To be or not to be...

Bugliani, Francesca. “‘In the mind to suffer’: Hamlet’s Soliloquy, ‘To be, or not to be.’” Hamlet Studies 17.1-2 (Summer/Winter 1995): 10-42.

HAMLET / NEW HISTORICISM / “TO BE, OR NOT TO BE” SOLILOQUY

This article analyzes Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy as “a deliberation on the conflict between reason and passion” (11). After surveying the Elizabethan scholarship on passion, it examines how Shakespeare “modelled Hamlet according to Elizabethan and Jacobean ideas of melancholy” (11). Hamlet frequently “assumes a melancholic mask” when interacting with other characters, but his melancholic sentiments expressed through soliloquies appear “genuine rather than stereotypical” (14). A line-by-line analysis of the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy suggests that it “encapsulates the main theme of Hamlet”: “Both the play and the soliloquy are animated by the conflict between the ideal of Socratic or, more precisely Stoic, imperturbability cherished by Hamlet and his guiltless, inevitable and tragic subjection to the perturbations of the mind” (26).

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Dews, C. L. Barney. “Gender Tragedies: East Texas Cockfighting and Hamlet.” Journal of Men’s Studies 2 (1994): 253-67.

FEMINISM / HAMLET / "TO BE, OR NOT TO BE" SOLILOQUY

Written in an unorthodox style and laced with personal letters to familial models of gender, this article hopes to rectify the lack of scholarship about “the harmful results of society’s gender pressure on the male characters in Hamlet” (255). Hamlet’s ideal model of masculinity is his father, whose ghost demands proof of the son’s manliness. Similarly, Laertes’ dead father also becomes a source that demands a show of loyalty through revenge (due to Claudius’ manipulation). While Laertes appears to embrace the masculine ideals, Hamlet is in an “ambivalent position,” suspended between the masculine and feminine (259). The indoctrination pressures of Claudius and Polonius as well as the problematic female chastity of Gertrude and Ophelia deliver conflicting messages to Hamlet. His “tragic flaw” seems “his inability to reconcile the mixed messages he is receiving regarding gender and the options available to him” (261). But Hamlet has no options because of his royal title and destiny. The “To be, or not to be” soliloquy provides the simultaneous contemplation of suicide and gender conflict. This conflict and the lack of choices seems epitomized in the final scene, when Horatio and Fortinbras describe the dead Hamlet in different gender terms. Hamlet presents ambivalence about the dilemma “of a reconciling of both masculine and feminine within an individual personality,” a dilemma that men still face today (266).

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Hirsh, James. “Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies.” Modern Language Quarterly 58 (March 1997): 1-26.

HAMLET / NEW HISTORICISM / PERFORMANCE / “TO BE, OR NOT TO BE” SOLILOQUY

This article declares that the “To be, or not to be” passage was originally staged as “a feigned soliloquy, spoken by Hamlet to mislead other characters about his state of mind” (2). The Shakespearean canon provides evidence that Shakespeare, perhaps more than other playwrights, “explored the potential consequences, comic and tragic, of the fact that human beings do not have access to one another’s minds” (9). He was able to do so because Elizabethan theatergoers were not required to distinguish “soliloquies that represent speech from those that represent thought” (7). In Hamlet, when a suspicious Hamlet “arrives at the location designated by his enemy, sees Ophelia, and draws the obvious conclusion that she has been enlisted in a conspiracy against him, he also sees an opportunity to turn the tables on the conspirators” (12). He does not mention his real concerns: the Ghost, Claudius, and The Mousetrap. And, departing from his other soliloquies, Hamlet never refers to “his personal situation” or uses a first-person singular pronoun (12). Although the “To be, or not to be” passage “was originally staged as a feigned soliloquy” (14), the closing of the theaters in 1642 broke the “English theatrical tradition” (15). When they reopened in 1660, preferences had changed: “Restoration playgoers lacked the taste for elaborate eavesdropping episodes that had so fascinated Renaissance playgoers” (15). A historical survey charts the results of this “profound change in taste,” such as the misapplication of the term soliloquy and the obliteration of any “distinction between the representation of speech and the representation of thought” (17). Unfortunately, the “erroneous belief that the ‘To be’ soliloquy represented Hamlet’s thoughts and the erroneous belief that soliloquies of all ages typically represented the thoughts of characters became mutually reinforcing” (22). If critics continue to operate with a “blind adherence to untenable orthodox assumptions,” then this “most famous passage in literature, countless other episodes in plays before the middle of the seventeenth century, the history of dramatic technique, and the history of the construction of subjectivity will all continue to be grossly misunderstood” (26).

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Jenkins, Harold. “‘To be, or not to be’: Hamlet’s Dilemma.” Hamlet Studies 13 (1991): 8-24.

HAMLET / PHILOSOPHICAL / “TO BE, OR NOT TO BE” SOLILOQUY

This article suggests “that the question of ‘to be, or not to be,’ though it does not relate directly to Hamlet’s particular problems, is nevertheless evoked by Hamlet’s dramatic role, so that the hero’s particular dilemma is set in context with an archetypal dilemma which enables it to be viewed in a universal perspective” (13-14). The question “is applied to the universal man in whom the particular revenger is subsumed” (21). “Hamlet, no less than Augustine, is working out a theorem, which is of general application” (13) based on a “fundamental” question—perhaps “the fundamental one—concerning human life, the desirability of having it at all” (12). The response found in this “famous soliloquy” seems “a grudging affirmative: one decides in favour of life from a fear that death might be worse” (21-22). “But the answer that springs from Hamlet when he speaks of his own individual plight and gives vent to his personal feelings is most often negative, the answer which Augustine thought improbable and even reprehensible” (22). For example, “directly after the ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy,” Hamlet rejects Ophelia, rejecting “life and its opportunities for love, marriage and procreation. It is the choice of ‘not to be’” (22). “Yet this negative answer is not the plays’s final answer” (sic 22). In the graveyard scene, Hamlet comes to accept “his mortal destiny,” thus allowing him to achieve the “readiness to do the deed of revenge which he has so long delayed” (22). Ultimately, Hamlet and Laertes both avenge their fathers’ murders as well as “forgive and absolve one another”—suggesting “a very moral play” (23). Hamlet “recognizes original sin, the presence of evil in man’s nature; and it accepts that guilt must be atoned for” (23). “It offers us a hero who, in a world where good and evil inseparably mingle, is tempted to shun the human lot but comes at length to embrace it, choosing finally ‘to be’” (23).

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Newell, Alex. The Soliloquies in Hamlet: The Structural Design. Rutherford: Associated UP, 1991.

HAMLET / RHETORICAL / “TO BE, OR NOT TO BE” SOLILOQUY

This monograph locates “the soliloquies primarily in their dramatic contexts” (e.g., dramatic, poetic, verbal, structural/formal) “to determine their role—individually, in groups, and collectively—in portraying Hamlet and in clarifying the larger structure and meaning of the play” (24). It blends discussion of the soliloquies as a collective whole with “detailed attention to many of them individually” (23) in six theme-based chapters (e.g., “Images of the Mind,” “Discourse of Reason,” “Wills and Fates: Intimations of Providence”). It also refers “sparingly rather than abundantly” to critical scholarship on the play (23-24) and refrains “from unnecessary forays into textual matters” concerning the Quartos/Folio debates (25). As attention to each soliloquy’s context enables “one to see the speech as a part of the action, not apart from it” (23), findings are presented “as they arise simultaneously from the poetics of language and action, which often have various kinds of contextual significance that need to be recognized and understood” (24).

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Contact the author at h.blankenship@hamlethaven.com