To Be Or Not To Be Hamlet Analysis

This is a guest post from former vce student erin lancaster and lachlan heycox for hamlet. If you want to write a guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

The obvious interpretation of this line is that hamlet contemplates suicide; he questions whether it is best for him to live or die. However, the form of the words guarantees that hamlet’s question will be interpreted on a general level. In light of the general quality it is fair to assume that hamlet poses the question simultaneous on a pragmatic level and on a metaphysical level. It is not a mere question of whether hamlet should or should not kill himself; the justification for existence itself is here questioned.

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

Here hamlet expands on this notion, more specifically the question refers to existence in the face of suffering. Suffering here is used in such a way that it comes to indicate tolerant patience and constancy.

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Shakespeare employs this metaphor as a means of illustrating the nature of the difficulties confronting hamlet, in the form of his father’s request which he cannot reconcile to his intellectualisation of revenge and his mother lecherous relationship with claudius. Note the quality of the metaphor, it essentially likens hamlet situation to a military conflict, fortune is here personified as the leader of the force which attacks hamlet with these slings and arrows, the use of the metaphor in this way indicates the malevolent quality of the fortune awaiting hamlet. There is a degree of subtlety in the metaphor as the weapons employed by fortune are ranged weapons, the distance from which they attack could indicate the unseen quality of hamlet fortune’s foe, or possibly indicate the convoluted quality of the means by which fortune effects him. Also slings and arrows imply missile weapons that can not only strike from a distance but can often miss their mark and strike someone unintentionally, this is in accordance with the capriciousness suggested by the phrase outrageous fortune. The metaphor also suggests a demoralising quality of the attacks, it is disturbing to be attacked from afar without being able to respond adequately.

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?

Here hamlet proposes an alternative to suffering these slings and arrows of fortune. Suggesting that perhaps if he stood in opposition to such attacks he could end them. In practical terms hamlet could be referring to an attack against the king whereby he avenges his father, speculation exists as to whether hamlet perceived such a venture as, in itself, a means to suicide. The metaphor sea of troubles is fairly simple in that it simply compares hamlet’s suffering to the vast and boundless quality of the sea. The previous reference to ‘outrageous fortune dictates that hamlet is referring to the continuous wave of assaults that eh perceives life as presenting him. However when read as a double entendre, hamlet questions whether to take up arms against the external troubles confronting him (claudius, his mothers incest and frailty), or against his internal troubles, which again implies the contemplation of suicide. The use of opposing in context continues the metaphor of armed struggle begun by "Take arms" in the previous line. There is potential ambiguity in the use of die here; obviously, it means to lose one's life, but there are possible secondary meanings of ‘to pine for’ and ‘vanish’ additionally.

To die: to sleep;

Shakespeare instigates an extended metaphor in which sleep comes to represent death. Shakespeare has hamlet liken sleep to death because sleep also carries to connotation of inaction, rest, and being idle or oblivious. In portraying hamlet as desiring sleep, or death, shakespeare elaborates on hamlet’s inaction; where previously the reader was unsure whether hamlet intentionally procrastinated or did so unconsciously was unclear now the reader realises that hamlet has made an art form of such idleness. No more; and by a sleep to say we end

This line qualifies hamlet’s intended use of sleep in the previous line.

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,

Here hamlet reveals a predisposition to perceive carnality as inherently corrupted; he has a strong association between the physicality of man and his inevitable corruption. The use of heir here reveals hamlet’s notion that these flaws are hereditary, this could help the reader understand the seemingly disproportional degree of hamlet’s abhorrence for his mother’s actions as he thinks that if his mother can be so completely compromised than he is liable to the same fate.

'tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd.

Refers to previous lines, hamlet displays a desire to end his ‘thousand natural shocks’ and in doing so once again communicates to the audience a predisposition towards suicidal contemplation. The term consummation in this context means end or death, its use here in poetry plays of its natural meaning of completion suggesting that a man is not complete until death.

