Monday, 17 November 2014

"To be, or not to be..." - An Analysis of Hamlet's Fifth Soliloquy


Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be…” soliloquy is possibly the most famous and most quoted speech in all of English literature. In the soliloquy, Hamlet contemplates the disparities of the human world, the attraction of suicide, cowardice, revenge and the human conscience. The harrowing thoughts expressed by our young prince embody a large number of the play’s themes, and indeed they reveal a vast amount about the hero’s character. The language itself demonstrates Hamlet’s perceptive, intelligent but also (and perhaps consequently) melancholic character and hopeless attitude to life. These aspects of his personality are demonstrated throughout the play, particularly in his soliloquys, and the concerns he expresses about death and revenge are also recurring themes of Hamlet.

Hamlet begins his soliloquy with the famous aphorism, “To be, or not to be, that is the question…” This rather extreme simplification of an almost impossible question immediately conveys Hamlet’s perturbed state of mind: suicide is a genuine option at this point. It has come down to a simple choice that needs to be made: life or death, and the audience mourns to witness Hamlet’s appearing to sway towards the option of suicide, which is described as warring against and so ending “a sea of troubles”. This natural metaphor intimates not only the enormity of his troubles, but also their potency and uncontrollability. He presents death as alluring and attractive, metaphorically comparing it to sleep, certainly more appealing and natural than death. Hamlet also refers to “The sling and arrows of outrageous fortune,” depicting life as a cruel battle and immediately recalling his earlier exclamation in Act I, Scene 5: “O cursèd spite, | That ever I was born to set it right.” He goes on to describe “the whips and scorns of time, | Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely…” giving an extensive list of all the world’s disparities and problems.

Hamlet’s first soliloquy, in Act I, also relates the harsh cruelties of our lives. Again, he seems to be swaying towards the notion of suicide when he exclaims: “O that this too too solid flesh would melt, | … | Or that the Everlasting had not fixed | His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” The threat of damnation is thus presented by Hamlet as the only reason for not killing oneself, and his hyperbolic repetition of ‘too’ shows his desperation. He describes the uses of the world as “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.” It is worth noting that “weary” is a word he repeats in the fifth soliloquy. Hamlet’s depiction of the world as rotten and stale (a motif that recurs throughout the play, particularly in describing Denmark) accompanied by his exclamations (“Fie on’t, ah fie,”), emphasises his melancholic state of mind. He later describes Denmark as a prison (page 141) with “many confines, wards, and dungeons…” This, too, demonstrates his despair and his consequent desire for escape, and perhaps suicide. Thus, the language employed by Hamlet in his fifth soliloquy reflects the ideas expressed regarding death and suicide in various other parts of the play.

Hamlet’s fascination with death and its uncertainty is another motif that recurs throughout the play. In his fifth soliloquy, Hamlet, although seemingly attracted towards death (“To die, to sleep – | No more…”), realises:


“To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.”

There is a suggestion here of risk and the idea that the dream of death could in fact be a nightmare. Moreover, Hamlet’s use of the word “us” rather than “me” universalises Shakespeare’s explorations of Hamlet’s mind into explorations of the human condition, implying that these ideas are felt by all at some point or other. Hamlet goes on to question why people would bear life’s problems if “he himself might his quietus make | With a bare bodkin?” It is this “dread of something after death” that helps to make the question of “To be, or not to be” much more complex than Hamlet at first believes. He would rather bear the ills that he currently experiences “Than fly to others that we know not of…” Life is here presented as the lesser of two evils, since the unknown may be even worse. These gloomy ideas of death are perhaps inspired by the Ghost’s descriptions of his own purgatorial afterlife: he is “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, | And for the day confined to fast in fires…” It is somewhat ironic that Hamlet should describe death as “The undiscovered country from whose bourn | No traveller returns,” since he has only just seen his own father returned from the dead. Shakespeare could be suggesting that the Ghost that Hamlet saw was not really a “traveller”, but in fact the devil himself, a concern raised in Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy.

