“To be or not to be, that is the question…” Hamlet’s soliloquy is one of the most famous in literature. His contemplation of death and his obsessions with the spiritual matters occurs throughout the play and still a matter of contemplation among the scholars. Hamlet saw death as a reliable end to mortal suffering, something that can bring comfort (Watson, pf. 55). However, we clearly see a shift in Hamlet’s attitude towards death as the play progresses. He surrenders himself to his own fate – what God has in store for him… whether it is life or death. His contemplation of death and its nature gives way to a new Hamlet who has made peace with the world and is ready for whatever fate thrusts into his life.
Hamlet is usually seen as a philosophical character. He is always spilling out ideas throughout his soliloquies that can be classified as existentialist or skeptical at best. One of the classic examples in of his relativist ideas is seen in the quote “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Weller, Hamlet, Act II, scene II). What makes the skeptics and the scholars equally passionate is his view towards death and its evolution.
In the beginning of the play, we can see his outright obsession with death. Despite the fact that even his friends were afraid of the ghost, Hamlet decides to speak to the ghost and then follows the ghost when it beckons to him. The only line that even hinted to his hesitation to follow the ghost is seen when he says “Angels and ministers of grace defend us” (Weller, Hamlet, Act I, Scene 1V). But even that cannot be seen as a sign of being afraid since Hamlet fearlessly talked to the ghost and then followed it – something no man would do in his right mind. This is just a sign of what is troubling his thoughts, as Marcellus said in Act I, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Then later when he organizes the play to expose his uncle’s guilt and then receives the proof he needed, we see a Hamlet deeply troubled. Thus begins his contemplation of suicide when he realizes the magnitude of his troubles. To be or not to be soliloquy deals with this contemplation of suicide. Hamlet is asking which is more preferable, to suffer in one’s own mind or take a stand against a sea of troubles. He realizes that the situation he is in now is forcing his hand to act – he either must remain quiet or forget all that happened and thus suffer or must work to expose and kill his uncle.
Hamlet’s dilemma is the pain of life that he must endure or the uncertainty of death. We see that Hamlet is dissatisfied with life and lists many things that trouble him but he is not sure what death will bring him. He is thinking that the experience of death itself maybe worse than life itself. Hamlet knows that the church explicitly forbids suicide because then your soul will be in eternal damnation. Thus the famous quote from the bible, “the wages of sin is death.” For Hamlet, death is an undiscovered country where no traveler returns. It is a one way ticket where there are no take-backs – a possibility that life might be bad but death could be worse.
Hamlet’s mind begins to unravel further as he tries to comprehend death. In Act IV, Scene III, we see a hamlet that is mentally disturbed. When asked of death, he explains it in the most crude and unfashionable way. He says that we are all destined for death, to be eaten by maggots. Your worm is the only emperor of your diet. Meaning you are eating someone else’s death body because the worms broke down that dead body and how you will just fatten yourself up for the worms. This shows a completion alienation of Hamlet from his earlier self, a new stage in his personal development or rather his devolution. He is talking of death itself as nothing to be too mindful of, a natural process that he describes in the most dehumanizing way. When his friends Guildenstern and Rosencrantz were killed, there was no mourning for them from Hamlet – just that they were simply getting in his way (Weller, Act V, Scene II). A dehumanizing and numbing effect that has enveloped Hamlet’s sensitiveness, a sign for his passionate madness. This is shown when Hamlet did not kill his uncle Claudius while in confession because he wanted to not only kill the man but to “damn his soul as well” ( Detmold, pg. 127).
Later in Act V, we see a completely transformed Hamlet who is hardened about his feelings and who has made peace with the universe. In Act V, Scene II, Hamlet says “If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.” He is talking about his death, that he has accepted his fate. His reasoning is that death will come to everyone; it is just a matter of being ready for it. If it is indeed his destiny to die in a duel with Laertes, then so be it. Here we see a Hamlet that is beyond contemplation of his death or the afterlife. We see someone who simply accepted the reality has it is and is now moving on with his plans for revenge. His fear is death is no longer an obstacle because he has already taken many lives and he has made the reasoning that no matter what exists in the afterlife, he will continue to exist. We see a man who has completely come to terms with his own mortality and has surrendered his life to where fate or death takes him.
To be or not to be soliloquy of Hamlet is just a small marker in the long road of his devolution into madness and a dehumanized soul. His obsessions and contemplation of death leads to his resigning himself to his fate, whatever that may be. Throughout the play, his questioning mentality about the nature of death gets changed to a point where at the end; he simply has no more objections to the very notion of death itself. Even when his friend Horatio tries to tell him of the dangers to his life, Hamlet is unconcerned. However, if we can speculate, we can be sure that the Hamlet from Scene I would have certainly objected to what Hamlet from Scene V has done. This shows the breakdown of rationality and a man who has come to terms with life, the universe and his own mortality.
WORK CITED PAGE
Weller, Shane., Dover Thrift Ed. Hamlet, William Shakespeare . New York: Dover, 1992.
Watson, Robert N. The Rest Is Silence: Death as Annihilation in the English Renaissance . Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999.
Detmold, George. “Hamlet”. Shakespeare for Students . Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1992.