Hamlet's Soliloquy: To be, or not to be: that is the question (3.1)
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.
It is fascinating to compare Shakespeare's finished masterpiece to the version found in the First Quarto (or Q1) published by Nicholas Ling and John Trundell in 1603:
To be, or not to be, I there's the point.
To Die, to sleepe, is that all ? I all:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there is goes,
For in that dreame of death, when we awake,
And borne before an everlasting Judge,
From whence no passenger ever returned,
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damn'd,
But for this, the joyfull hope of this,
Whol'd beare the scornes and flattery of the world,
Scorned by the right rich, the rich curssed of the poore?
The widow being oppressed, the orphan wrong'd,
The taste of hunger, or a tirants raigne.
And thousand more calamities besides
To grunt and sweate under this weary life,
When that he may his full Quietus make,
With a bare bodkin, who would this indure,
But for a hope of something after death?
Which pusles the braine, and doth confound the sence,
Which makes us rather beare those evilles we have,
Than flie to others that we know not of.
I, that, O this conscience makes cowards of us all.
Q1 was likely a product of the memories of actors who had staged Hamlet and, in 1604, a new version appeared (Q2), based on Shakespeare's own manuscript, complete with the soliloquy as we know it.
For an absolutely remarkable interpretation of Hamlet's soliloquy, please watch the BBC production starring Sir Derek Jacobi, available in its entirety from the BBC on YouTube. You can find it at 1:25:30.
In his book Shakespearean Tragedy, A. C. Bradey notes that "The present position of the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy, and of the interview with Ophelia, appears to have been due to an after-thought of Shakespeare's; for in the First Quarto they precede, instead of following, the arrival of the players, and consequently the arrangement for the play-scene. This is a notable instance of the truth that 'inspiration' is by no means confined to a poet's first conceptions." Does the position of Hamlet's soliloquy make a difference? More on this subject...
Shakespeare and Montaigne ... In writing Hamlet, Shakespeare is said to have been influenced by the work of French essayist, Michael de Montaigne, translated by an acquaintance of Shakespeare named John Florio. Montagine's essays on moral philosophy might have shaped many passages in Hamlet, including Hamlet's most famous soliloquy. Could Montaigne be the reason the first and second quartos of the play are so different, especially regarding Hamlet's propensity to delay? Read more about Shakespeare, Montaigne and Hamlet.