Most of us have, at some point in our literary career, come across Hamlet’s famous fourth soliloquy in some form. In fact, the opening lines of this soliloquy are among the most famous in the history of the English language: “To be, or not to be- that is the question.” For some, these words carry immense emotional weight and trigger a cascade of questions and musings; for others, they trigger painful memories of high school English class, wherein committing these words to memories meant the difference between one letter grade or another; still, for others, these words have no meaning. They are meaningless Shakespearean verbiage, the kind of thing one would expect to hear a man in a powdered wig recite before his fellow salon patrons whilst listening to Vivaldi. It is to these sorry and lost souls that this post is addressed.
The opening lines of this soliloquy state concisely the topic of the following prose, that is they single out the overarching question “To be, or not to be.” This phrase serves not only the purpose of establishing the theme of the soliloquy, but also introduces the melancholic and self-questioning tone of the verse, as an incipit does for a piece of music. This question, the question of existence, is a central theme throughout Hamlet, and this soliloquy gives the reader a direct view of Hamlet’s feelings. In the next lines (1750-1755), Hamlet questions whether there is any merit in combating the misfortunes which plague his life. He considers the betterment of his current state, but all the more seems to lean towards the alternative: suicide. In death, which Hamlet most affectionately deems “sleep,” there is no more pain. In this line of thought, we begin to see a desperation unlike any other in Shakespeare’s corpus – a character splitting in two from the pressure and pains of his considerably painful existence. Hamlet continues to muse about the eternal sleep of death, and questions if, by chance, he might dream in his death. It seems that if, in dying, nothing but the stimulation and elation of dreams were felt, Hamlet would be content to die a thousand deaths a day. This longing for death is followed by justification – a list of the grievances of life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make (III.i.1763-1768)
These lines convey so eloquently a question asked by all at some point in existence, why should we bear the bitter pains of life when all might be remedied in death?
Hamlet, famed for being somewhat of a laggard, once more does not follow through with his thoughts. He speaks so fondly of death, and so longingly for an end to his sorrows, but never takes his own life (he dies at the hands of Laertes). Alongside the intense longing for death, there can also be found hesitation in Hamlet’s prose. In the final lines of the soliloquy, Hamlet likens death to an undiscovered and uncharted land, from which there is no return. He goes on to claim that it is the mysterious nature of death which stays the hand of the living. That a fear of the unknown keeps the suicidal from action and makes us all cowards. Perhaps it is for this reason, that most taunting veiled consequence, that Hamlet chooses to tarry so often – not only in any consideration of suicide, but also in his plot for revenge.