Hamlet Soliloquy: “To be or not to be…”Act 3 Scene 1
Shakespeare’s use of soliloquies throughout “Hamlet”, shows the audience a character’s innermost thoughts and emotions. Soliloquies further accentuate the character’s traits and underlying themes. Hamlet’s soliloquy along with Shakespeare’s use of literary techniques such as irony, metaphor and imagery, allows the audience to distinguish the underlying themes of uncertainty and death, Hamlet’s view of life and his innermost thoughts which furthers our understanding of his character.
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This world-famous soliloquy is spoken after Polonius and Claudius hide as they hear Hamlet approaching at the beginning of Act three. Some analyses of this scene differ as to whether Hamlet is aware of the fact that he is being spied on or if he is unaware. Hamlet speaks out in a very philosophical manner as if he is giving a seminar to someone which may indicate that he is aware that he is being spied on.
There is no evidence in the soliloquy that indicates that he is talking about his own life as there is no use of the words “I” or “my” which further demonstrates the fact that he is wary of being listened to. Hamlet starts his soliloquy with “To be or not to be that is the question.” It is interpreted as Hamlet contemplating whether or not he should exist or not exist. From this line alone we can relate to how Hamlet is contemplating his suicide and killing Claudius. We see how Hamlet always questions himself and his thoughts. This shows the audience that Hamlet lacks confidence in himself and his ability to put his thoughts into action.
He feels the need to commit suicide because of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” This warlike imagery shows how in life we may encounter times when we feel that we are being attacked or fought against. This demonstrates the problems and dilemmas that Hamlet feels he has in his life. This warlike imagery used here and throughout the play shows the underlying theme of death and how many of the characters in the play are in conflict with each other.
His desire for suicide is further fuelled by him realizing that in life we will face “heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” This shows that Hamlet is aware of the fact that everyone “inherits” having to bear the miseries that life throws at us. This line can also be interpreted ironically as Hamlet being the “heir” of his father’s death which would be the heartache and the natural shock.
Hamlet goes on to mention all the “whips and scorns of time,” through lines 70-73 ( Th’oppressor’s wrong- the unworthy takes,) which demonstrate all the different types of setbacks we may face which show how cruel and unjust life can be. For example to face “the pangs of despised love,” shows the distress we may feel for the love that is undervalued or “the proud man’s contumely,” shows how when people pride they are unjust, insulting and offensive to others. These lines show us that Hamlet is a very thoughtful and humble person and is not ignorant like some royalty that you would expect high up in the hierarchy to be.
These lines (70-73) may also be referring to Claudius through dramatic irony. For example, Hamlet exclaims “the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes” which shows the reference to Old Hamlet, “patient merit” who gets “spurned” by the “unworthy” Claudius showing how he despised and finally murdered Old Hamlet.
Hamlet’s soliloquy does not run very gracefully as the rest of his soliloquies do. He jumps from one subject to another, unable to decide “whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer” and “bear those ills we have” in life or “to take arms against a sea of troubles” by committing suicide. Again there is warlike imagery used to show how Hamlet would be prepared to “go to battle” against his “sea” of problems to die in order to “end the heartache” in his life. Shakespeare’s metaphorical use of the word “sea” of troubles shows the huge amount of trouble that Hamlet feels he has. He feels it would be impossible to take arms against such a huge amount and even if he did he would die anyway.
Shakespeare compares death to being asleep in which he could “perchance dream.” This demonstrates how Hamlet is showing how being dead is in actual fact not that different from being asleep to comfort himself and to give him some encouragement to commit suicide. However, he then goes on to wonder what types of dreams there maybe once a person is dead. His indecisive thoughts and fluctuating emotions show Hamlet’s confused and unstable state of mind which also highlights the underlying theme of uncertainty.
His bewilderment can also be shown through the punctuation in the soliloquy. There are many breaks in each line showing Hamlet’s puzzled and erratic thoughts.
This can further be expressed in the way he constantly contradicts himself and jumps from one subject to another from line to line. For example, in line 75 he asks “Who would fardels bare,” meaning who would bear the burdens in life, and then the next line goes on to say that we know not of the “dread of something after death.” This shows that on the one hand people will not be willing to bear the problems in life and then straight after he fears the unknown, after death.
The unknown after death is what people fear and especially if the death is caused by suicide, which is known as a big sin in Christianity. According to Hamlet, it is the fear of sin and the unknown which makes “cowards” of people. It is his “conscience” that stops him from his own suicide which may also be an example of dramatic irony in which his conscience prevents him from killing Claudius. The fear that Hamlet feels can be further expressed in the soliloquy when Hamlet says “the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” This shows that when we think of our fear and our guilty conscience, the natural colour of our complexion becomes pale.
After his long soliloquy expressing his thoughts, Hamlet is unable to reach a conclusion as to whether he should commit suicide or not. Hamlet reveals his confusion and bewilderment to the audience through his fluctuating emotions and his indecisiveness, which is a turning point in the play as the audience is unable to decipher whether Hamlet is acting mad or has really become mad. I believe that Hamlet has not become mad but his confusion as to whether to kill Claudius, commit suicide or not and the pressure of having to act mad has resulted in his thoughts becoming disorderly and erratic.
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