“To be, or not to be; that is the question…”


Act Three, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


Act Three:  Listening in on a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia – at which Hamlet seems, frankly, unhinged – Claudius plots to send him away to England.  The court gathers to watch the players, and at the moment where the murder is reenacted Claudius stands up in shock and the play is abandoned, leading Horatio and Hamlet to agree that he MUST be guilty.  On the way to speak with Gertrude, Hamlet sees Claudius praying for forgiveness, and so puts off killing him.  He then angrily accuses Gertrude of unfaithfulness, and when he hears Polonius hiding behind the screen in her room, stabs him to death.


“Words, words, words.”  And some of the most potent words in the play, and indeed in all of literature are said in Act Three, scene 1, lines 58-90:

To be, or not to be; that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep –

No more, and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to – ‘tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wishes.  To die, to sleep.

To sleep, perchance to dream.  Ay, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams my come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil

Must give us pause.  There’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life,

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,

When he himself might with his quietus make

With a bare bodkin?  Who would these fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovered country from whose bourn

No traveler returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we known not of?

Thus conscience makes cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action.

(It’s interesting here to note the differences between the bad quarto, good quarto and folio versions.  If you’d like to know more about this…let me know.)


To briefly repeat what I said in an earlier post (for those of you who might have missed it), even though Hamlet’s thoughts are dizzyingly on the wing (and everywhere else), they do circle and circle again around the idea of stasis.  What begins as a rational enquiry into the state of being – “To be, or not to be” – evolves into a speculative meditation on the various ways in which we humans are persuaded out of “action.”  Suicide is, obviously, on Hamlet’s mind, but even this “resolution” (as escapist as he argues it is) stumbles and “turn[s] awry,” undone, as always by conscience.  Despite his seeming determination to answer the “question” he himself posed, a statement that makes him sound, at times, like a dutiful student arguing the point, Hamlet’s thinking is spasmodic, broken – a new kind of dramatic style for Shakespeare, and, arguably, an entire new dramatic language.  Even in its prodigious length and complexity, Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy fully demonstrates the way in which thoughts – unique, amazing thoughts – can get in the way.

NEW STUFF:  As you might have noticed, the soliloquy contains not a single “I” or “me,” and so it’s relationship to Hamlet’s own situation is, I think, complex.  Even so, Shakespeare makes us see the tangible as well as philosophical difficulties of the Prince’s position.  Hamlet is never entirely sure that what the Ghost says is actually true (unlike the audience, who will be allowed to witness Claudius’s desperate attempts at penitence at his prayers), and his options concerning what to DO with that knowledge are also sorely limited.  The court at Elsinore, presided over by a usurping murderer, is hardly likely to provide Hamlet with any kind of justice, so he has little choice but to embark on what the Elizabethan politician and sage Francis Bacon once called the “wild justice” of revenge, a course prompted by a Ghost who could (as Shakespeare’s audiences would have been all too aware) be a demon sent from Hell.  That course is wild indeed:  in his early political/historical dramas particularly, Shakespeare seemed to be at pains to show that the ethic of revenge tears societies in apart.  In the King Henry VI plays, it is revenge that finally rips England to pieces during the War of the Roses; in Titus Andronicus, revenge transforms the city of Rome into a “wilderness of tigers” where horrible violence consumes the world of the play.  Knowledge of the political and ethical problems with revenge haunts Hamlet as much as his father’s ghost, or indeed his own sense of self.


From Bradley:

“A night passes, and the day that follows it brings the crisis. First takes place that interview from which the King is to learn whether disappointed love is really the cause of his nephew’s lunacy. Hamlet is sent for; poor Ophelia is told to walk up and down, reading her prayer-book; Polonius and the King conceal themselves behind the arras. And Hamlet enters, so deeply absorbed in thought that for some time he supposes himself to be alone. What is he thinking of? ‘The Murder of Gonzago,’ which is to be played in a few hours, and on which everything depends? Not at all. He is meditating on suicide; and he finds that what stands in the way of it, and counterbalances its infinite attraction, is not any thought of a sacred unaccomplished duty, but the doubt, quite irrelevant to that issue, whether it is not ignoble in the mind to end its misery, and, still more, whether death would end it. Hamlet, that is to say, is here, in effect, precisely where he was at the time of his first soliloquy (‘O that this too too solid flesh would melt’) two months ago, before ever he heard of his father’s murder. His reflections have no reference to this particular moment; they represent that habitual weariness of life with which his passing outbursts of emotion or energy are contrasted. What can be more significant than the fact that he is sunk in these reflections on the very day which is to determine for him the truthfulness of the Ghost? And how is it possible for us to hope that, if that truthfulness should be established, Hamlet will be any nearer to his revenge?”


