Friday, 27 July 2012

Why is Hamlet's 'To Be or Not to Be' Speech so Popular?


Laurence Olivier as Hamlet.

"To be or not to be?" is arguably the most famous line in the entire Shakespearean canon and has been performed by some of the finest actors to grace the stage. 

The soliloquy is a fine example of Shakespeare’s ability to express a character’s torment with nothing other than language. Obviously, in performance, the speech’s power is even more potent, but the speech alone adequately express the tumultuous workings of Hamlet’s mind.

Clearly, it is not just the words that create such an extraordinary effect, the type of verse is crucial too.

The soliloquy is written in iambic pentameter with many of the lines having a feminine ending, meaning that they have eleven syllables rather than ten, the last of which is unstressed. Iambic pentameter with a feminine ending was a popular choice of Shakespeare’s and is used to similar effect in Macbeth’s “Tomorrow” speech.

Giving 'To be or not to be?' a Little Context


Perhaps the most well known soliloquy, the speech comes during the third act of Hamlet, by which point the eponymous hero’s sanity is beginning to unravel, or at least, this is what the audience is led to believe. Whether or not Hamlet is feigning madness is still hotly debated, but it would certainly seem that by Act Three he cannot be described as being of entirely sound mind.

The audience is aware of Hamlet’s determination to avenge the death of his father, but it is clear that he is unsure (to put it mildly) of the best course of action. In the interim, his peculiar behaviour has resembled that of a spoilt teenager and his mother, Gertrude, describes “…Hamlet’s wildness…”(III.i) to Ophelia.

What is Hamlet Talking About in The 'To be or not to be' Speech?


What is Hamlet chatting about?
A large part of the appeal of the “To be or not to be?” speech is that Hamlet is not really speaking of suicide or the choice between life and death. Instead, he is addressing the very issue of existence. Not, on the face of it, that may seem to be the same thing, but it is a much more philosophical discussion and is, actually, what we would now consider, a metaphysical debate.

Another reason that the soliloquy is so memorable and well loved is that Shakespeare has posed a dichotomy. In other words, the first lines present questions with diametrically opposite choices, for example, “To be or not to be?” and “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles…”(III.i).

We swing from one side to the other, almost like the ticking of the clock, which fits beautifully with the iambic rhythm. In an odd way, the soliloquy is both soothing and disturbing.

What is The Answer to The Question 'To be or not to be?'


Although Hamlet seems to draw the conclusion that death is a “…consummation Devoutly to be wish’d…”(III.i), he finds himself with a reason to doubt his conclusion.

This is not only typical of Hamlet’s character, but it is also indicative of the human condition, because death is inevitable, but it also the big unknown. As Hamlet puts it, “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause.”(III.i).

Towards the end of the speech, Hamlet claims that “…conscience does make cowards of us all: And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pitch and moment, With this regard, their currents turn awry And lose the name of action.”(III.i)

These final lines rather neatly describe the character of Hamlet. In fact, it could be argued that it is a moment of very clear self-recognition. The kind of clarity we would expect from a madman? I think not.

For an insight into the performance of "To be or not to be?", take a look at Kenneth Branagh's 1996 adaptation.


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