Hamlet’s fascination with death is demonstrated again in Act 5 Scene 1, the famous grave scene. Hamlet questions how the Clown could possibly be singing while digging graves, which he sees as harsh and unfeeling. He is angered by the way the Clown treats the skulls, asking: “Did these bones cost no more the breeding but to play at loggets with ‘em? Mine ache to think on’t.” Hamlet is amazed (emphasised by his repeated questioning) that such important people as politicians, Lords and lawyers should be treated with such disrespect by a “rude knave”. Perhaps he himself feels threatened by the great irony of death: that everyone, even Princes, are reduced and equalised by the great powers of nature. These ideas are expressed again when Hamlet, after seeing Yorick’s skull, reflects upon the cruelty of death: “To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till a find it stopping a bunghole?” The suggestion is that Hamlet is thinking of his own death and afterlife and how his body will be treated. These reflections show Hamlet’s fascination and fear of death, also demonstrated through the language of his fifth soliloquy.

Hamlet’s fear of death and its uncertainty is what causes him to delay. He is an intelligent and sharp young man unlikely to act without due consideration: it is this discernment in his character, demonstrated in his fifth soliloquy, that prevents him from committing suicide. He takes care to question a number of aspects of suicide: whether God would approve (his first soliloquy), and whether it would be considered “nobler” to “suffer | The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or to kill himself, and here we see his feeling of duty as a Prince and as the son of his virtuous father. He explains:


“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…”

It is the scholar’s predicament that “enterprises of great pitch and moment | … turn awry” once contemplated and considered at length. This intelligence, shown throughout the play, also leads to Hamlet’s delaying in his resolution to avenge his father’s death.

In Act 2 Scene 2, Hamlet, comparing himself to the passionate player, accuses himself of having no resolve and for being “unpregnant” of his cause. He casts aspersions on his own manliness by exclaiming: “Am I a coward?” and asking who “Plucks of my beard and blows it in my face, | Tweaks me by th’nose…” Then, in an effort to emulate the powerful emotions of the First Player, he pours out a splurge of anger: “Bloody, bawdy villain! | Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” He soon realises, however, that his outburst of words is futile without action: “Fie upon’t, foh! About, my brains.” His discernment leads him to delay and question the nature and intentions of the Ghost, which “May be a devil” and may be trying to damn him. Thus he decides upon the play, in which he might “catch the conscience of the king.” The audience can see that he is not delaying simply due to cowardice. Rather, it is because of his intelligence and his consequent uncertainty about the Ghost. Intelligence is also seen as the cause of delay in various other parts of the play. Even once he has seen Claudius’s reaction to the play, which surely serves as a proof of his guilt, he ensures that Horatio too agrees and asks: “Didst perceive?” As an intelligent man, Hamlet wants absolute evidence of Claudius’s guilt before he makes any rash decisions, for he knows that if he was to wrongly commit murder then he would be eternally damned. Henry Mackenzie describes Hamlet as a man of exquisite sensibility and virtue “placed in a situation in which even the amiable qualities of his mind serve but to aggravate his distress and to perplex his conduct.” It is his discernment and forward thinking, the “amiable qualities of his mind,” not cowardice, that makes him “lose the name of action”, and these characteristics are skilfully portrayed in the fifth soliloquy.

Hamlet’s fifth soliloquy also returns to the play’s central theme: revenge and its justification. Unlike Vindice, who only seems to realise the sinful nature of his murderous vengeance at the end of the play, Hamlet questions throughout whether revenge is justified. Therefore, his use of the word “conscience” (“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…”) can in fact be seen as a reference to his moral uncertainty about whether revenge is good or evil. Indeed, less than ten lines before Hamlet’s speech begins, after Polonius’s speech about sugaring over the devil, Claudius himself exclaims: “Oh, ‘tis too true. | How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!” and he goes onto cry: “O heavy burden!” And so, Hamlet’s own use of the word “conscience” immediately encourages a comparison between Claudius and Hamlet, both polarised in the extent to which they allow their consciences to determine their action. While, as Hamlet explains, conscience may lead to cowardice, it also sets us apart from evil. Claudius, although saying: “My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,” refuses to give up what he has gained from his fraternal murder: “May one be pardoned and retain th’offence?” Despite claiming that he does have a conscience, he never acts upon it, even to the extent that, when Gertrude proposes to drink from the poisonous cup, all he can bring himself to say is: “Gertrude, do not drink!” He is heartless and cruel, and it is this that separates him from Hamlet.

