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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: June ::
Re: To be or Not to be
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1643  Thursday, 28 June 2001

[1]     From:   R. Schmeeckle <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 27 Jun 2001 08:37:00 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1622 Re: Special Hamlet Issue of Mississippi

[2]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 27 Jun 2001 15:11:37 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1628 Re: Special Hamlet

[3]     From:   Paul E. Doniger <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 27 Jun 2001 17:23:04 -0400
        Subj:   SHK 12.1628 Re: Special Hamlet


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           R. Schmeeckle <
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Date:           Wednesday, 27 Jun 2001 08:37:00 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 12.1622 Re: Special Hamlet Issue of Mississippi
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1622 Re: Special Hamlet Issue of Mississippi

>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.

Without time to check the context, that is the entire soliloquy, the
scene, and the whole play, I comment on the logic of the lines:

 (ii) above does not exploit the possibilities.  Taking arms against a
sea of troubles.... can also be interpreted as taking action to confront
the troubles.

I favor this interpretation, while not ruling out the suicidal
interpretation, because I believe Hamlet, the play, is thematically
about the contrast between human actions and patient reliance upon God's
providence ("There's a divinity that shapes our ends").  While trying to
cope with the possibly diabolical enjoining of revenge, in the first
part of the play, Hamlet just screws up, killing Polonius in an insane,
childish rage.  Seasoned a little more, the occasion finally presents
itself (providentially), and justice and resolution are accomplished,
but not as originally (mis)planned.

The suicidal interpretation is consistent with Hamlet as "a noble mind
overthrown," as is his desire that his uncle be damned.

Roger Schmeeckle

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Bishop <
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Date:           Wednesday, 27 Jun 2001 15:11:37 -0400
Subject: 12.1628 Re: Special Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1628 Re: Special Hamlet

Camillo's speech at WT 1.2.357, among others, may shed some light on
what Hamlet expects if he kills the king:

                               If I could find example
Of thousands that had struck anointed kings
And flourish'd after, I'd not do't: but since
Nor brass, nor stone, nor parchment bears not one,
Let villainy itself forswear't.

However much Claudius deserves death, some divinity still hedges him,
especially since Hamlet has no public proof of his crime.

Though the bare bodkin image follows an auxiliary train of thought,
concerning the fear of "something after death" which might restrain even
the apparently guiltless, oppressed by the injustices of life, from
killing themselves, it still helps associate the thought of Hamlet's
acting with suicide, since he feels sure it would lead to his death.

His ambiguous slide from death as dreamless sleep to an afterlife of bad
dreams, to "something after death", to conscience, seems to show
Christianity intruding on what starts out sounding like Platonic
philosophizing. If death is only death, it can be cowardly to fear it.
If death means an afterlife of hellish punishment for sin, and the
contemplated act fuses revenge and suicide, is it then cowardly to fear
to do what God sees as so damnably wrong? Is "Thus conscience does make
cowards of us all" not somehow an oxymoron? Is the fear of God cowardly?

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Paul E. Doniger <
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Date:           Wednesday, 27 Jun 2001 17:23:04 -0400
Subject: Re: Special Hamlet
Comment:        SHK 12.1628 Re: Special Hamlet

I wrote at some length on the question of suicide and the "To be or not
to be" speech in my master's thesis. I tend to agree with those who say
that Hamlet is not contemplating his own suicide at all. It should be
clear from his first soliloquy that he wouldn't commit suicide on
religious grounds (it's against God's canon). We might also think about
the meaning of the antithesis presented in the opening phrase: "To be" =
passive acceptance of whatever occurs; "Not to be" = to DO, rather than
to be. In this measure, "To be" becomes the seeming vice of inaction
(something Hamlet beat himself up about in his previous soliloquy),
whereas, "Not to be" becomes the apparent virtue of action.

All this reflects a number of themes in the play, especially that of the
conflict between 'seeming' and 'being' expressed in Hamlet's earlier
words.  It also bears weight when Hamlet finally accepts 'being' as an
heroic response to fear, death, and evil in his words to Horatio: "Let
be!" Hamlet, the existentialist?

Those of us who think this way about the infamous soliloquy, by the way,
are in good critical company, including, among several others, Elenor
Prosser (_Hamlet and Revenge_. CA: U of Stanford P, 1971 -- see page
161).

Paul E. Doniger

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