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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: July ::
Re: "To be or not to be" Speech
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0581.  Tuesday, 25 July 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Piers Lewis <
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        Date:   Monday, 24 Jul 1995 09:39:51 -0600
        Subj:   To be or not to be
 
(2)     From:   Ed Pechter <
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        Date:   Monday, 24 Jul 1995 16:27:21 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   To be or not to be, for SHAKSPER
 
(3)     From:   Richard J Kennedy <
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        Date:   Monday, 24 Jul 1995 16:38:06 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0579  "To be" Speech
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Piers Lewis <
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Date:           Monday, 24 Jul 1995 09:39:51 -0600
Subject:        To be or not to be
 
Does Hamlet know he's being watched when he comes upon Ophelia, pretending to
pray?  Do Polonius and the King manage, somehow, to betray their presence in
that scene and does that explain his cruelty to her?  Harold Jenkins' Arden
(1982) notes on this scene are still worth reading.  Now some of us are
wondering if the stage business that accomplishes this betrayal shouldn't
actually precede or accompany the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy--thereby
turning it into a conscious, public performance instead of a private
meditation; a case of seeming, not being, in a play that somewhat obsessively
examines that distinction.  "I know not 'seems'," says Hamlet; how ironic that
he should be one of the seemers after all--and just at the moment when he is
wondering if one has to act in order to be.
 
Hamlet is the most inner-directed of all tragic heroes.  No character in
Shakespeare's plays is less conscious of how he appears to others, less given
to performances or presentations of self.  Granville-Barker remarks that the
play pays no attention to time until act 5 because Hamlet isn't either--or to
much of anything else outside the nutshell of his mind.  Everything he says
comes from within.  The dramatic rhythm of the play is generated by the way
other people collide with or disrupt the logic of his inner life.  The dramatic
point of 'to-be-or-not-to-be' is not so much the substance of these serenely
philosophical generalizations or how others might understand them but the way
Ophelia--recalcitrant female fact that she is--jolts him out of his stoic
detachment.  He'd forgotten about her, just as he has forgotten his mother and
her incestuous haste, and the dreadful obligation his ghostly father has laid
upon him.  And so poor Ophelia becomes a problem instead of a person, a symbol
of sexual frailty and vulnerability merely and an uncomfortable reminder of
unfinished business in what is for me the most painful and tragic scene of the
play.  Having the observers reveal their presence can only soften or distort
its meaning and runs the risk of turning it into farce.
 
Piers Lewis
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Pechter <
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Date:           Monday, 24 Jul 1995 16:27:21 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        To be or not to be, for SHAKSPER
 
Jonathan Pryce delivered to be or not to be to Ophelia, sitting on a park bench
(as I remember--this was around 1981).  The production was made much of at the
time; it was the one without the ghost, with Pryce throwing his voice to
deliver the ghost's lines.  It should be easy enough to get lots of reports.
 
Again as I remember from back then, Ophelia didn't know what Hamlet was talking
about in to be or not to be.  This may explain Hamlet's really nasty sexual
assault on Ophelia, not just verbally aggressive, in the nunnery scene just
after.
 
Playing the speech to Ophelia gave Pryce a focus.  The hard thing about the
speech, I'm told, is that it's disembodied thought which cannot really be tied
down to anything specific (is he thinking of suicide? is he thinking of
Claudius? what?) or to any real or imagined auditor (who is he talking to and
why?). Stephen Booth has some breathtaking analysis of the speech from this
angle in "On the Value of Hamlet."  The other hard thing is that to be or not
to be is now so famous that it's inherently funny--I've seen it rushed through
in the spirit of, ok, we all know this one, let's get it over with.
 
Playing the speech to Ophelia may be connected to the idea that Hamlet
overheard Pol's scheme to loose Ophelia upon him.  I think this goes back to
Dover Wilson's fantasized discovery of a missing stage direction in the
manuscript of Shakespeare's Hamlet (NCS or What Happens in Hamlet).  He used
this discovery not to make the soliloquy but the nunnery scene "playable as
never before" (i. e. Hamlet knows he's being overheard, so puts on an act.
Between the old fashioned playability of Dover Wilson and the new orthodoxy
attaching itself to the formerly "bad" quarto, we shd be able to get the
soliloquy and the play right-- textually, theatrically, philosophically--before
too long.
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Richard J Kennedy <
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Date:           Monday, 24 Jul 1995 16:38:06 -0700
Subject: 6.0579  "To be" Speech
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0579  "To be" Speech
 
To be or not to be.  John Chapot says he saw a production where Hamlet read
from a card. But I have seen him reading from a book. The book, of course, is
Cardanus' Comfort, "Hamlet's book" so-called. Probably the same book where he
found "words, words, words."  So Hamlet reads a line aloud, reflects on it, and
reads more. It made a lot of sense, and particularly makes sense of that
motherless line out of nowhere, "no more".  Hamlet closes the book. Reading:
"To die, to sleep--"  And then looking up, "No more." And closing the book.
 

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