From Bloom on the soliloquy:

“Only fifty-five lines [after O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!], the most illustrious of all soliloquies begins hamlet’s next appearance.  As probably the most famous verse passage in the language, staled by repetition, it challenges us to restore its authentic and perpetual freshness.  Best to state baldly:  This is not a mediation seriously contemplating suicide.

What is the power of Hamlet’s mind over a universe of death, or a sea of troubles?  That indeed is the question.  Shakespeare’s heirs, from Milton through Wordsworth to Wallace Stevens, have explored this question incessantly, for this has become the burden of post-Enlightenment poetry.  The sea of death, representative of mother night, must end hamlet09-3-1b-1consciousness – or ‘conscience,’ in Hamlet’s term.  But how far, before that, does the power of the poet’s mind extend?

Being, or consciousness, is given the choice: suffer stoically, or take arms against the sea, and thus end sooner, consumed by the currents, whose great pitch constitutes a height our enterprises cannot attain.  There are two grand metaphors in conflict here:  the shuffled-off mortal coil, everything we shall lose, and the undiscovered country, the land of death, from which no traveler returns, yet from which King Hamlet’s spirit breaks loose twice in the play.  The spirit seeks revenge, and it comes, though not through Prince Hamlet’s will.

And yet the prince’s mind, though it cannot prevail over the universe of death, sets the standard by which Milton, Wordsworth, and Stevens will measure the extent of their own power over outward sense.  Hamlet’s will loses the name of action, but not the true nature of action, which abides in the exaltation of mind.  It can be objected:  Where is there such exaltation in this soliloquy?  And the answer is:  Everywhere, in each phrase, in each pause, as this grandest of consciousnesses overhears its own cognitive music.”

I think this is spot-on.


To finish, before beginning our examination of the “meat” of Act Three, I’d like to backtrack a bit, with Camille Paglia’s close reading of “The Ghost’s Speech” from back in Act One.  I found it very very interesting.

     Now, Hamlet, hear.

‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,

A serpent stung me.  So the whole ear of Denmark

Is by a forged process of my death

Rankly abused.  But know, thou noble youth,

The serpent that did sting thy father’s life

Now wears his crown…

     Sleeping within my orchard

My custom always of the afternoon,

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole

With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,

And in the porches of my ears did pour

The leperous distillment, whose effect

Holds such an enmity with blood of man

That swift as quicksilver its courses through

The natural gates and alleys of the body,

And with a sudden vigor it doth posset

And curd, like eager droppings into milk,

The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine,

And an instant tetter barked about

Most lazarlike with vile and loathsome crust

All my smooth body.

Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand

Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched,

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,

Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,

No reck’ning made, but sent to my account

With all my imperfections on my head.

O, horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!

If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.

Let not the royal bed of Denmark be

A couch for luxury and damned incest.

But howsomever thou pursues this act,

Taint not thy mind, not let thy soul contrive

Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven

And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge

To prick and sting her.

“Shakespeare the poet often burns through Shakespeare the dramatist, not simply in the great soliloquies that have become actors’ set pieces but in passages throughout his poems that can stand alone as poems.  A remarkable example is the ghost’s speech in Hamlet, an excerpt from the midnight encounter of father and son on Elsinore’s windy battlement.  The description by Hamlet the elder of his grisly murder by a treacherous brother, who stole his throne and wife, is a magnificent flight of strange, lurid poetry.  The packed images twist and turn with a Mannerist sophistication, fascinating yet repulsive.

