Hamlet is without question the most famous drama/play in the English language. Probably written in 1601 or 1602, the tragedy establishes Shakespeare as the foremost dramatist in his time and up to the present. Shakespeare’s focus on the inner struggles of the hero was a radical deviation from the usual revenge tragedies during the period, which is inclined to graphically describe violent acts on stage. In Hamlet, Shakespeare emphasized the hero’s dilemma rather than the portrayal of bloody acts.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether “tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?-To die,-to sleep,-
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks”
No doubt this is the most famous and quotable line in the English language quoted by Hamlet in Act III, scene i (58). The unforgettable line “To be or not to be” touches on a number of delicate considerations in the play. This specific scene represents clash of cultural ideals between old versus new values or faith versus doubt. These words emphasized the protagonist”s inner struggle with two opposing forces or the prevalence of two conflicting school of thought, which are preserving moral integrity and the need to avenge his father’s murder.
The old or conservative values are represented by Hamlet’s bid to retain moral integrity, clear conscience, spiritual faith, wisdom, justice, nobility and exercise of reason and will. The new or modern values are exemplified by apathy, cynicism, imprudence, disbelief, recklessness, vengeance and impulsiveness.
In this particular scene Hamlet was examining closely the pros and cons of committing suicide. Which is nobler? To suffer life, “[t]he slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or to seek to end it? As Hamlet ponders on the question, he realized that the question does not end there. Hamlet restated his question by including dreaming to the metaphor of sleep. He says that the dreams that may come in the sleep of death are intimidating, that they “must give us pause.” To put it simply, the bigger question is what will happen to him in the afterlife if he chooses to commit suicide?
He answers his own question by saying that no one is inclined to live except that “the dread of something after death” forces people to undergo suffering rather than end their lives to find that they are in an even more miserable state after. The uncertainties of the afterlife, Hamlet believes, leads to extreme moral concern that hinders action: “conscience does make cowards of us all . . . thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”
The speech is important because it reveals the quality of Hamlet’s mind. His deeply passionate nature, the one inclined to be impulsive, reckless and imprudent, is tempered by logical intellect, wisdom, reason and innate nobility which typify the characteristics of the old world. Hamlet relentlessly sought to end his inner struggles by turning to religion to seek reasons to either kill himself or find the strength to kill Claudius. Then he uses philosophy by framing the immortal “to be or not to be” to come up with the necessary answer but still find the reasons inadequate.
In the words of Ernest Johnson, “the dilemma of Hamlet the Prince and Man” is “to disentangle himself from the temptation to wreak justice for the wrong reasons and in evil passion, and to do what he must do at last for the pure sake of justice.… From that dilemma of wrong feelings and right actions, he ultimately emerges, solving the problem by attaining a proper state of mind.”
The popularity and universal appeal of Hamlet hinges on the fact that his struggles and ideals sum up the dilemma each of us faces. Hamlet’s conflicting emotions on how to act in a corrupt world with his moral integrity intact reflects the plight of every human being be it in the old or new world.