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Hamlet’s
“To be, or not to be” soliloquy is questionably one of the most famous
soliloquies in the world of literature. Even though hundreds of years have
passed since it was written, many people are somewhat familiar with this
soliloquy. The recognition has allowed these powerful words to maintain such a
hold on people’s minds and has provoked a wide spectrum of people to ask
questions about their own existence for centuries. The questions being asked is
extremely complex and crucial to the story, and is seen to be highly relatable
on many basis; whether it’s better for one to continue living a life of sadness
just to increase his existence in a world where he is familiar with the horrors
he faces, or if it is simply easier to put an end to one’s existence altogether
but risk entering an unavoidable reality that lacks any degree of certainty. In
the soliloquy, “To be, or not to be,” the powerful themes of indecisiveness and
uncertainty of action, and the complexities of life and death, bring to light
the key ideas that persist throughout the Shakespearean tragedy, as well as
many significant qualities and traits of the play’s leading character, Prince
Hamlet.

Many people have seen Hamlet as a play about
indecisiveness, and thus about Hamlet’s failure to act appropriately. The
uncertainty he faces is repetitively demonstrated throughout Hamlet’s
soliloquy, as he unnecessarily plans over what to do with his life. He
simultaneously considers and discards the idea of committing suicide couple of
times; he believes that this act will serve as an escape from the pain that his
life brings upon him, but is unsure of what is to come once he does. During his
soliloquy, Hamlet says: “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?” (3.1.57-61).
This quote describes Hamlet as a character who is uncertain if it is honorable
to put up with all the trials and pain that luck throws his way, or to fight
against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them for good; which he
thinks can be achieved by ending his life. Hamlet is tortured by the death of
his father; the appearance of his father’s ghost serves as a constant reminder
of this part of his forbidding past, thus making it difficult for him to move
on and leave this pain behind. Hamlet doesn’t like his mother’s betrayal to
both him and his late father when she marries her dead husband’s brother –
Hamlet’s uncle Claudius – who is now the King of Denmark. These two aspects are
the main contributions to the overwhelming feelings of pain and grief that
Hamlet experiences. He feels as if there is no other option besides suicide to
ease this pain, but he is still unwilling to make this decision in all its
finality. His uncertain thoughts are in constant battle; this internal conflict
is shown when he says, “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 wished! To die, to sleep. /To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the
rub, /For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/When we have shuffled off
this mortal coil, /Must give us pause.” (3.1.66-67). It is evident that the
main reason he hesitates to take the final step in his plan of suicide is
because he is uncertain of what lies after death; it could either be a heavenly
sleep of pleasant dreams, or a tortured sleep full of nightmares. This lack of
certainty, along with his religious outlook on life, is what makes him so
hesitant to act for so long. He is aware that committing suicide is considered
a sin in the Christian faith he follows, and doing so would make him subject to
eternal damnation in hell; a possibility that frightens him more than any possible
pain.

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            The weight of one’s mortality and
the difficulties of life and death are introduced from the very beginning of
the Shakespearean tragedy of Hamlet. After his father’s death, Hamlet cannot
stop thinking and considering the meaning of life – and its eventual ending.
Many questions arise as the story progresses; what is to come after death, if
one will go to heaven if he is murdered, and if kings truly have a free pass to
heaven. In Hamlet’s mind, the idea of dying itself does not seem so bad. The
view that primarily frightens him away from taking his own life is the endless
uncertainty of the afterlife. The covered mystery of death creates a sense of
unease within Hamlet’s mind. He considers the option of suicide as the best way
to instantly relieve him of his earthly troubles. Although death may be
appealing to Hamlet because of its all-ending nature, it also frightens him. He
refers to the afterlife as “The undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No
traveler returns” (3.1.80-81), which is an idea that causes him to reconsider
before falling into the ultimate sleep; because once he does it, there is no
going back, even if the supposed horrors of the afterlife prove too much to
handle. The fact that Hamlet is still planning the act of suicide even after he
has sworn to avenge his father reveals that these earthly troubles lie much
deeper than simple grief over the murder of his father. Hamlet’s anger against
his mother’s betrayal stalks from the fear that if his mother can so easily
forget his father’s life after death, then life itself must have no meaning at
all. With the pure lack of decency and morality that Hamlet’s society
possesses, causes a negative shadow to be cast on the way he values life;
leading up to his thought of suicide. Hamlet describes the corrupt nature of
the society he lives in when he says, “For who would bear the whips and scorns
of time, / Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, / The pangs of
despised love, the law’s delay, / The insolence of office, and the spurns/ That
patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,” (3.1.71-75). Through this description,
Hamlet’s grim outlook on life is shown to be evident. He truly does carry the
burden of pain and suffering in his life, which makes him want to end it. He is
distressed by this decision that, in the end, he ironically leaves undecided;
his fate of life or death was not in his hands after all.