‘Now, Hamlet, hear’: with unnerving intensity and overbearing authority, the ghost, (whom Shakespeare himself reputedly played onstage) presses his heavy revelation on his agitated son.  Hearing is the medium of first shock, but as the saga unfolds, the visual and the tactile take over.  Words seem sticky, insinuating, invasive as we are drawn closer and closer to the grotesque scene.  The speech builds from a fabrication, the official story issued by the palace bureaucracy:  ‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,/A serpent stung me.’  The cover-up misleads a nation, stunned by grief into a single thought: ‘So the whole ear of Denmark/Is by a forged process of my death/Rankly abused.’  The people are the body politic:  unsettled, manipulated, paranoid, they are reduced to a giant, collective ‘ear’ poisoned by lies – miming the king’s secret murder.  Government, which should serve truth, has become a fount of lies.  The tale has been craftily ‘forged’ because Claudius, the new king, is himself a forgery or fake, never destined by God for the throne. An ear ‘rankly abused’ suggests force and trauma, a brutalizing of soft tissue.  ‘Rank’ also has a stench of squalor and decay, the pollution caused in Hamlet (as in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex) by corruption at the top.

The ghost’s narrative of the murder begins with the hypnotic lilt of a lullaby:  ‘Sleeping with my orchard,/My custom always of the afternoon.’  ‘Custom,’ or routine, is predicated on trust, the illusion of safety craved by all human beings.  Taken unawares in his ‘secure hour’ by a disloyal ally, Hamlet senior recalls another king, Duncan of Scotland, slain in his bed by his host, Macbeth.  (‘Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep.’)  For the head of state to be at ease on leisurely afternoons means the nation is at peace.  In medieval and Renaissance iconography, a king napping in his orchard would symbolize the harmony of nature and society: cultivated land is nature ordered by human reason and design.  The well-managed garden, a major metaphor in Hamlet, is a paradigm of the wisely governed state.  When the true gardener is gone, the world becomes (as young Hamlet complains) ‘an unweeded garden/That grows to seed,’ possessed by ‘things rank and gross in nature.’  Mold, fungi, spiders, and rodents run wild, and fertility is aborted. (‘A rat?’ cries Hamlet, mistaking Polonius for Claudius and jamming his rapier through a bulging curtain.)

The Danish royal garden was once Eden before the Fall, with Hamlet senior as Adam in the state of innocence.  Thus the spurious reports of the king’s death by snakebite is figuratively true: the ghost says, ‘The serpent that did sting thy father’s life/Now wears his crown.’  Claudius the crowned reptile (like a quaint emblem in alchemy) is the primordial serpent with its inexplicable malice toward God’s creation. Shakespeare’s serpent succeeds in capturing Eve:  ‘O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there,’ laments the ghost, wounded by his wife Gertrude’s quick coupling with Claudius.  The young prince inherits a world of disillusion after the Fall where, thanks to the serpent’s machinations, human life is under sentence of death. The ghost’s bitter sexual jealousy is magnified by voyeurism, his exiled watching and his later aggressive solicitude for Gertrude.  Spying (a constant motif in this play) is also implicit in the stealth (‘stole’) with which Claudius ambushes his sleeping brother, who is rendered passive and robbed of potency.  The hushed sense of trespass gives the murder a homoerotic tinge, as if its violation of a hidden pocket of the body rehearses male-on-male rape.  Incest is a shadow undercurrent in the play:  Hamlet is obsessively focused on his mother’s bedroom activities, while Laertes, bullying his sister Ophelia about her love life, wars with Hamlet for her affections.