However, Hamlet is not completely devoid of flaws: although questioning the morality of vengeance (as when he asks the ghost: “Do you not come your tardy son to chide…” and describes revenge as his “dread command”), he does not seem to realise that by killing Claudius he effectively, some would argue, sinks to his level. Herman Ulrici points out that it would be a sin to put Claudius to death without a trial and without justice. However, is this necessarily true? Claudius has killed Hamlet’s father, and has also attempted to kill Hamlet himself, and so one could argue that Hamlet, by killing Claudius, is simply preventing further deaths, and thus that revenge is somewhat justified. Nonetheless, Hamlet’s occasional lack of conscience is undeniable: his cruelty to the women of the play is a good example of this. Despite his father’s beseeching him: “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive | against thy mother aught…” he still grows angry at her for marrying Claudius. This cruelty to his mother is particularly evident when he unremittingly questions her about her actions, asking, amongst other things: “O shame, where is thy blush? Rebellious hell…” We begin to pity her as she begs him repeatedly to “speak no more” and tells him:


“Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grainèd spots
As will not leave their tinct.”

Even when the ghost begs Hamlet to “step between her and her fighting soul,” he continues to attack her for her actions. However, he does tell her later that he “must be cruel only to be kind,” and so we begin to understand the teleology of his attacks – he simply wishes to metaphorically heal his mother of her sins. In the case of Ophelia, on the other hand, there is little justification for his cruelty: he simply uses her as a pawn for his plans. Ophelia believes and is “so affrighted” by everything that Hamlet says to her in his “antic disposition”. Hamlet’s least admirable side is seen in Act 3 Scene 3 when he refuses to kill the praying Claudius, fearing that, if he does, Claudius will be sent to heaven. Instead, he resolves to kill him “When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, | Or in th’incestuous pleasure of his bed…” He wants Claudius to be “about some act | That has no relish of salvation in’t…” Murder is not enough for Hamlet – he wants to ensure that Claudius experiences the true horrors of Hell that he feels he deserves. Dr Johnson (1765) spoke of the “useless and wanton cruelty” of Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia, and he says that Hamlet’s speech in the prayer scene is “too horrible to be read or to be uttered”. It is, indeed, an awful thought, but there is some sense of justice in the idea: surely it is not true revenge if Hamlet’s father goes to Hell and Claudius goes to Heaven, when it should surely be the other way around? Thus, the debate comes down to the morality of revenge, a debate impossible to conclude. However, the critic Maynard Mack (‘The World of Hamlet’) seems to present a fair argument: “The act required of him, though retributive justice, is one that necessarily involves the doer in the general guilt.” Although the inner play reveals to Hamlet Claudius’s guilt, the question of revenge and its morality still remains: how does one revenge a murder without becoming a murderer oneself?

The language of Hamlet’s fifth soliloquy thus serves to expand and elucidate many of his traits already displayed in the play, and it prepares the audience for his actions later on. It reveals Hamlet’s fear of and fascination with death, his discernment and intelligence, as well as inviting a comparison between himself and Claudius (through the word “conscience”). It is obvious from the outset that Hamlet is the more admirable of the two, but Hamlet is certainly not perfect. Indeed, as Aristotle says, every tragic hero must have a ‘hamartia’ (error of judgement or tragic flaw), otherwise the audience will be left with a sense of total injustice and outrage. Shakespeare places Hamlet in a situation almost impossible to navigate safely: perhaps we are too harsh in our judgements of Hamlet? Is it not part of the human condition to desire some form of retribution? Whatever the answer, it is clear from Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be…” speech that he is an intelligent young man with an active, although occasionally failing, conscience – surely he is admirable for this?

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