Saturday, September 3, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be

The most famous words in the English language and almost the dead center of the play, this speech is reputedly the bane of every actor who is ever to play Hamlet. After all, your audience is likely to know it by rote, may well have seen other actors do it, and remember those performances clearly. What do you bring to it that is your own and yet true to the character? How do you re-interpret and make fresh a speech that is so famous as to slip into cliché? And devoid of context, as multiple pop culture quotations of it have been, that may be true. Within the context of the play itself, it continues to fascinate. First of all, what is it about? The easy answer is suicide, but why would Hamlet consider such an act now? He's just been revitalized by the arrival of the Players and hopes to catch his uncle in a trap. Some stagings have chosen to restructure the play so that the speech comes in Act II instead as a way to resolve (or cheat) this issue. (I attempt my own answer in the body of the text, below.) The director and actor must also decide if Hamlet's words are heard by anyone else, and if Hamlet knows that he's being spied upon. What we might forget is that not only are Claudius and Polonius standing behind an arras, but Ophelia has never exited the stage. The conventions of theater still allow Hamlet to pronounce his soliloquy to the audience alone, but what if the other characters hear his meditation on death and afterlife? And if Hamlet DOES know he's being watched, how much of the speech can still be sincere and how much is performance? Shakespeare's words in italics.

HAMLET: To be, or not to be: that is the question:

That is the question indeed. There is something implied in the choice of verb here that is more profound than "to live or not to live" or "to die or not to die" or "to commit suicide or not to commit suicide". The question is about existence itself. Critic Harold Bloom likes to say - and I like to believe it true - that Hamlet is one of two characters that got away from Shakespeare (the other is Falstaff). So complex, deep and ALIVE, that he delays the play's action rather than allow events to proceed towards his inevitable death. Hamlet approaches meta-fiction in this sense, as if instinctively aware that he is a character in someone else's story (he calls her Fortune), and he refuses to let that story play out as scripted. Because if he is, as he suspects, in a tragedy, it will inevitably end with his death. And even if it didn't, the end of the story would signal the end of all its characters anyway. It is Hamlet who forces the story to last as long as it does (problematically long). And though he does die at the end, he is ready to do, as if aware that he did enough during the length of the story to achieve a certain literary immortality (indisputable in hindsight). Compare to Falstaff who has a false death scene in his first appearance, goes on to star in a play that has nothing to do with Prince Hal, and then dies off-stage rather than on it. Hamlet may dress it up in ideas of suicide, possibly for the benefit of the spies, but he's sincerely talking about oblivion. And would the murder of his uncle not send him to the same hellish place suicide would?

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? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;

The speech sits in the middle of the play so should act as a turning point. Structurally, it would seem that a better turning point is "The play's the thing" or even Claudius' "Give me light", but "there's the rub" is a strong contender. Before this line, Hamlet is dour and would rather die than complete his mission. After it, he rejects suicide. He rejects Ophelia, sending her into madness. And Claudius, hearing all this, confirms his order to send him to England where he'll have him killed. Hamlet's choice is "to be" and it is made at this point in the speech. And since he "is", he completes his mission and fulfills the promise of the tragedy.

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The 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 the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

Hamlet's vision is grim indeed. The only reason we don't kill ourselves is from fear of what lay beyond. Could the after-life be worse than the mortal world itself? But such is life in the unweeded garden.

But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will

In the play, we have Denmark, Norway, Poland and England, but Death is the fifth country and perhaps the most important one. Hamlet Sr. went to Norway, but eventually had to go to that "undiscovered country" too, as will most of the characters. There is also a hint her that Hamlet may be putting on a show for his observers: He says no traveller returns from there, but clearly, he's met at least one - his father's ghost - who has told him a little something about the horrors of that other world. He does not reveal this fact here. Because he doesn't want to let his secret mission slip from his lips? Or is it because he has more or less forgotten what started the ball rolling, "blunting his purpose"?

And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.--Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd.

As the speech ends, Hamlet finally notices Ophelia...


snell said...

In the interest of completeness, here is a (poor quality, sorry) clip of the MST3K boys riffing on To Be Or Not To Be from a crappy dubbed German television version of Hamlet.

Siskoid said...


snell said...

In a bit of complete nuttiness, in that production the voice of Claudius is dubbed by Ricardo Montalban. Which makes absolutely no sense, but is so utterly daft that its actually perfect.

Lee Shackleford said...

All of us fans of this blog have, of course, been waiting for you to get to IIIi! And it was worth the wait -- excellent insight as always. I especially appreciate your comments about the paradox of Hamlet contemplating suicide just when it seems, for the first time, there is a ray of hope in his situation.

It really all does depend on whether or not this speech is a true aside or being spoken for Ophelia's benefit!

Siskoid said...

Thanks Lee.

Of course, I'm sure psychology experts will tell us that depression isn't logically motivated, so in a realistic universe (as opposed to the heightened world of drama), Hamlet would be hit by waves of melancholy whether things were looking up or not. As with the "what a piece of work is a man" speech, this soliloquy is filled to the brim with negative imagery.