In Renaissance England, poisoning, like stabbing in the back, was a dishonorable way to kill, associated with cowards, fickle women, and devious Italians.  Hence the regicide Claudius is prima facie unmanly.  Murder by ear is so esoteric that it make the body (our own as well as the king’s) seem hideously vulnerable.  Quietly tipping his vial in the orchard, Claudius resembles a gardener tenderly watering a prize plant.  An ancient architectural metaphor is also at work: the true king (as in Egypt) is conflated with the palace, a citadel that proves 0703-17-123woefully easy to infiltrate and subvert.  His ear is the palace vestibule (‘porches’), and his veins are ‘the natural gates and alleys of the body’ through which the poison, ‘swift as quicksilver,’ slithers like a snake or a draft of bad air, the medium of plague.  The poison’s stunning speed and amorphousness are dramatized in Shakespeare’s weaving of its multiple effects through eleven dizzyingly headlong lines, the Poison’s ‘enmity with blood of man’ is suggestively satanic (‘Satan’ means ‘the Adversary”), blocking and canceling God’s work.  ‘With a sudden vigor it doth posset/And curd, like eager droppings into milk,/The thin and wholesome blood”: the toxin mysteriously changes the blood chemically, clotting and curdling it as when acid (‘eager’) is dripped into milk.  The pure stream is changed to sludge – our mother’s milk of natural emotion gone sour (compare ‘th’milk of human kindness,’ Macbeth) Drumming rhythms capture the choking of the king’s system with mushrooming tumors and blobby growths like cottage cheese.

The poison is a ‘leperous distillment,’ causing or feigning the gangrene in leprosy.  The surface of the king’s skin massively erupts, while his warrior’s sinews and muscles melt away.  the realm’s supreme power is now a pitiable outcast (‘most lazarlike,’ like the biblical beggar Lazarus, a leper covered with sores.)  His flesh is a raw wound, with the heroic human contours lost in a nauseating mass of undifferentiated tissue.  A scab (‘a most instant tetter’) shoots around his body: his skin crawls, along with ours – replicating the sensation of the serpent-murderer creeping up on his prey.  Suppurating and drying in a magic flash, the king’s ‘smooth body,’ with its aristocratic refinement, is encased in a ‘vile and loathsome crust.’  It is bizarrely ‘barked about’ – covered with bark like a tree (a good example of Shakespeare’s typical conversion of nouns to verbs).  Animal to vegetable: the king has tumbled down the great chain of being to the subhuman, where he becomes a worthless thing, a rotting log in a grove.  The passage exploits a sensuous concreteness of language to activate our atavistic horror at death and decay.  We recoil at the staccato fusillade of consonants that make us hear the crackling of the victim’s mammoth scab.

Robbed of his life, the king has also nearly lost his soul.  He was denied last rites (‘unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled’) whereby he could make confession and receive absolution.  He was, he protests, ‘cut off even in the blossoms of my sin.’  This image sees man after the Fall as a plant bearing (in Baudelaire’s phrase) flowers of evil.  It is as if sin is intrinsic to organic life.  Indeed, ‘cursed hebona,’ the plant (possibly henbane) crushed by Claudius for its poison juice, represents a minute segment of nature damned by heaven and charged with the death force.  There is a striking contrast between the king’s physical vulnerability and the severe mathematic imposed by divine judgment:  ‘No reck’ning made, but sent to my account/With all my imperfections on my head.’  The weight of those ‘imperfections’ is ominously transferred to Hamlet (‘thou noble youth’) through this very speech.  If the son has ‘nature’ in him – that is, filial love – he must rise to duty.  Sensitive, indecisive Hamlet will be expected to ‘bear it not’ – to avenge his father’s loss of absolution by dragging the murderer to his own bloody reckoning.

The ghost’s journey into the painful past comes full circle with his reference to ‘the royal bed of Denmark’ – or more precisely to its female occupant, whom the bed wraps like a pod.  Claudius is curiously erased from the picture.  He is implicitly present as a contaminant, polluting and perverting the bed into ‘a couch for luxury and damned incest’ – sloth and unbridled lust divorced from dynastic procreation.  (Whether a woman’s marriage to her husband’s brother constitutes incest is debatable, though Hamlet, like John the Baptist denouncing Herodias, clearly believes it is.)  The royal bed as valuable artifact and symbol of succession is found in literature as early as Homer’s Odyssey. Hamlet’s royal bed – declined by the king for his open-air siestas – is repeatedly identified with the queen, possession of whom is at issue throughout the play.  The ghost’s program of vengeance requires a liberation and purgation of the bed where Hamlet himself may well have been conceived and born.

