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The Soliloquies of Shakespeare’s Hamlet – To be or not to be Soliloquy

The “To be or not to be” Soliloquy of Hamlet

Does the hero in Shakespeare’s Hamlet deliver a soliloquy that does not fit the dramatic context? Does the soliloquy suggest that suicide is imminent? This essay proposes to answer these and other questions relevant to the “To be or not to be” soliloquy.

Lawrence Danson in the essay “Tragic Alphabet” discusses the most famous of soliloquies as involving an “eternal dilemma”:

The problem of time’s discrediting effects upon human actions and intentions is what makes Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy eternal dilemma rather than fulfilled dialectic. Faced with the uncertainty of any action, an uncertainty that extends even to the afterlife, Hamlet, too, finds the “wick or snuff” of which Claudius speaks: “Thus conscience” – by which Hamlet means, I take it, not only scruples but all thoughts concerning the future –

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 pitch and moment,

With this regard, their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action. – (III.i.83). (75)

Considering the context of this most notable soliloquy, the speech appears to be a reaction from the determination which ended the “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy. In fact, in the Quarto of 1603 the “To be” speech comes BEFORE the players’ scene and the nunnery scene – and is thus more logically positioned to show its emotional connection to the previous soliloquy (Nevo 46).

Marchette Chute in “The Story Told in Hamlet” describes just how close the hero is to suicide while reciting his famous soliloquy:

Hamlet enters, desperate enough b…

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Levin, Harry. “An Explication of the Player’s Speech.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. Rpt. from The Question of Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Nevo, Ruth. “Acts III and IV: Problems of Text and Staging.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. Rpt. from Tragic Form in Shakespeare. N.p.: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Rosenberg, Marvin. “Laertes: An Impulsive but Earnest Young Aristocrat.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from The Masks of Hamlet. Newark, NJ: Univ. of Delaware P., 1992.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995.

The Structure in Hamlet

The Structure in Hamlet

William Shakespeare’s tragic drama Hamlet invites various interpretations of the structure because of the play’s complexity. Let us in this essay analyze various interpretations of structure.

Mark Rose, in “Reforming the Role,” highlights the “double plot” structure within Hamlet and another tragedy:

Hamlet and Lear are the only two of Shakespeare’s tragedies with double plots. [. . .] The story of Polonius’s family works analogously in Hamlet. Each member of the family is a fairly ordinary person who serves as a foil to some aspect of Hamlet’s extraordinary cunning and discipline. Polonius imagines himself a regular Machiavel, an expert at using indirections to find directions out, but compared to Hamlet he is what the prince calls him, a great baby. Ophelia, unable to control her grief, lapses into madness and a muddy death, reminding us that it is one of Hamlet’s achievements that he does not go mad but only plays at insanity to disguise his true strength. And Laertes, of course, goes mad in a different fashion and becomes the model of the kind of revenger that Hamlet so disdains. (125)

A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy analyzes the structure of Shakespearean tragedy:

As a Shakespearean tragedy represents a conflict which terminates in a catastrophe, any such tragedy may roughly be divided into three parts. The first of these sets forth or expounds the situation, or state of affairs, out of which the conflict arises; and it may, therefore, be called the Exposition. The second deals with the definite beginning, the growth and the vicissitudes of the conflict. It forms accordingly the bulk of the play, comprising the Second, Third and Fourth Acts, and usually a part of the First and a part of the Fifth. The final section of the tragedy shows the issue of the conflict in a catastrophe. (52)

Thus the first step of the structure of Hamlet involves the presentation of a conflict-generating situation. Marchette Chute in “The Story Told in Hamlet” describes the beginning of the Exposition of the drama:

The story opens in the cold and dark of a winter night in Denmark, while the guard is being changed on the battlements of the royal castle of Elsinore. For two nights in succession, just as the bell strikes the hour of one, a ghost has appeared on the battlements, a figure dressed in complete armor and with a face like that of the dead king of Denmark, Hamlet’s father.

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