“To be or not to be” Is a Jest

December 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I hadn’t read Hamlet since high school so I picked it up again recently to see what it’s really like. In high school, I thought (and/or was taught — I can’t remember) that it was a grand existential meditation on life and human nature and all its cuts and bruises, and on the brutality and madness of the world. This time, I found that Hamlet was a kind of jester or actor keeping a distance between himself and his friends and family by playing at madness. Hamlet is about one big elaborate put-on!

I think even the play’s purported existential centerpiece, the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, is a put-on, a kind of cosmic joke or sarcasm. Here’s my case. When Hamlet enters, Claudius and Polonius have just exited, and they’ve left behind Ophelia as a kind of bait to coax out some honesty from Hamlet. So Hamlet, in the thick of his mad angsty act, has stumbled into the middle of a plot whose mechanism is Ophelia’s innocence. In this scene, candor and plainness can’t be trusted.

Hamlet’s speech begins unprompted, apropos of nothing, and isn’t tangibly related to any action in the play at that point. It’s spacious, undirected brooding, the type employed by somebody who wants their loud sighs to be overheard. Everything in it is abstraction and pomp: “a sea of troubles”, “a consummation / Devoutly to be wish’d” (an odd sentiment for Hamlet to be serious about, since he has work to do against Claudius), “The undiscovered country”, etc. Why would Hamlet talk about abstract woe when he’s made his specific grievances with his life clear to himself and to his friend Horatio?

Then there’s the ending of the monologue. Do you remember how it goes? This is the part I love about it — it ends mid-line with Hamlet interrupting himself to address Ophelia. Fittingly, the last bit of the soliloquy is about ambitions waning into dithering:

And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. — Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.

All we have at the end is a dash, so we don’t know if Hamlet is genuinely surprised by Ophelia’s presence (she’s been deliberately placed in the open with a book) or — as I suspect — that he’s turning to her as the natural culmination of his passionate fit of words. Then there is a mild plea for quiet (“Soft you now”) — but that plea is itself theatrical! It might be directed at himself, or slyly at an imaginary audience, or at the real audience, but it’s stage direction. Finally, see how the two of them transition easily to appropriate manners:

OPHELIA
Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?

HAMLET
I humbly thank you; well, well, well.

This is the kind of mood swing between characters that you only see in a play. I think Hamlet is continuing his put-on with Ophelia, and that the “To be or not to be” soliloquy is another jest, another play-within-a-play, in Hamlet.

Like I said, all we have to characterize Hamlet’s reaction to Ophelia is a dash and “Soft you now”, so we can’t reach a definite conclusion about his intentions in his soliloquy. But this is the evidence I see in the story that Hamlet’s great philosophizing is a very shrewd ploy.

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