To die, to sleep; to sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;

Inferentially suggests that there may be a possibility of something beyond death, this something si here represented by the notion of a dream. The intangible quality of a dream parallels the unknown quality of realm beyond death. Hamlet suggests that this unknown quality, the chance that there is something further is something which prevents men from devoutly wishing this ‘consummation’ (this line fills a similar role to the everlastings canon in the ‘too too solid soliloquy&rsquowink this lien also reveals that hamlet may himself be plagued by nightmares (suggesting perhaps that even prior to his putting on an antic disposition hamlets may not have been in occupancy of his right mind.), as otherwise why would he see dreaming as a deterrent from oblivion? For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

Drives home the rhetorical comparison of sleep and death, hamlet infers that if death is sleep intensified, then the possible dreams in death are likely to be intensified as well. Hamlet’s pace is also increased as unlike previous lines punctuation is not used to indicate pauses.

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

The mortal coil here symbolises life, by referring to life as a coil shakespeare cerates a vivid image in the readers mind. A coil spirals to an end, suggesting inevitability, but also a snake coils. Use of the term coil likens mortality to a snake traditionally associated with death or evil, this metaphor is effective on another level too. When viewed in context of hamlet’s previous references to the biblical canon and unweeded garden it becomes clear that hamlet associates life itself with corruption; the biblical tale of the fall in genesis attributes all corruption in man to an action taken by satan while in the form of a snake. By suggesting that mortality coils hamlet reveals his perception of not only man as corrupt, but life itself. Must give us pause: there's the respect that makes calamity of so long life; for who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,

The insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes,

This is a list of the corruptions that a man must tolerate in this life, hamlet presents these as prefix to the revelation of the thing that keeps man from ending his life, and subsequently ceasing his need to tolerate such nefarious elements.

When he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?

Refers again to suicide this time not in a personally contemplative sense but in a general sense. Here hamlet is philosophising about mankind in general. Bodkin was the elizabethan term for sharp instrument, such an awl, used for punching holes in leather. In this context, however it suggests a dagger or stiletto as such the phrase comes to mean ‘bare blade’. Hamlet asks who wants to suffer life when you could end your troubles with a dagger? After the initial question.

Who would fardels bear,

Hamlet continues by asking who would bear fardels which was an elizabethan term for a heavy pack

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

Elaborates on hamlet’s negative outlook on life in general but that the dread of something after death, the undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?

This is the reason hamlet gives for mans sustained tolerance of the corrupt elements of life. Man is afraid of what comes after death. Death is an undiscovered country that no traveller (deceased person) has ever returned from. Death is an unknown quantity that puzzles the human will and causes man to tolerate the known evils of corporeality rather than brave the unknown ones that may follow death. In this passage there is a slight contradiction fo terms in that if the ghost in act one is not a traveller returned from the ‘undiscovered country’ then the ghost may not the spirit of hamlet’s father but some malevolent spirit, not seeking revenger but exploiting hamlet’s sense of filial obligation, intent on wreaking havoc in hamlet’s life.

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

Hamlet suggests contemplation along these lines makes cowards of men. This line is applicable in a general sense throughout the play as the reader repeatedly sees hamlet’s resolve to act crumble as he considers it in more depth. Conscience here is used in a manner which suggests its meaning "Consciousness, inmost thought or private judgment" rather than implying a moral dilemma. The premise is that thoughts can deter action and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,

Resolution to act is compromised by excessive thinking. The words to describe the thoughts reflect hamlet’s dissatisfaction with his ability to act on his beliefs; he believes his noble ‘hue of resolution’ is destroyed by his excessive contemplation and extrapolation of philosophical ideas. These lines set up a contrast between resolution and thought through the use of a parallelism. Native is here used in the sense that it means natural, its combination with hue implies a bold healthy colour which comes to symbolise determination. In contrast the antithesis of healthy determination is the affliction of thought. Sicklied over suggests ‘tainted’ and cast denotes ‘tinge or colouration’ in these two lines the dramatic problem of the play, which also happens to be hamlet’s fatal flaw is espoused openly.

And enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action.--soft you now!

Here hamlet speaks in general terms of the great enterprises that have been compromised by thought. The use of the term awry creates an implied reference to the suggestion that the time is out of joint, and the fact that something is rotten in the kingdom of denmark.

Erin lancaster has recently survived year 12 and is looking to move from her small town of picola (population: 100 people) in regional victoria to melbourne next year to study music. She plays the violin, sings and enjoys writing especially in her blog www.Strandedgypsygirl.Wordpress.Com and will read anything she can get her hands on! Her favourite quote it by mark twain, “so let us live so that when we die even the undertaker will be sorry”

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