Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 40. Saturday, 23 January 1993.
Date: Friday, 22 Jan 93 21:09:43 EST
Subject: To be or not to be
Recent discussions of Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" speech have centered on
the melancholic humour and on whether the speech is overheard by Claudius and
Polonius. With regard to melancholy, Rick Jones is generally right; Orlando in
AYLI may be a good example of the melancholic lover, but Rosalind finds him
wanting the proper characteristics (III.ii.391-404). Romeo, playing at being
in love with Rosaline (see especially I.i.166-244), is another good example.
But the melancholy lover is only one, probably the simplest instance of a
melancholy character. Jones's reference to the Richards suggests another
common type, the political malcontent. Possibly the most interesting type, to
us, is the "intellectual" melancholic, whom I would identify with the modern
neurotic. It is to this latter type that Hamlet belongs. A helpful note on
the Humours and a treatment of "The Melancholic Humour" is provided in G. B.
Harrison's edition of *The Complete Works*, pp. 1632-34. As for Claudius and
Polonius overhearing the "To be or not to be" speech, John Dover Wilson, many
years ago in *What Happens in Hamlet* argued for an earlier entry for Hamlet at
II.ii.159, so that he overhears Polonius' plan to "loose my daughter to him"
(II.ii.162). When Hamlet spots Ophelia at prayer after his soliloquy he
eventually asks "Where's your father?" and when she lies by saying, "At home,
my lord" Hamlet believes that she has readily taken part in the plot against
him, and this explains the violence of his speech to her.