in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written in 1602. This widely interpreted and scholarly debated soliloquy appears in Hamlet’s Act III, scene i (58-90). Even though the character morally determines to choose life at the end, the whole speech is based on the subject of death.
The soliloquy is scripted in an iambic pentameter with a feminine ending, meaning every line has eleven syllables rather than ten, the last of which remains unaccented. This was a popular scripting style of Shakespeare, and he used it to similarly effect in Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow’ speech.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
To exist, or not to exist: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
Whether it’s more upright to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
The beleaguering’s of misfortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
Or to take up weapons against our troubles
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
And end them by agitating? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
That’s all; and in sleep to say that we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
The emotional disturbance and the many tensions
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
That we are subject to, it’s an accomplishment
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To be essayed thirstily. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
To sleep: maybe to dream: oh, there’s the catch;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
For in death’s sleep who knows what kind of dreams might come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
after the haphazardness and ruckus of life left behind us,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
Must make us stop and think: there’s the thing
That makes calamity of so long life;
That makes our troubles last so long;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
For who would endure the affronts that time brings,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The injustice of the oppressor, the proud man’s arrogant rudeness,
The insolence of office and the spurns
The pains of unrequited love, the delays of the law,
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
The contempt of our victors, and the rejections that happen to those who don’t merit them
When he himself might his quietus make
When he himself might end it all
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
With a bare blade? Who would bear burdens
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
To grunt and sweat under a tedious life,
But that the dread of something after death,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
The unknown region from which
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
No traveler returns, confuses the mind
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
And makes us prefer to endure the troubles we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Rather than fly to new, vague troubles?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
In this way, thinking makes cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
And thus the natural color of decision-making
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
Becomes sickly with the pale color of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
And endeavors of great might and grandness
With this regard their currents turn awry,
At this point are derailed,
And lose the name of action.-Soft you now!
And become inactive. Hearken now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
The lovely Ophelia! Girl, in your prayers
Be all my sins remember’d.”
May all my sins be recalled.
Hamlet is an anguished mortal, he keeps getting apparitions of his dead father who bequeaths his son to avenge his death. The kingdom of Denmark is now under the reign of Claudius―his father’s murderer and the newly-wedded husband of his widowed mother. Hamlet’s behavior has turned erratic over the sudden turn of events in his family, so much so that he scorns his beloved Ophelia. He is torn between the responsibilities and the need to get affection from the people he loves, but at the same time, a deep anger seethes inside him to take revenge. His actions are misjudged and termed as crazy, but it’s all the outcome of buried grief and depression. As fate intervenes, Hamlet gets the chance to play out his revenge without feeling the guilt or remorseful obligation for his mortal life.
The above soliloquy classically depicts the eternal struggle between choosing life or death, Shakespeare scripts this epic speech as an afterthought about his own reflections on the existence of death and afterlife. He enumerates some of the negative aspects of human existence in this soliloquy, we have all personally experienced “the proud man’s revilement,” “the stabs of scorned love,” and “the impudence of office”.
In the first playact, Hamlet anathematizes God for making suicide an immoral alternative. He states, “that this too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! / Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!” (I.ii.129-132). With this, it is clear that Hamlet is debating over the gains versus the losses of ending his own life, but also rationalizes that suicide is a crime in God’s and the Church’s eyes, and this could thus make his afterlife more forged than his present state of affairs. When Hamlet expresses the ailed question, “To be, or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles” (III.i.59-61), there is trivial uncertainty that he is supposing of death, he is still left without an answer of whether the “catapults and arrows of horrid fate” can be tolerated since life after death is so uncertain.
He questions the macrocosm of his death and thinks for a moment that it may be like eternal rest, which first seems to be acceptable until he reflects on what will happen to him when he enters into deep sleep. Just when his “sleep” suffice begins to charm him, he stops short and marvels on, “To sleep: perchance to dream:-ay there’s the rub; / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come” (III.i.68-69). The “dreams” that he dreads are the ails that the afterlife might bring, and since there is no easement from his earthly agonies through death, he is pressured to question death once again.
After graveling this complicated issue and inquiring about the cause of the great sleep, he then goes on to list many woes men are prone to in the bumpy course of life, which pushes him towards death once again. Hamlet poses the question for all depressed souls–is it nobler to exist miserably or to end one’s sorrows in a single stroke? He acknowledges that the response would be doubtlessly yes if death were like a dreamless slumber.
By the conclusion of this soliloquy, however, he finally understands, “But that dread of something after death, / The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns-puzzles the will / And makes us rather bear those ills we have” (III.i.81-84). Although many chose life over death because of the inability to know the afterlife, the speech remains a cryptic reflection about the nature and rationalistic reasons for death. Lastly, Hamlet emerging from his instant of intense personal contemplation, truly implores the gentle and guiltless Ophelia to intercede for him.
This soliloquy ponders on some interesting aspects of death, life, and afterlife. Hamlet chose to surrender his life in the hands of fate and obtained the revenge that he was thirsting for. If you wish to get inspired by similar deep-meaning soliloquies, then some more examples of soliloquy by William Shakespeare is worth a read!