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William Shakespeare



The king and queen are interrogating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to see what they have learned about Hamlet's "turbulent and dangerous lunacy." (Observe that Claudius already thinks Hamlet is dangerous, though Hamlet has not yet given him any reason to think so.) The young men report that Hamlet has received them well, but that he evades them with "a crafty madness" whenever they try to ask the cause of his distraction. However, Hamlet was delighted to hear about the players and has ordered them to perform tonight; the king and queen are invited. The king urges them to keep pumping Hamlet for information, then dismisses them.

Claudius and Polonius have arranged to spy on a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia. The queen leaves, hoping that Ophelia's beauty is the cause of Hamlet's madness and that Ophelia's virtue may make him sane again. Polonius has arranged for Ophelia to walk along the corridor with a book as if praying, adding that with "pious action we do sugar o'er / The devil himself." This observation brings an unexpected reaction from Claudius. In an "aside," a speech to the audience that the other characters are not meant to hear, he admits that Polonius' words have stung his guilty conscience, and compares his hypocritical behavior to a prostitute's heavily madeup face. Polonius says, "I hear him coming," and the two men go to their hiding place.


Claudius' aside shows you two important things. First, that he is indeed guilty- that the ghost told the truth. Second, that he does have a conscience for Hamlet to "catch." The fact that Claudius is not a simple villain, that he is unhappy at having committed his crime, makes us look forward with excitement to what will happen in the play scene, but it also makes us less eager to see Hamlet's revenge. We can sympathize a little with Claudius now. Perhaps the fact that Claudius is a mixture of good and evil is the reason why a sensitive, philosophic man like Hamlet has trouble killing him.

The metaphor Claudius uses, comparing his false words to the paint on a harlot's cheek, is also significant, for it recalls Hamlet's feelings about makeup as part of the falsity of women. Remember in Hamlet's letter the reference to the "most beautified Ophelia"? This subject, a traditional target for moralists of the time, will come up again in a very short time, when Hamlet and Ophelia at last confront each other.

Hamlet comes in, and not finding whoever has sent for him, begins his third soliloquy, "To be, or not to be." Unlike either of his earlier inner-voice speeches, this one shows us his student mind at work. It is a philosophic debate, of a kind common in the period, on the subject of whether life is worth living. Is it "nobler" for a person to accept the miseries life brings him, or to fight against them and die? Dying is the problem, of course: We do not know what happens after death. It may be a peaceful sleep, but it may be a nightmare. It would be so simple to end all one's troubles by simply putting oneself to rest ("quietus") with a dagger ("a bare bodkin"), but men fear death- "the undiscovered country" from which "no traveller returns"- and consequently put up with familiar problems rather than "fly to others that we know not of." "Conscience" (awareness) thus makes "cowards of us all," for when we think about the consequences of an action, we end up not taking it. This is an important clue to Hamlet's character and the reasons for his delay. A man of thought rather than action, he sees the many sides of an issue, and ends up doing nothing. At this point Hamlet interrupts his train of thought because he sees Ophelia, apparently praying, and says to her, "Nymph, in thy orisons [morning prayers] / Be all my sins remembered."


"To be, or not to be" is the most famous, most quoted, most parodied, and most overinterpreted piece of verse in the English language. A good way to appreciate it is by ignoring the many commentaries that turn it into a monument, and trying to work out its meaning for yourself. You will see that it deals with the most basic of all subjects- life and death- and is for the most part very straightforward in its logic. You can also see that it is not a "dramatic" speech; it analyzes a problem instead of deciding on a solution, expresses Hamlet's ideas rather than his feelings, and does not drive him on to any action, not even to the action of refusing to act. Its relation to the play is something like the eye of a hurricane, a still point at the center of a state of extreme turmoil, in which the themes of the story are examined in a calm and objective way. Its connections to Hamlet's character and situation are of course strong: He has been contemplating the prospect of killing himself; he has been ordered by the ghost to kill Claudius; he has told Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he has "bad dreams"; the ghost has left him with a tangible and unpleasant picture of what the afterlife may be like; and finally, he has been more and more worried by his inability to act on his father's commands. In his soliloquy Hamlet is trying to search out, in a scholarly way, the basic thought process that will help him solve his problems. Significantly, he is distracted by Ophelia's arrival before he can come to any conclusion.



[Hamlet Table of Contents] []

© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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