Hamlet's Soliloquy: To be, or not to be: that is the question (3.1.64-98)
Unlike Hamlet's first two major soliloquies, his third and most famous speech seems to be governed by reason and not frenzied emotion. Unable to do little but wait for completion of his plan to "catch the conscience of the king", Hamlet sparks an internal philosophical debate on the advantages and disadvantages of existence, and whether it is one's right to end his or her own life. Some scholars limit Hamlet's discussion to a deliberation of whether he should take his own life. "Yet nothing anywhere in the speech relates it to Hamlet's individual case. He uses the pronouns we and us, the indefinite who, the impersonal infinitive. He speaks explicitly of us all, of what flesh is heir to, of what we suffer at the hands of time or fortune - which serves incidentally to indicate what for Hamlet is meant by to be" (Jenkins 489).
Hamlet asks the question for all dejected souls -- is it nobler to live miserably or to end one's sorrows with a single stroke? He knows that the answer would be undoubtedly yes if death were like a dreamless sleep. The rub or obstacle Hamlet faces is the fear of what dreams may come (74), i.e. the dread of something after death (86). Hamlet is well aware that suicide is condemned by the church as a mortal sin.
Hamlet's soliloquy is interrupted by Ophelia who is saying her prayers. Hamlet addresses her as Nymph, a courtly salutation common in the Renaissance1. Some critics argue that Hamlet's greeting is strained and coolly polite, and his request that she remembers him in her prayers is sarcastic. However, others claim that Hamlet, emerging from his moment of intense personal reflection, genuinely implores the gentle and innocent Ophelia to pray for him.
1. See also A Midsummer Night's Dream 2.1.245, 4.1.132; Two Gentlemen of Verona 5.4.12.
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Hamlet's Soliloquy Analysis. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < http://shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/soliloquies/tobeanalysis.html >.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. London: Methuen, 1982.