Helen Hackett explores Shakespeare’s use of the soliloquy in Hamlet, including the famous “To be or not to be” speech, in this excerpt from her new book, The Elizabethan Mind: Searching for the Self in an Age of Uncertainty, published by Yale University Press.
Hackett is professor of English literature at University College London. An expert on the 16th and 17th centuries, she is the author of Shakespeare and Elizabeth and A Short History of English Renaissance Drama.
The prevalence of soliloquies in the play places at its centre the mind in general, and Hamlet’s mind in particular. Indeed, his sense of inwardness is present not only in his soliloquies, but also in dialogue. At his first appearance he declares, in dialogue with his mother and in front of the whole court, ‘I have that within which passes show’ (1.2.85), creating expectations that the rest of the play goes on to fulfil. Later, Hamlet will again allude in dialogue to ‘that within’, when he accuses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of trying to ‘pluck out the heart of my mystery’ (3.2.339). Other characters also notice his particular interiority and self-division: Claudius observes of Hamlet that ‘nor th’exterior nor the inward man / Resembles that it was’, and that something ‘hath put him / So much from th’understanding of himself’ (2.2.6–9). Speaking here to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Claudius purports merely to seek the cause of Hamlet’s madness. Hamlet has informed us and Horatio that this ‘antic disposition’ is feigned (1.5.173), but Claudius seems like the feigner here, pretending a fatherly concern for his stepson while really suspecting and seeking to expose treasonous intent. Most social interactions in the play encourage us to seek hidden purposes and concealed thoughts, framing and cohering with the many moments of soliloquy.
Hamlet’s first soliloquy, ‘Oh, that this too, too sallied flesh would melt’ (1.2.129–59), follows immediately upon the departure of the King and court with a ‘Flourish [fanfare]’, according to the stage direction. Hamlet is suddenly and starkly alone on stage, and fulfils our expectation that he will show us something of ‘that within’ to which he has just alluded (1.2.85). His flesh, in different early editions, is either too ‘sallied’ (assailed or sullied) or too ‘solid’; either way, he expresses a Neoplatonic or Neostoic contempt for the body as he withdraws into the mind. He entertains suicidal thoughts, wishing that ‘the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ’gainst self-slaughter’, and laments ‘How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world’, confirming his humoral disposition as melancholic. As his speech proceeds, it makes even more use than Brutus’s soliloquy of enjambment, caesuras, and rhetorical questions, especially when Hamlet contemplates his mother’s remarriage:
And yet within a month –
Let me not think on’t – Frailty, thy name is woman –
A little month, or e’er those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe all tears, why, she –
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourned longer – married with my uncle.
Different modern editions punctuate this passage in diverse ways, but the effect is the same: techniques explored in Brutus’s soliloquy are taken further to make the lines of verse and the units of syntax pull violently against each other. Recurrent parentheses, exclamations, and self-interruptions produce broken phrases; sentences are fractured and fragmentary, barely making sense. The effect is that of a mind captured in the act of thinking.
At the same time, this mind seems to be groping to express thoughts that lie deeply buried, and that are too troubling to be fully brought to light and articulated. The speech dramatises Hamlet as a character with layers: an outer social persona, an inner mind, and then yet more layers within that mind that are increasingly obscure, even to the speaker himself. Having established this spiralling inwardness, it ends by returning us to the outer world: ‘But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue’. This reminds us that Hamlet’s difficulty is not only the private psychological problem of articulating his own thoughts and feelings, but his public situation in a court where to speak his mind would be treason. Withdrawal into the mind and solitary utterance of what lies there is not just a personal, temperamental preference for Hamlet, but also a political necessity.
