What major philosophical points dominate Hamlet's soliloquy in act 3, scene 1?

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In this soliloquy, which is his most famous, Hamlet considers what the best course of action should be in a world beset by trouble. He contemplates suicide, not only in the sense that he's thinking about killing himself, but from a greater, philosophical standpoint. Should we give in to the horrors of life, or hunker down and defy them as best we can? Eventually, Hamlet comes down on the side of the latter.

However, he is not fully content with this resolution. Far from feeling like a noble Stoic—who bravely and calmly accepts all of life's ups and downs—Hamlet feels like a complete coward. He is only resolved to stay alive because he fears what might come after death more than he fears living in a world that he already finds (at such a young age) to be almost unbearable. He does state, however, that he's in good company, declaring that "conscience does make cowards of us all."

Valid or not, this is a philosophical observation on human nature which shows, once again, how keen a student of humanity young Hamlet really is.

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cybil eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Hamlet struggles with how "to be"--how to live in the corrupt world he finds himself in. Should he fight against the problems or simply end his life? Considering that second option dominates the soliloquy. He regards death like sleep, but one often has dreams, even nightmares, during sleep. What if death is just one long nightmare? Yet when he considers all of the injustice he faces, he could so easily end his life ("his quietus make") by a "bare bodkin" (dagger or knife). The main obstacle to his doing so is that nobody knows what comes after death; Hamlet says death is the "undiscovered country" from which "no traveller returns." Therefore, he will continue to endure the burdens ("fardels") and problems in his life. When he says "conscience does make cowards of us all" he reveals that despite his resolution to act--either to fight against his troubles or to take his life--Hamlet continues to hesitate. He does not yet know how "to be." That question will not be answered until Act 5.

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