To Be or Not to Be…. That is the Monologue
Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech in 3.1.56-90 of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is perhaps the most famous section of dialogue in the English language. It has been quoted an innumerable number of times in all forms of media, it continues to grab the attention of audiences and leave them bewildered, and it is perhaps the greatest line penned by one of the greatest authors of the English language. It certainly helps that the speech can ride on the coattails of William Shakespeare’s reputation, but this monologue has significant literary merit on its own, regardless of its author. It comes at a time in the story when life has gotten so bad for Hamlet that he is not sure whether or not he wants to go on living; but rather than shying away from those feelings, Shakespeare addresses them head on and actually weighs the pros and cons of life and death through Hamlet. It is the sort of conversation that people would generally not like to entertain, yet Shakespeare was able to able to touch on something universally confounding that continues to garner attention 400 years later. It is through his deep rooted understanding of human nature and his ability to effectively convey to audiences it that Shakespeare was able to create a monologue so well-read and well-loved.
In scanning the first line, the reader gets a great deal of information from looking only at the stressed syllables. The line “To be, or not to be – that is the question” becomes “be…not…be…that…quest[ion]” (3.1.56). From the very beginning of the speech, Shakespeare forces audiences to consider two rather profound ideas: whether or not to exist, and the fact that this question of existence is the most important question, above all others. While society often questions what it means to exist, it is not often that people are prompted to consider why they exist, or if existence is the best option. Shakespeare was well aware of this, and rather than letting audience members instinctively shy away from these questions, confronts them with the question of whether or not to exist at the very beginning of the monologue, making it a line that carries a great deal of weight. It grabs the attention of readers and audience members alike for good reason. With an opening line so powerful, it is no wonder that the speech stands head and soldiers above so many others.
As the monologue continues, the audience’s attention is held by Hamlets’ ability to discuss life and death so freely and casually. Although he’s discussing heavy topics, the tone of the monologue is almost flippant. He rapidly bounces back and forth between life and death through the lines “Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them” as if he’s considering whether or not to go to take a walk on a cloudy day (3.1.57-60). His casual approach to the idea of suicide would have especially shocked almost exclusively Christian audiences in the early 17th century who would be quick to point out that suicide leads to damnation. Even in our more secular and desensitized modern society, audiences are not accustomed to hearing people show such blatant disregard for their own life. Shakespeare’s ability to capture the attention of audiences in this way demonstrates his understanding of the human condition. What’s perhaps most impressive about Shakespeare is that he understood people so well that he was able to write a monologue that would shock people and turn heads for over four-hundred years, and will likely continue doing so for years to come.
A few lines later, the monologue begs another question of the audience: what sorts of extremes would a person have to be driven to in order to be in the same state as Hamlet? In lines 70-75, Hamlet says “For who would bare the whips and scorns of time, / Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, / The pangs of despised 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 / With a bare bodkin?” (3.1.70-75). As Hamlet talks about everything going on in his life that might make him consider suicide, even though the audience members already know his situation, it is better understood through the monologue, and it lets the audience see the world through Hamlet’s eyes for a moment. It is concise, but it effectively conveys Hamlet’s mental state, which is very impressive considering he is bordering on insanity at best. One of the reasons the speech has endured is Shakespeare’s ability to let the audience into the head of somebody who is so far gone.
It is also important to note that Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, had only recently died at the time of Hamlet’s publication, and the similarity between the show’s name and the name of Shakespeare’s son is no coincidence. While it is true that Shakespeare’s talent on its own was enough to propel several speeches and lines of dialogue to fame, the deeply personally nature of Hamlet no doubt added a level of intimacy with the work that is not necessarily seen in some of his other plays. This is especially apparent through the lines “and by a sleep to say we end / The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to” (3.1.61-63). While Hamlet is wondering whether or not it is worth it to go on with his life, Shakespeare’s own raw heartbreak and internal strife comes through as well. Combined with Shakespeare’s ample amount of talent and ability to connect with audiences, the intimacy Shakespeare was able to include in this speech adds a great deal to its memorability.
Towards the end of Hamlet’s soliloquy, he comes to a conclusion on the subject of why people choose to stay alive. In the lines “But that the dread of something after death, / The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns, puzzles the will / And makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of?” he states that it must be the fear of the afterlife and the unknown that makes people think life has meaning (3.1.80-84). This is an ingenious ending to the monologue, because it allows the play to continue to move forward (as Hamlet is satisfied) while not satisfying the audience. The people watching the show, in all likelihood, will disagree with the sentiment that they only choose to stay alive because they are afraid of death. The fact that they cannot agree with Hamlet’s conclusion to the soliloquy means that they will have to consider “the question” that Hamlet poses for themselves in order to come to one that is satisfying. Not only would it make the audience consider the meaning of life for a brief period after the show, but the soliloquy has continued to captivate the minds of the masses, even centuries after it was written. It was Shakespeare’s knowledge of people that allowed him to write a monologue that could both move the story forward while leaving the audience with something it would grapple with indeterminately.
Throughout Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Shakespeare uses his knowledge of writing and form, along with his innate talent, personal experience, and ability to effectively and directly convey complex and difficult emotions to write one of the most memorable lines in the English literary canon. William Shakespeare had a spark of genius in his work and an ability to understand people that remains unrivaled to this day. Between his natural proclivity for human understanding and his ability to convey such raw emotion, he remains simply unmatched. it is Shakespeare’s’ capacity to understand people that allows his work to adapt, evolve, and even change in meaning in order to stand up to the scrutinizing eye of modernity; and it is Shakespeare’s capacity to understand people that makes him the most celebrated author of the English language.
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Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech in 3.1.56-90 of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is perhaps the most famous section of dialogue in the […]