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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: June ::
Re: Special Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1628  Wednesday, 27 June 2001

[1]     From:   Edward Pixley <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 26 Jun 2001 10:27:44 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1622 Re: Special Hamlet Issue of Mississippi

[2]     From:   Don Bloom <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 26 Jun 2001 09:58:29 -0500
        Subj:   Re: Special Hamlet issue of Mississippi Review

[3]     From:   Andrew W. White <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 26 Jun 2001 11:23:18 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1622 Re: Special Hamlet Issue of Mississippi

[4]     From:   Judith Boss <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 27 Jun 2001 08:14:41 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1622 Re: Special Hamlet Issue of Mississippi


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edward Pixley <
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Date:           Tuesday, 26 Jun 2001 10:27:44 -0400
Subject: 12.1622 Re: Special Hamlet Issue of Mississippi
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1622 Re: Special Hamlet Issue of Mississippi

Gabriel,

I agree with the points you make here.  Try reading the speech from the
point of view of a Hamlet who definitely does not want to die, and who,
during this speech, for the first time fully realizes that taking action
will lead to his own death.

If one also asks about "that is the question," what question?, the
answer might be "why haven't I yet committed the revenge I swore to with
such vehemence after seeing the ghost?"  At the end of Act II, he had
posited two possible answers to that question:  1) I must be a coward;
and 2) I don't trust the ghost.  Now we see a third answer, "I'm afraid
of death, or at least 'of something after death, the undiscovered
country from whose bourn no traveler returns."  "Thus," by extension,
"conscience doth make cowards of us all. . . ."

Obviously, this is not the only reading, but it works amazingly well.

Ed Pixley

> HAMLET  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.
>
> The choices in this sentence are (i) to passively accept, or (ii) to die
> fighting back. The tricky part is how far one might be allowed to hope
> to be killed in fighting back, since the Everlasting would look askance
> at a deliberately suicidal mission. (Which tactic Sartre called "the
> nuclear bomb of the oppressed".) What is feared later in speech is the
> hereafter, again not directly to do with suicide but rather with death
> as a consequence of taking a stand.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Don Bloom <
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Date:           Tuesday, 26 Jun 2001 09:58:29 -0500
Subject: 12.1609 Special Hamlet issue of Mississippi Review
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1609 Special Hamlet issue of Mississippi Review

Karen asks:

>I'm curious if anyone on the list
>agrees with Skloot's opinion that Hamlet is not really contemplating
>suicide when he speaks the "To be or not to be" soliloquy.

If "to live or not-live" doesn't sound to one like volunteering for
death, then making your quietus with a bare bodkin certainly ought to.

Many years ago I was challenged by a rather smart-ass Freshman Comp
student on the theme of Frost's "Stopping by Woods," claiming that Frost
had said it was only about a snowy evening, not death or suicide.

I responded that, assuming the quote was accurate, the author should
have known better than to write a poem that wasn't about death using
imagery of sleep, darkness, winter, etc., which inevitably suggest it.

Cheers,
don

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Andrew W. White <
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Date:           Tuesday, 26 Jun 2001 11:23:18 -0400
Subject: 12.1622 Re: Special Hamlet Issue of Mississippi
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1622 Re: Special Hamlet Issue of Mississippi

To add to Dr. Egan's reply (not an improvement, merely an addition):  Be
sure to take the speech as a whole, particularly the "enterprises of
great pith and moment," of which suicide is most definitely _not_ one.
Take away the quizzical first line, and you clearly have a contemplation
of violent action in service of justice, and its probable consequences.

The reference to death-as-sleep being "devoutly to be wished" has always
seemed to me to be an aside of sorts, a temporary but necessary detour
wherein Hamlet admits he is still appalled by his situation.  It also
bears comparison with Socrates' speech in Plato's _Apology_ in which
sleep is posited as a very desirable end.  Anyone got their Montaigne
handy?  I'm sure there's something in there, too.

As for the "undiscovered country" -- agreed, Hamlet knows all too well
what _can_ happen there, but he is not really sure yet, and perhaps
that's what really troubles him.  The fact that, if he is killed in an
act of revenge, he may go to Hell, not even Purgatory (let alone Heaven)
if the act turns out to be unjustified -- now that would give anyone
pause.

We have just seen him contemplate the fact that the Ghost might be a
fake, hence the play-within-the-play device.  At this point he is still
unsure of the Ghost's identity, of the truth of the Ghost's witness as
to the afterlife.  Were this speech given _after_ the Ghost's witness
had been proven, that would have been truly absurd.

Andy White
Arlington, VA

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Judith Boss <
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Date:           Wednesday, 27 Jun 2001 08:14:41 -0500
Subject: 12.1622 Re: Special Hamlet Issue of Mississippi
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1622 Re: Special Hamlet Issue of Mississippi

In response to the statements below, and purely at a venture, I suggest
that "To be, or not to be" is a form of the "to be or to do" / "to
suffer or to do" trope also found in Chaucer and Spenser, later in
Milton.  The choices are (1) to passively accept (to suffer), or (ii) to
act (which might succeed in ending the "sea of troubles," but would
involve potentially violating the commandment to honor one's father and
mother, potential regicide, and possibly one's own death).  To act
creates ambiguous and multiple moral and spiritual issues rather than
the assurance of death.

Judy Boss

Gabriel Egan writes:

> HAMLET  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.
>
> The choices in this sentence are (i) to passively accept, or (ii) to die
> fighting back. The tricky part is how far one might be allowed to hope
> to be killed in fighting back, since the Everlasting would look askance
> at a deliberately suicidal mission. (Which tactic Sartre called "the
> nuclear bomb of the oppressed".) What is feared later in speech is the
> hereafter, again not directly to do with suicide but rather with death
> as a consequence of taking a stand.

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