No doubt, you heard this incredibly famous phrase and even used it in your own speech or writing long before you read the whole soliloquy. To be or not to be – that is the question.
That can be the question about something absolutely trivial, like whether you should eat the second piece of that pumpkin pie or not. (Though it sometimes is really vital.) Or that can be the question about something much more serious, like what you want to do with your life.
Definitely, Shakespeare’s genius subtly highlighted this everlasting human problem of choice and managed to describe it in only six words. The six words that were destined to become quoted all over the world until the very end of times. And it looks like your home assignment for the English Literature class is to dig deeper into their meaning, as well as into that of the whole monologue.
So, today we’ll see how to approach such task and do it perfectly.
Yet, speaking frankly, when I studied English Literature at university, I never liked doing analyses of literary works. Just imagine that you write a poem and ask your friend to read and analyze it. I bet their interpretation is very far from the true meaning you tried to put into the lines. Even if your friend knows why you wrote that poem, even if they know you inside out, there’s little chance that they can understand you exactly as you expect to be understood.
I’ve always considered this slight but significant misunderstanding the main challenge of writing a good literary analysis. However, we all want good grades, right? So, I tried to work out my own methods to combine the ideas I have, the ideas literary critics have, and the ideas my professor wanted to read about in one paper.
In this post we’ll see how they’d work for William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and the analysis of the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy.
Describe the Background
You can find these world-famous lines in Act III, Scene I of the play. Believing that he is alone in the chamber, Hamlet expresses his worries and fears in a touching monologue.
As the only crown prince of Denmark, whose father was treacherously killed by his brother and whose mother married the murderer without even knowing it, Hamlet had to keep his aching heart closed. His uncle and the king Claudius was afraid of his revenge for father. His mother Gertrude couldn’t understand his harsh temper because she didn’t know anything about Claudius’ betrayal. Polonius, chief counselor, took Claudius’ side. While Polonius’ daughter Ophelia, the only person whom Hamlet truly loved, wasn’t allowed to seek his attention.
Prince Hamlet could pour out his soul only to the walls of the castle when no one seemed to see and hear him. However, that very time Polonius and Claudius eavesdropped his monologue in order to find our what mad or guileful thoughts crowded in his head.
What did they hear and how should they actually interpret Hamlet’s words? Let’s make it out.
Try to Find and Describe the Symbols or Concepts
That’s what many critics do. Honestly, I’m not sure if some writers and poets really pay attention to what a star or a sea wave can mean in their works. But experience shows that it’s better to do some research into symbols and concepts in a novel or poem you’re assigned to read.
Firstly, it will make a good, lengthy part of the entire paper. Secondly, your professor will certainly appreciate and grade highly your work with materials, as well as the references you’ll make.
So, what can we find in Hamlet’s soliloquy?
In order not to confuse the definitions of this word, let’s agree that in this analysis by “fortune” we mean fate. That is everything good and bad that can happen to a human being during his or her life.
Hamlet is musing his fate over. What happened to him? How did it influence him? Does he want to change anything? Or is it better to give up and “go off the stage”? These are the main questions he asks himself and tries to answer in the monologue.
- Sea (of troubles)
Hamlet’s life is a stormy sea. Waves toss him around. He keeps holding on. Because he’s Prince of Denmark, because he’s a strong and noble person who must right a wrong. But how long will he be able to keep afloat? What if he will once lose his strength? Isn’t it better then to yield to the deep waters?
Sea is a symbol of something unembraceable, unruly and dangerous. Very often it’s associated with human life as it is. And Shakespeare seems to have used the metaphor.
In works of literature the words “dream” or “sleep” are often used as euphemisms for death. But this literary tradition takes its roots from prehistoric cultures. Ancient people put the bodies of their dead relatives in positions which we normally adopt while sleeping peacefully.
So, on the one hand, to Hamlet sleep implies death and thus liberation from his sufferings, hesitations, and fears. On the other hand, however, he can’t help thinking that for him everything can get even worse after he passes. He doesn’t know what’s waiting for him after he closes his eyes forever.
