"To be or not to be..."

This page looks at Hamlet's soliloquy, "To be or not to be...". (Source Unknown)

"The major question in 'To be or not to be' cannot be suicide. If it were, as many have noted, it would be dramatically irrelevant. Hamlet is no longer sunk in the depths of melancholy, as he was in his first soliloquy. He has been roused to action and has just discovered how to test the Ghost's words. When we last saw him, only five minutes before, he was anticipating the night's performance, and in only a few moments we shall see him eagerly instructing the players and excitedly telling Horatio of his plan. To have him enter at this point debating whether or not to kill himself would indeed be wholly inconsistent with both the character and the movement of the plot. The metaphors all suggest that Hamlet's choice is between suffering the ills of this world and taking resolute action against them, not between enduring evil and evading it.

A further objection to the suicide theory, one that may be even more significant in its implications, is the form of the question Hamlet puts to himself. He states his dilemma as "to be or not to be"- not as "to live or not to live." the issue, as he sees it is not between mere temporal existence and non-existence, but between "being" and "non-being." In other words, he is struggling with a metaphysical issue: not the narrow personal question of whether he, an individual man, should kill himself, but the wider philosophical question of man's essence.

Hamlet is facing the moral question that has too long been thought irrelevant to the play: whether or not he should effect private revenge..

"To be"- what? To be a man , in the full metaphysical sense of "being" as it was understood by philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. "Being" is what a thing is, its essence, that which defines it. "Or not to be." There is no middle position. A thing is or it is not. The first line of the soliloquy, so often droned in a tone of meditative musing, should be spoken as an insistent, emphatic, even passionate demand. The whole moral question is focused in this challenge.

Is it any nobler, Hamlet asks, to endure evil passively, as all the voices of Church and State and society have insisted, or does the true nobility of that which is man demand that he actively fight and conquer evil that beset him? Can it really be virtue to sit back and leave it to Heaven? On one level, we are debating the morality of private revenge, but on another we are thrown headlong into the metaphysical dilemma of the Renaissance.

Hamlet is trapped between two worlds. The moral code from which he cannot escape is basically medieval, but his instincts are with the Renaissance. Shocked from his unthinking acceptance of the commandments of Church and State, he is forced to find a new orientation. Can God have created man a thinking creature and yet have ordered him not to use the very faculty that raises him above the animals? What is it "to be"?


1. What is the authors basic thesis?

2. Do you agree that Hamlet could not possibly be contemplating suicide at this point in the play?

3. What is there in the play to refute this argument?

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