In forbidding his son to take punitive action against Gertrude ‘Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive/Against thy mother aught’), the ghost can be seen as motivated by compassion or by cruelty.  ‘Leave her to heaven’ – the highest court – ‘and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge/To prick and sting her’:  the brambles of the unweeded garden have invaded the palace.  Does the king spare his queen out of sadism?  Does he relish seeing her suffer?  His metaphor winds her heart (like the Sacred Heart of Jesus) with a thorny vine: it’s the parasitic embrace of the serpent usurper, Claudius.  The queen is a flesh fruit clutched, snared, stung, and blighted.  Sexual intercourse is imagined as intimate torture, an excruciating love-death with the penis (‘prick’) as a darting tongue or poisoned fang.  The hovering ghosts suffers from his own witness and incapacity.  Gertrude’s conscience, he insists, will be her own best torturer:  her erotic pleasures will always be commingled with spiritual pain.

The ghost’s sinister speech is decadent insofar as it shows civilization collapsing into the realm of gross matter.  Divine creation is reversed as supersubtle evil dissolves forms and beings.  Shakespeare moves swiftly from suffocation and extinction in the garden to bondage and torment in the bedroom.  The king’s triple cry – ‘O, horrible! O, horrible! Most horrible!’ – is an aria close to a howl, requiring consummate skill from an actor.  Our ear, like the king’s is invaded by poison via the revolting images, which can barely be intelligibly processed.  The abandonment of a mutilated corpse like trash is an affront to human dignity (compare ‘garbage’ as the food of ‘lust,’).  The king’s encrusted body is ugly as offal:  is this why he wears armor for his nightly walk?  The charismatic warrior whom his intellectual son fulsomely compared to Hyperion, the sun god, is physically ravaged and shamed.  His armor warns of Norway’s looming threat but also signifies a state of war among his nearest and dearest – those lifetime conflicts of Freudian family romance that Shakespeare so presciently grasped.  The garden now breeds pestilence: the king’s corpse, restless because of an unavenged murder, exudes the sulfurous bad smells that fill the play.

In eerie mood and macabre detail, the ghost’s speech has a style that would later be called Gothic.  The flamboyant ghoulishness of such passages in Shakespeare’s plays was disdained as vulgar by Neoclassicists, particularly in France.  But the Gothic was triumphantly reclaimed by Romanticism, which would in turn engender modern horror films. The ghost’s serpentine speech, like the monumental Hellenistic sculpture Laocoon (which shows a Trojan priest and his sons strangled by sea snakes), reflects the anxieties of a turbulent ‘late’ phase of culture.  The mature Shakespeare of the jittery Jacobean period may have lost faith in politics and public ethics.  Idealism fails in Hamlet, as man regresses to the reptilian.”

What do you think?


So which reading do you prefer?  Why?  Discuss!

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3 Responses to “To be, or not to be; that is the question…”

  1. Ridg Gilmer says:

    From a pathologist’s view, there are problems with the ghost’s testimony. If the alleged henbane is to blame, the instillation via ear canal is problematic, as the tympanic membrane should have stopped further absorption, leaving the drug to exercise its low dose hallucinatory effects, which indeed may include erotic fantasies. Only in quite high dose is this drug potentially fatal.

    If, however, there indeed was a serpent involved, as per Claudius testimony, this is a more plausible cause of death. Certain poisonous snakes may inject a highly toxic substance, leading to a condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), which if not promptly diagnosed and treated, may lead to death. DIC causes a widespread coagulation and thence thrombosis of virtually the entire system of blood vessels that could eventually be fatal and produce a superficial appearance of generalized gangrene – a most unpleasant sight to behold.

    So – do we go with Hamlet’s acceptance of his father’s ghost’s accusation or with Claudius more benign explanation of a serpent’s tongue? Well – for sake of Shakespeare’s most highly touted drama, containing the most famous lines in literature, we must bow to the fact that Claudius betrayed his lie in “The Play’s the Thing” and go with the poisoning via auditory canal.

  2. cricketmuse says:

    Lots of deep think in this post. Next time sround of teaching I will definitely point out the lack of “I” or “me” in the To Be soliloquy.

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