Shakespeare’s time has whips and scorns. It’s an interesting idea of depicting it as something merciless and cruel.
Although the concept of time isn’t a focus of Hamlet’s monologue, the reference to it is very important. Time is a power that a human can never tame. Time can do with us everything it wills, and nothing will help us to oppose it. But do we need to? That’s what Hamlet tries to decide for himself.
- Life vs. death
The opposition of life and death can be related to the main issues which feed literature and art with more or less original ideas and images. These two concepts make the core of the soliloquy.
What’s more worthwhile: living and suffering or dying and… who knows what will happen next? Hamlet realizes that he must solve this dilemma and that there is only one choice to make. This choice is actually the drama of his and each person’s life. Every time we cast the gloomy thoughts aside, we have to put up with twists and turns of our fates.
Shakespeare doesn’t turn this symbol into an unnamed hero of the soliloquy, neither does the playwright make us attribute the image of traveler to Hamlet. Rather, by “travelers” prince means each human being, whole life is a road to death.
However, again we can see that the probable destination scares Hamlet, as there is no return from it. Although he probably feels that he has no more wish to postpone the end, he knows that it won’t give him any choices which he probably needs still.
Dive Deeper into the General and Personal Meanings
The analysis of the symbols leads us to uncovering the more and less obvious meanings of Hamlet’s words. Now let’s pay more attention to the main ideas of the prince’s soliloquy.
Besides, I offer you to meditate upon your own impressions of this particular part of the play and include them into your paper. You can devote only a small paragraph to them. Trust a graduate of the English Language and Literature Department, your professor definitely would like to check out your humble opinion.
Dithering between the extremes of life and death
Hamlet realizes that he is only a human who has two choices. But what’s more important, and however pessimistically true it may sound, it doesn’t matter what he chooses, because both roads will lead him to the only one, very final destination.
He can continue living and put off the day when he makes his last breath. But in this case, he has to suffer from and constantly struggle against his dislikes, resentment, despair, and wish to put an end to them all with only one right sword strike.
However, if he knows what the end is like, why should he suffer any longer? Everlasting sleep can save him from all his worries. It seems much easier than putting up with pains and fears. But is it really so?
Confusion about the surrounding reality
They say misfortunes never come singly. The ghost of Hamlet’s father tells him to take revenge on king’s death. However, it means murdering Claudius, present king of the country, and implies all possible consequences of such deed.
Hamlet can’t convince his mother that she married a betrayer and murderer. He also can’t be sincere to Ophelia though he adores this tender, innocent girl. His truest friend wants to but can’t help him to bring the chaos within and around the royal family to some order. So, what should Hamlet do?
Most of us would certainly insist on his continuing to fight against unfairness, get his revenge, protect his love. And we can’t say that prince seems too indecisive or weak to do it. What’s more, that’s exactly what he wants to do. But do you think it would be so easy if you were in his shoes?
Desire to Comprehend Afterlife and Fear of It
It seems to be an ideal place to hide from everything that makes one suffer, choose, revenge oneself, and just feel that heavy burden of responsibility for every step taken. Probably, Hamlet is even curious to know what may happen after his heart stops beating. What will he see, hear and feel?
But what if afterlife is nothing better than what he lives now? Of course, he won’t know that until he dies. But again he returns to the most important question: is death worth life? And vice versa.
These are complex questions, which still remain unanswered. And each of us is a Hamlet sometimes, who tries to find at least some satisfactory idea of what is better for us. Fortunately, we somehow tend to come to mostly similar conclusion and choose to go on.
Try Comparing the Play with Other Works of Literature (Optional)
When I read Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, its themes make me think about Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” The moral dilemmas of Prince of Denmark remind me about the rhetoric of Rodion Raskolnikov.
Both characters make desperate efforts to get to the core of the meanings of life and death. They both fail. Nonetheless, their striving to comprehend these two mysteries and the ways they do it, the thoughts that occur to them inspire us, readers, to take a different look at our existence.
Hope my ideas will help you write a perfect analytical essay. Thanks for staying with our team! Good luck!