Monday, October 10, 2011

(Don't) Be Hamlet


Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" soliloquy is arguably the most famous soliloquy in the history of the theatre. Even today, 400 years after it was written, most people are vaguely familiar with the soliloquy even though they may not know the play. What gives these 34 lines such universal appeal and recognition? What about Hamlet's introspection has prompted scholars and theatergoers alike to ask questions about their own existence over the centuries? 

In this soliloquy , Shakespeare strikes a chord with a fundamental human concern: the validity and worthiness of life. Would it not be easier for us to simply enter a never-ending sleep when we find ourselves facing the daunting problems of life than to "suffer / the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune"? However, it is perhaps because we do not know what this endless sleep entails that humans usually opt against suicide. "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause." Shakespeare seems to understand this dilemma through his character Hamlet, and thus the phrase "To be, or not to be" has been immortalized; indeed, it has pervaded our culture to such a remarkable extent that it has been referenced countless times in movies, television, and the media. Popular movies such as Billy Madison quote the famous phrase, and www.tobeornottobe.com serves as an online archive of Shakespeare's works. Today, a Shakespeare stereotype is held up by the bulk of society, where they see him as the god of drama, infallible and fundamentally superior to modern playwrights. However, this attitude is not new. Even centuries ago, the "holiness" of Shakespeare's work inspired and awed audiences.


There are a hundred characters in [Shakespeare's] plays that (if we may be allowed the expression) speak out of character. ... The head and shoulders introduce the famous soliloquy of Hamlet. He had some reason to revenge his father's death upon his uncle, but he had none to take away his own life. Nor does it appear from any other part of the play that he had any such intention. On the contrary, when he had a fair opportunity of being put to death in England he very wisely retorted the villainy of his conductors on their own heads.

But it produces an infinitely greater effect than could be expected of an argument on suicide and death in tragedy; and this is because a large part of the audience not only knows it by heart as well as they do the Lord's Prayer, but listens to it, so to speak, as if it were a Lord's Prayer, not indeed with the profound reflections which accompany our sacred prayer, but with a sense of solemnity and awe, of which some one who does not know England can have no conception.

 Decide whether, after our present state, we are to be or not to be. That is the question which, as it shall be answered, will determine whether 'tis nobler and more suitable to the dignity of reason to.

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