Elizabeth Kauwell

AP English



The first line of the soliloquy indicates a very vague and inexplicable conundrum, one that would be very difficult to interpret if the entirety of the soliloquy was written in such a cryptic manner. “To be, or not to be: that is the question:” His first instinct is to question whether such a horrible existence could be improved by simply not existing, by which he implies suicide. He then thinks something that has prevented many others before him from ending their own lives “To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;/ For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.” Simply put, Hamlet is nervous about what existence will be like after death, showing a lack of faith in God, who will tell you exactly what will happen after death.

Hamlet cites this as the reason that all who have had this thought are cowards. For fear of the unknown, they endure horrible pain. He complains of many of the same ills men are subject to today: tyrannical leaders, heartache, injustice by those in power, and pride. His use of words such as heartache, pangs, suffer, and the use of “sleeping” as an euphemism for death all indicate a feeling of melancholy, which is how many directors have chosen to portray Hamlet in this scene. Shakespeare uses colons conventionally seven times in this particular soliloquy. They’re typically used to introduce readers to an idea, such as his connection between dying and sleeping. He would like to simply fall asleep and never wake, a common theme in the despondently depressed, like Hamlet.

This attitude further enforces the underlying theme of Hamlet, which is that an inability to act causes pain and is a weakness. He no longer seems depressed about not killing Claudius, but depressed about not being able to take his own life, perhaps as a consequence of his failure to kill his father’s murderer.

This soliloquy also embodies another theme common in Hamlet, which is the afterlife. With the appearance of Hamlet Sr.’s ghost, the controversy over Ophelia’s burial, and Hamlet II’s internal conflict of killing Claudius while he prays. Shakespeare here confronts the masses’ beliefs of the afterlife, implying other possibilities that what the Bishop might tell you. In earlier soliloquies, Hamlet does in fact lament that God has prohibited suicide. This brings up the question of if this is because Hamlet has truly become mad and no longer takes into stock what God has to say, or if it has been caused by an insight to truth.

There is question to whether or not Hamlet knows he is being watched in this soliloquy, which causes a lack of certainty about many things, such as Hamlet’s true feelings, and why he would want someone to hear these things. These also imply uncertainty about a much more integral theme, the question of Hamlet’s sanity. If this speech is just an act put on to convince the castle he is mad, or if he truly is. It is up to our own interpretations.

In the last lines of the soliloquy, Hamlet realizes that many have chosen to live for fear of the afterlife, and chooses to follow in their footsteps. He lives, and one cannot say this was the right decision or wrong, but it certainly continued the play.