Theories About Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” Speech: III, I, 56-89
English IV AP / Mrs. Ramos
In “To be or not to be,” Hamlet is debating whether it would be a better thing to go on with his depressing life that is headed toward a murder he isn’t sure he can execute, or if he should end it all by taking charge of his own fate. By examining the downsides of both (suicide just brings one into a more uncertain situation, yet living life as it is now is painful), Hamlet is trying to seek a purpose and focus that he has not been strong enough to follow up to now.
This approach also considers that Hamlet might be debating whether or not he should risk is own eternal happiness to fulfill his promise to his father. The weight of both confounds Hamlet, paralyzing his decision-making process.
Hamlet’s speech is a feigned soliloquy, spoken to mislead other characters about his state of mind. When an already suspicious Hamlet arrives in the scene, he sees Ophelia and draws the conclusion that she has been enlisted in a conspiracy against him. He also sees an opportunity to turn the tables on the conspirators. This approach suggests that Hamlet knows he is not alone, but is acting for the benefit of Ophelia, who thinks Hamlet does not know she is present.
Hirsh, James. “Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies.” Modern Language Quarterly 58 (March 1997): 1-26.
Although the question “to be or not to be” does not relate to Hamlet’s particular problems, it is a universally debated philosophical question. Hamlet is trying to work out a fundamental problem of humanity, an archetypal dilemma that we all must face. In this way, Shakespeare’s purpose is to ‘humanize’ Hamlet, making him more familiar to the audience, even though his particular situation is one that few people will actually encounter.
Jenkins, Harold. “‘To be or not to be’: Hamlet’s Dilemma.” Hamlet Studies 13 (1991): 8-24.
Hamlet is suspended between the masculine and feminine. The “To be or not to be” speech illuminates his tragic flaw—that he is unable to reconcile the mixed message he is receiving about gender and the lack of options available to him as a future monarch. His suicidal thoughts reflect a gender conflict.
Dews, C.L. Barney. “Gender Tragedies.” Journal of Men’s Studies 2 (1994): 253-67.
By analyzing “To be or not to be” in terms of its dramatic effect and poetic message, one can see the speech as part of the action, not apart from it. The poetics and rhetoric in Hamlet’s speech moves the plot and suspense along as it ties together universal poetic images of death and life.
Newell, Alex. The Soliloquies in Hamlet: The Structural Design. Rutherford: Associated UP, 1991.
Hamlet’s speech is a pause in his ‘antic face’ routine. It allows us to see the true Hamlet at this moment in the plot. Through the speech, he reveals to the audience that his previous odd behavior is coming from a deep personal conflict. It is only through resolving this conflict that he can rid himself of the lunatic attitude.
In the “To be or not to be” speech, Hamlet is contemplating the validity of his father’s request for revenge. That is, “to be or not to be” the son his father expects. The living and dying represented in the speech, then, more appropriately refers to the deaths of old Hamlet and Claudius, not Hamlet himself.
To Plato, everything is immortal because it lives on in memory, copy, or reconstitution. Therefore, the human soul is eternal and a person cannot completely cease to be. So, when Hamlet is debating whether “To be or not to be,” he is trying to describe the move beyond materiality of the flesh that he is considering taking.
Aristotle believed that one of the key elements in a drama was what he called “thought”—evidence that the protagonist contemplates a moral lesson. “‘Thought’ is found where something is probed to be or not to be, or a general maxim is enunciated” (Poetics). To Aristotle, characters must reveal a moral purpose and show what kind of things a man chooses or avoids. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be,” helps to reveal this moral dilemma to the audience in the same way that a theme would be developed.
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