What is the theme of Hamlet's soliloquy in Act II, scene ii of Hamlet? I've been able to identify a bunch of other literary devices throughout the play, but I'm having trouble with this one.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As the pivotal pillars of the drama, Hamlet's soliloquies are what direct the action of the play. For, in them the Prince of Denmark deliberates greatly on his own feelings and what course he should take after the ghost of his father entreats him to avenge his murder.

In his third soliloquy in Act II, after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have departed, Hamlet chides himself for his procrastination--"O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!"--when he should be acting on his father's request.  Contrasting himself with the player who sheds tears as he recites the tragic lines about Hecuba's grief over the death of her husband from a play about the fall of Troy, Hamlet asks himself why he cannot rise to action with the motives and passion he has that should easily give him cause for vengeance. "But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall," he reviles himself. Finally, he turns his anger against Claudius, calling him a "bloody, bawdy villain"; furthermore, he decides to test Claudius by having the players act out something like the murder of King Hamlet and watch his uncle's reactions. This, Hamlet hopes, will convince him to act as he will have proof of the guilt of Claudius:  "The play's the thing." 

Thus, the theme, of this soliloquy is Hamlet's emotion vs. his rationality. For, while his melancholic soul prevents him from acting, after observing the player who is able to summon emotion from the lines of a mere ficitional work, Hamlet's mind reasons that he must shake himself " Out of my weakness and my melancholy" and seek retribution for his father's murder by first verifying that Claudius is, indeed, guilty.

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Hamlet’s soliloquy at the end of this scene, he berates himself for his relative inaction in regard to his father's ghost's charge that Hamlet avenge his murder. He marvels at the actor he has just seen who cried tears and spoke with a broken voice who, in reality, has no real reason to cry; yet this actor showed more resolve and emotion while acting than Hamlet has done in reality.

He asks himself repeatedly if he is a coward and decides that he has certainly been acting like one. Now, he makes a plan to hire the actors to play something like the scene that really occurred between old King Hamlet and his brother, the new King Claudius, to see Claudius's reaction. If his uncle "blenches," then Hamlet knows that what the ghost told him is true, and he can move forward with his revenge.

Therefore, the theme of this soliloquy is Hamlet's own damaged self-image: he feels poorly about himself because he hasn't really made a move to avenge his father.  He feels his father's goodness, and he's even experienced (and been shamed by) the actor's ability to conjure emotion and action out of thin air. In comparing himself to them both, he feels cowardly and worthless.  Avenging his father becomes as much about respecting himself and his behavior as his duty as a son.