Common (and Not so Common) Analysis of Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" Soliloquy

William Shakespeare

Common (and Not so Common) Analysis of Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" Soliloquy

One would be amiss to conclude the analysis of Act III, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's Hamlet without including a short discussion of the analysis of Hamlet's long soliloquy, beginning with the famous line, "To be, or not to be."  A soliloquy is a long speech a character gives in a drama that is spoken alone (and only for the benefit of the audience to hear the character's thoughts).  Soliloquies are very common within the works of Shakespeare.  In this important existential and metaphysical soliloquy, most scholars agree that Hamlet is thinking about the pros and cons of simply "existing."  To talk about the verb "to be" is to talk about the ability of someone "to exist."  If the reader takes the second part of the line ("or not to be"), then this leads that reader (and most scholars) to agree that if Hamlet is contemplating his right not to exist, he is actually contemplating suicide.  The rest of the soliloquy is Hamlet's reasoning for contemplating said act of suicide.  This world only provides Hamlet (and people in general) with pain and sorrow.  Hamlet concludes that even though ending this sorrowful life is "devoutly to be wished," what makes Hamlet stop considering suicide is what might happen to him in the afterlife.  In other words, if death is "sleep," then what happens in the afterlife to the soul is the "dream."  This, of course, stems from the Roman Catholic belief that a person who commits the sin of suicide cannot go to heaven because he or she has thwarted God's greatest gift of all: the gift of life. Note these lines: "The undiscovered country. . . makes us rather bear those ills we have. / Than fly to others that we know not of? / Thus conscience does make cowards of us all."  In other words, that "undiscovered country" of the afterlife makes us stay here in our mortal bodies and not kill ourselves because it is fear of the unknown (especially the horrors of hell) that is so scary.  In this way, our consciences make us cowards in that we can't take our own lives out of fear.  In short, this soliloquy nicely corresponds with Hamlet's possible tragic flaws of both inaction and melancholy.  Both ideas are truly present here in light of this most common interpretation (of Hamlet contemplating suicide).  Why melancholy?  In the realm of existential thought, Hamlet spends forty lines or so contemplating so grim of an idea as ending his own life.  Not many things can be more melancholy than that.  Why inaction?  Although he contemplates suicide, Hamlet never attempts suicide.  In other words, Hamlet never "acts" by committing suicide.  This nicely leads into a more rare interpretation of this soliloquy (however, one that does indeed merit mentioning).  Some scholars believe this soliloquy has been erroneously misplaced by later editors of Shakespeare's play.  As a result, these scholars believe this soliloquy of Hamlet's belongs closer to his scheme of using The Murder of Gonzago as a "mousetrap."  In this regard, scholars think this is not a contemplation of suicide at all, but rather a speech about the troubles of turning thought into action.  (As evidence, these scholars point out that Hamlet never directly refers to himself and that Hamlet suspects an audience so he specifically keeps his wording mysterious, with Hamlet mostly thinking about which is more "noble," thought or action.  Although not widely accepted, this interpretation is interesting in and of itself.  It is also important to note the usual interpretation of the end of this soliloquy, which "works" in light of both of the above interpretations.  Around line 84 in this soliloquy, there is a shift in Hamlet's thought.  Before that point, Hamlet is expressing that he is unable to act on suicide due to the fear of the unknown of the afterlife.  After that point, Hamlet is expressing that he is unable to act in avenging his father due to his fear of the unknown compiled from his own melancholic thoughts.