How does Hamlet treat the idea of suicide considering the “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt” soliloquy (I.ii.129–158) and the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy (III.i.56–88)....

How does Hamlet treat the idea of suicide considering the “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt” soliloquy (I.ii.129–158) and the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy (III.i.56–88). Why does Hamlet believe that most human beings choose to live, despite the cruelty, pain, and injustice of the world?

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

That Hamlet suffers greatly from depression is apparent.  His statement in Act I wishing that his "solid flesh would melt" is typical of severely depressed people.  For, melancholy causes its victim to become passive.  So, in their wishes to eschew their troubles, they think that it may be the best thing if they did not wake from sleep; thus, Nature would take the active part and remove the worry from them of what to do with their lives: 

To die, to sleep--/No more; and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to:  'tis a consummation /Devoutly to be wished.(60-64) 

However, there's a "rub" to the comfort of "sleep." If one induces it oneself, he is guilty of committing suicide, which is a sin, punishable in the life after death:

To die, to sleep--/To sleep, perchance to dream, ay there's the rub/For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil/Must give us pause.(64-67) 

As Hamlet's depression increases and he spends more and more anxious moments contemplating the revenge his father's ghost requests, Hamlet realizes that regicide is a very serious act, an act for which he can be punished by death as one who has committed treason.  Also, suicide condemns one to hell. This is why Hamlet "gives pause."  Hamlet reflects that in this pause, one tolerates

The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,/The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,/The insolence of office, and the purns/That patient merit of th'unworthy takes(III,i,71-74)

The dread of what lies beyond the grave deters the melancholic Hamlet. However, all his inaction and self-debate proves self-defeating to Hamlet as "conscience...make(s) a coward of [him]."

After the soliloquy in which Hamlet contemplates suicide, he is riddled by inaction and moments of irrationality and ridiculous humor.  Timothy Bright writes in his "Treatise of Melancholy":

Sometime it falleth out that melancholy men are found very witty, and quickly discern, either because the humor of melancholy with some like sort with their spirits...are instruments of such sharpness. To this, other reasons may be added,as : exercise of their wits, wherein they be indefatigable, which maketh them seem to have that of a natural readiness which custom of exercise, and use hath found in them.  Moreover,...melancholy breedeth a jealousy of doubt in that they take in delibertation...Their resolution riseth of long deliberation, because of doubt and distrust which...disturbeth the sleep of melancholy persons.

As the plot "Hamlet" progresses, the reader perceives this procrastination in Hamlet and continual debate with death.  Finally after talking with Fortinbras who is willing to sacrifice himself and his army for a cause, Hamlet, in his final soliloquy, resolves to act for a cause much stronger than that of Fortinbras and is, thus, shaken from his melancholy and thoughts of suicide:

How stand I then,/That have a father killed, a mother stained,Excitement of my reason and my blood,/And let all sleep, while to my shame I see/The imminent death of twenty thousand me/That for a fantasy and trick of fame/Go to their graves like beds....Oh, from this time forth,/My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! (IV,iv,56-66)

pmiranda2857 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Death is an important theme in Hamlet.  First, Hamlet is confronted with the untimely death of his father, then, as a contemplative person, he becomes engrossed in thinking about death and the afterlife, as well as whether the ghost who identifies himself as Hamlet's dead father is, in fact, his father and not an evil manifestation trying to tempt Hamlet into committing a grave sin.

Death occurs to Hamlet, in the form of suicide, as it does to many people who experience hardship, loss and feelings of isolation and hopelessness.  Hamlet considers suicide, but resists because of the Christian belief that suicide, being a mortal sin, would disqualify the soul from finding eternal rest in heaven with God.

"To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 't is 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?" (Shakespeare)

Hamlet's spirituality, as well as his understanding of the meaning of truth are closely linked with the events that take place, his father's death, his mother's quick remarriage.  Even though Hamlet is suffering here in the mortal world, his contemplates suicide in the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy.

Hamlet is saying that no one would choose to live a life of pain and misery except that they are reluctant, fearful of the what will happen to them after they commit suicide, a grave sin, a mortal sin that would prevent the person's soul from entering heaven and God's holy presence.

So suicide is viewed in the play through the Christian perspective, which informs Hamlet that it is wrong to risk eternal peace for a sense of peace from a life of difficulty.

Read the study guide:

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question