            Hamlet is a character that has
fascinated audiences and readers of all sorts for centuries. One of the notable
traits to point out about his character is that he is remarkably mysterious.
There always seems to be more to him than the other characters in the play can
figure out. Hamlet tells other characters – including his mother, Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern – that there is more to him than meets the eye. In fact, he
single-handedly manages to deceive the other characters in the play when he
falsely presents himself as a madman. However, this is not the only aspect of
his character that leaves people so fascinated by him. Hamlet, being an
aspiring student, whose studies are interrupted by the death of his father, is
exceptionally logical and thoughtful. Hamlet is presented with reasonable
evidence that his uncle murdered his father, which any other character in the
play would readily accept and believe. However, despite having learnt this awareness,
Hamlet instead becomes obsessed with proving his uncle’s guilt for himself
before considering taking any real action. The idea of just readily believing
what people say is simply unacceptable to him. Being the highly inquisitive
character, he is, he tends to question everything, and overthink; including
questions about the afterlife, suicide, and what happens to people after death.
He finds himself drawn to difficult questions, some of which cannot be answered
with any certainty. Hamlet also behaves quite rashly and impulsively, revealing
himself to be a paradox of a character. On the very rare occasion when he does act,
he does so with surprising swiftness and little to no prior thought or
reasoning. This can be seen through the way he stabs Polonius through the
curtain, without even thinking to confirm who was behind it before doing so.
Hamlet’s cowardice is another very important part of his character, and serves
as one of his many tragic flaws. His never-ending observation and hesitation to
act shows the huge weakness he possesses. He’s not strong or brave enough to
actually carry out the deeds he sets out to do; just in this soliloquy alone,
he shows signs of cowardice when he continually suggests and then refuses the
idea of suicide out of fear of the unknown; “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 know not of?/ Thus conscience does make cowards of us all” (3.1.79-84). This
part of Hamlet’s soliloquy clearly describes the parts of death that frighten
him from taking action, and he blatantly admits that the fear of death makes
him a coward. Another one of the major character traits that Hamlet’s “To be,
or not to be” soliloquy reveals about him is his extremely depressed and
discontented attitude towards the state of affairs in Denmark and in his own
family. When he describes the state of Denmark, he speaks of “Th’ oppressor’s
wrong, the proud man’s contumely, / The pangs of despised love, the law’s
delay, / And The insolence of office” (3.1.72-75), which portrays the place
he lives in as vile and corrupt. As a result of his hatred towards his mother’s
betrayal, Hamlet immediately generalizes all women as being foul and
troublesome, and harshly rejects his former lover Ophelia because of this. It
is both remarkable and ironic that Hamlet, the privileged Prince of Denmark who
supposedly should have everything he wants in the world, is the one character
in the play that is the most depressed and unhappy with his life.

            Hamlet is a complex character, which
is reflected by the thoughts and conflicted feelings he displays in his
soliloquy. “To be, or not to be” truly is the essential question that
Shakespeare sensibly leaves unanswered. This convincing question and the
thoughts that Hamlet associates with it creates a powerful piece of literature,
through which many parts of the Shakespearean tragedy are enhanced and
explored. The powerful themes of indecisiveness and uncertainty of action, and
the complexities of life and death, are emphasized through this soliloquy;
along with many of the key qualities and traits that draw so much attention to
the play’s leading character, Prince Hamlet. Hamlet’s tragic experiences do
call into sharper focus why humans are so ready to face hardship to survive,
rather than pursuing the possibility of a peaceful end in death. When looking
deeper into the work, it is quite fascinating to consider that the play has a
way of showing its audience how many uncertainties people’s lives are built
upon; and how these uncertainties play a considerable part in the decisions
people make.

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