The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1729 Tuesday, 10 July 2001
Date: Monday, 09 Jul 2001 13:01:44 -0600
Subject: 12.1715 Re: To be or not to be
Comment: Re: SHK 12.1715 Re: To be or not to be
One of the questions raised about the "To be or not to be" speech is
whether Hamlet is contemplating revenge or suicide. So far nobody has
asked exactly what it means to make one's "quietus" with a "bare
bodkin." Don Bloom (in SHK 12.1628) thinks it's obvious the phrase
indicates Hamlet is "volunteering for death"; I'm not so sure. "Bodkin"
pretty clearly means "short pointed weapon" (e.g., dagger). The
question is whether the dagger is to be directed against the murderer of
Hamlet's father or against Hamlet himself, in committing suicide.
"Quietus" does not (or did not in Shakespeare's time) mean "quiet" (as
in the "repose" of death). It is short for "quietus est," meaning
"payment received" (literally "he is quit--i.e., has paid what was
due"). So the basic meaning of "quietus" is "receipt" or "acquittance"
or maybe by extension "payment." The OED also lists "Discharge or
release from life; death, or that which brings death" as a meaning, but
this is based on the very passage from Hamlet that is in question and on
later citations influenced by the traditional understanding of that
passage. I think it's pretty clear that, whatever Shakespeare meant, he
was playing with the financial meaning of "quietus." Hamlet is talking
about making a payment, or discharging a debt, with a bare bodkin.
He could perhaps be thinking of suicide if he thinks he owes God (or
someone else) a death (compare 1 Henry IV 5.1.126; 2 Henry IV 3.2.235;
Timon of Athens 3.5.82).
But I think it more likely he's referring to revenge. His father has
been killed. He believes--perhaps wrongly--that he has a duty, "owes"
it to his father or to the code of honor he has been socialized to
accept, to take revenge. By killing his father's murderer--with a bare
bodkin such as, perhaps, he uses to kill Polonius and almost uses to
kill the praying Claudius--he would, according to the revenge ethic, pay
this debt and thereby receive his "quietus"--his discharge from debt,
his receipt for payment, his "acquittance." This would not be the only
place Hamlet uses financial language in reference to revenge: he says he
doesn't kill Claudius at prayer because to do so would be "hire and
salary, not revenge" (3.3.79)--i.e., getting paid rather than making a
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