To be or not to be – Analysis

‘To be or not to be’ Analysis

In this soliloquy, Hamlet’s view of life is that it is full of hardship. He presents life as being two options; “to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles”. The use of imagery with connotations of war shows Hamlet to see life as a constant battle. The weapons mentioned are long range suggesting the possibility of being unsuspecting of the attack. This also lends itself to the possibility of missing which links to the “outrageous fortune”. The adjective ‘outrageous’ is possibly used to emphasise the connotations of fortune as it can mean the inability to predict, but it also has connotations of being more than is required. Hamlet, therefore, feels as though the odds are weighted against him. This is furthered by the metaphor used of a “sea of troubles” which equates his problems with the vast expanse of the sea and its power. These images are contrasted with Hamlet’s description of being “shuffled off this mortal coil” as the verb ‘shuffle’ is usually linked to embarrassment or awkwardness. This betrays Hamlet’s view that much that we do is pointless; the heroic deeds we believe to have done are just little actions. The specific problems Hamlet experiences are hinted at by the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. Not only may this mean his mother’s incestuous marriage with Claudius that upsets Hamlet, but also his dead father who returns as a spirit telling him to avenge his death which causes much of Hamlet’s anguish. This phrase may also mean the actual effects of aging or being wounded. Similarly, Hamlet calls life a “calamity” and a “mortal coil”; ‘coil’ may mean a literal coil which goes back on itself, or it may mean confusion which is the more probable meaning. Each of these examples demonstrates Hamlet’s view of the world as confusing and against him. The very reasons for this soliloquy show this as Hamlet is trying to reason with his conflicting thoughts on death.

Hamlet’s thoughts on death are similar to his thoughts on life in that, ultimately, he can only see the bad. There is a tricolon of phrases with two syllables that is repeated in the beginning section of the soliloquy which seem to link death to sleep and therefore use sleep as a metaphor for death. The first is, “To die: to sleep; No more”. I, however, believe that this shows to what extent Hamlet has become numb to life due to how many “slings and arrows” he has suffered. The ease in which death slides to sleep reflects how, in Hamlet’s tired mind, they blend into one. For Hamlet, it is as easy to fall asleep as he imagines ceasing to exist, which is the subject of the first famous line of the soliloquy. The use of the words “no more” perhaps refers to how overwhelmed Hamlet feels and his need for an escape. The second time this variant of a tricolon is used, it is changed slightly; “To die, to sleep; to sleep”. The change in the punctuation demonstrates a calming of Hamlet’s emotions but has similar connotations of the first use, the repetition showing the significance of this in Hamlet’s mind. Hamlet, however, does not kill himself despite being aware of how easy it would be; “he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin”.

This is because Hamlet realises that death is not the end. The realisation of this is shown to be unwelcome by the punctuation. Hamlet says the phrase, “Ay, theres the rub”, following a series of assonance including the words, ‘sleep’ twice and ‘dream’ which contrasts with the sound in ‘Ay’. Due to the way these lines are structured it is possible to see Hamlet’s mind at work as he runs these ideas through his head because of the short statements, of which the aforementioned is the last and, therefore, the conclusion. There is always an obstacle for Hamlet to encounter. The threat of the “what dreams may come,” according to Hamlet, “must give us pause”. The assertive tone of ‘must’ implies that this is an issue for everybody because everybody has something to fear. Hamlet creates a list of problems which people have to bear to emphasise the incongruity of still “makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of”. The use of the verb ‘fly’ emphasises how free and easy it would be in contrast to living and therefore stresses the importance of the unknown and how it affects people. Hamlet’s perspective is bleak to the point that nothing escapes his torment, neither in life nor in death.

The outcome of Hamlet’s internal argument is that nothing is changed. Hamlet claims, “Thus conscience makes cowards of us all”. The sharp alliteration contrasting with sibilance emphasises Hamlet’s disappointment. This disappointment encompasses Hamlet himself. The final words of this soliloquy are, “with this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action”. This gradual decline in energy is reflected in the punctuation used throughout the poem which also decreases. The sharp sounds again present in the last word ‘action’ further reveals Hamlet’s displeasure at himself and his inability to carry out the task his father entrusted him with. A reason for this lack of action is summarised in the first words of the soliloquy; “To be or not to be”. This statement has become well-known partly because of how concisely it sums up the human condition and the simple structure it uses creating an antithesis. Hamlet realises that the line is thin between being and not being which is arguably why the question of life after death bothers him to such an extent. It could also be because he is simply human.

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