Hamlet by William Shakespeare

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It also wrenches the speech from its context in the whole play. It is at this moment in the drama, after some time for reflection following the Ghost’s injunction to him, that Hamlet is able to articulate the recognition that his delay is a ‘question’ of life and death, and is also able further to meditate on the all-to-human fears associated with the loss of one’s life in the rest of his soliloquy. He is beginning to face death, but he is, as yet, undecided as to the answer to his ‘question.’ It is only later in the play that he continues this debate in his final soliloquy, when he decides irrevocably upon action – ‘My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!’ (IV.iv.66). A signal factor in his decision is his ‘shame’ at seeing:

The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, ( ibid . 60-2)

Death is now something he must face, and the debate of ‘To be, or not to be’ on which is the ‘nobler’ course has been concluded. To see the thrust of Hamlet’s earlier soliloquy as being toward the ignoble escape of self-murder, is to wrest these beautiful lines from their proper part in the play, so that they become merely a ‘purple passage’ that serves no special purpose in Hamlet’s development.

That sense of development is embedded in the rational arguments of the great soliloquies. ‘O that this too too sallied flesh would melt’ (I.ii) establishes Hamlet’s melancholy weakness and his temptation to escape the ‘unweeded garden’ of his world. By ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’ (II.ii), he is consumed with self-disgust and unable to understand why he cannot act. A little later, with ‘To be, or not to be’ (III.i), he has realised that his choice lies between survival and inaction, or the death that would follow any attempt on the king’s life. The final soliloquy (‘How all occasions do inform against me,’) shows that Hamlet has decided upon action and, if necessary, his own death in consequence. He will later hold Yorick’s skull before his eyes, and in the final scene of the play he demonstrates a powerful awareness that the moment and manner of his death is simply in God’s hands, and must be accepted:

There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all. (V.ii.219-22)

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William Shakespeare