In this first soliloquy Hamlet speaks to himself about himself: ‘How weary [. . .] / Seem to me all the uses of this world’; ‘Must I remember?’ (my emphases). He dwells obsessively on his personal and political predicament as Prince of Denmark in his insistent use of possessive pronouns: ‘my mother’, ‘my poor father’s body’, ‘my uncle’, ‘My father’s brother’, ‘my father’. His most famous soliloquy, ‘To be or not to be’ (3.1.55–87), is quite different. Although this is often thought of as the moment where Hamlet most fully performs his interiority and selfhood, in fact over the whole course of the speech there is not a single use of the pronouns ‘I’ or ‘me’. Instead, Hamlet generalises about ‘we’ and ‘us’, speculating about what happens ‘When we have shuffled off this mortal coil’, and how this ‘makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of’ (my emphases). Such discourse on the human condition continues the use of soliloquy for choral meditation that Shakespeare had developed in Richard II and Julius Caesar. Here, it contributes in general terms to the play’s plot, mood, and themes, and to the characterisation of its protagonist, in that it powerfully conveys Hamlet’s sense of the impossibility of action, but it makes no contribution to specific events. Indeed, this may be one reason for the popularity of ‘To be’ over the centuries: it captures the essence of the play in some thirty lines, but is readily detachable for separate performance or anthologisation. This detachability is manifest even in early editions of the play, where the soliloquy was mobile. In the Second Quarto of 1604 (Q2) and the Folio of 1623 (F), it appears in Act 3 Scene 1, where modern editions also usually place it. However, in the First Quarto of 1603 (Q1), it occurs earlier, in the equivalent of Act 2 Scene 2, and some modern productions have found that for dramatic purposes it works best in this position.
Like many other Elizabethan examples of the literary or dramatic representation of inner debate, ‘To be’ is underpinned by the training in rhetoric that Shakespeare and others received at grammar school. As in educational exercises, there is an initial quaestio (a question or proposition), in this case: ‘To be or not to be[?]’; that is, to seek death, or to continue to face the challenges of life. This is followed by debate in utramque partem, on both sides of the question, for and against. As well as being familiar with this formal structure, Elizabethan auditors or readers with a humanist education would also have recognised allusions during the speech to Aristotle’s On Interpretation and Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations. This reflects another staple of Elizabethan schooling: commonplacing, or the collection and redeployment of eloquent passages from esteemed authorities. Hamlet, former student of the University of Wittenberg, and Shakespeare, former pupil of the King’s New School in Stratford-upon-Avon, each flaunt their learning and intellect in this soliloquy.
Yet at the same time, ‘To be’ is accessible to those of us who do not have the benefit of a sixteenth-century humanist education. In part this is because of the universal relevance of its argument that neither life or death is an easy option; but another reason is its use of metaphors that operate on several levels. Shakespeare was already practised in the used of vivid imagery in soliloquy: Richard II’s comparison of his thoughts to a world of diverse people; Brutus’s representation of Caesar as a serpent. ‘To be’ now moves through a sequence of metaphors: the challenges of fortune are ‘slings and arrows’ and ‘a sea of troubles’; death is a sleep, perhaps troubled by dreams; it is also ‘The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns’. Each of these images can be traced to ancient or Renaissance sources that were popular in commonplace books (collections of useful quotations on standard topics), so that on one level the speech is an exhibition of skill in gathering and using sententiae, or wise sayings. Yet each of these images is also readily comprehensible and accessible without knowledge of these sources. Present-day theorists of cognition assert that metaphor is an essential mental tool: that we habitually process our perceptions, form concepts, and articulate them, by identifying one thing with another. It has been further proposed that Renaissance rhetorical theory has some overlaps with modern cognitive theory: that authors and users of rhetoric manuals understood this discipline not merely as a means of using language to persuade listeners or readers, but also as a means of organising the thoughts of a speaker or writer, and so translating a thought-process into words. Certainly, in ‘To be’ Shakespeare uses metaphor, as well as other rhetorical techniques in which he was well versed, to create the effect of Hamlet actively working out a complex problem in his mind, and taking us through that working-out with him. It is a problem that has for him and for all of us both intellectual interest, as a knotty conundrum, and psychological interest, going to the heart of human anxieties, doubts, and fears. The speech gives pleasure because Hamlet demonstrates the enormity and profundity of what the human mind can contemplate, and invites us to participate with him in exercising and appreciating the power of the mind.
Excerpted from The Elizabethan Mind: Searching for the Self in an Age of Uncertainty by Helen Hackett. Copyright © 2022 Helen Hackett. Used with permission from Yale University Press.