O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter. O God, God, / How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Hamlet's first soliloquy finds him more melancholic, more desperate, than at any other point in the play. In the beginning, his motives and feelings are clear in a way that they never are after his encounter with the ghost. Hamlet is simply disgusted that his mother, who had appeared to be so much in love with his father, has married Claudius, her vastly inferior former brother-in-law. For Hamlet as the play opens, existence itself is a burden; he wishes that the body could simply melt away and free him from his torment. Although sometimes his rhetoric in the ensuing Acts resonates with this first declaration of misery, Hamlet's sincerity becomes much more difficult to judge once he has received his supernatural charge. His moods become more manic, his language more explosive and punning, and his motivation becomes infinitely mysterious. Here, though, freed from the need to act on his thoughts and feelings (he even says, at the end of the speech, "But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue"), he is truly in his miserable element.
By the way, the first line of this speech reads differently in different editions. Some editors follow the second quarto and admit "sallied flesh" (or even "sullied flesh"). Others follow the first folio and put "solid flesh." The emphasis is either on the flesh's innate depravity or on its frustrating solidity. Because Hamlet expresses a desire that the flesh go from a firm and resilient to something like a liquid or gaseous state, I have opted for "solid" as more consistent with the elemental imagery of the passage.
There, my blessing with thee, / And these few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue, / Nor any unproportioned thought his act. Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar. / Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, / Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel, / But do not dull thy palm with entertainment / Of each new-hatched, unfledged courage. [...] Neither a borrower nor a lender be, / For loan oft loses both itself and friend, / And borrowing dulls th' edge of husbandry. / This above all, to thine own self be true, / And it must follow as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Beloved of refrigerator magnet and bumper sticker companies everywhere, Polonius' advice to Laertes puts the critic in a double bind. On the one hand, there is no denying that his advice is often sound, if generally cliched and obvious, and very memorably expressed. On the other, the speech must be read in context, and when done so it becomes deeply ironic. One phrase in particular is very rich coming from Polonius -- "to thine own self be true, / And it must follow as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man." Polonius is, of course, the quintessential false man. He is forever plotting strategems and eavesdropping behind the arras. That he nevertheless feels comfortable positing that one should be true to oneself (whatever that means) and thereby never false to any man is a testament to his shallow disregard for the deeper import and meaning of his language. Polonius mouths words without meaning them. He is windy and empty. And this speech in particular, with its smug certainties, serves as a stark contrast to Hamlet's searching, questioning, endless attempts at self-exploration.
I have of late -- but wherefore I know not -- lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition, that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'er-hanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason; how infinite in faculties, in form and moving; how express and admirable in action; how like an angel in apprehension; how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet here sums up the central paradox of the "quintessence of dust," mankind -- at once the most sublime of creatures, and no better than the lowest. Paradoxically, Hamlet uses his angel-like apprehension to determine the worthlessness of man. He at once places his species in a standard Renaissance cosmos, rising hierarchically from the earth to the heavens, and denies this hierarchy. This speech is often cited as a statement of Hamlet's deep melancholy -- similar to the soliloquy in Act One -- but here his melancholy is far larger than his present circumstances. His melancholy is metaphysical in nature and cosmic in scope. Already, he has outgrown the generic task before him, to kill his uncle, and has used the occasion of revenge and madness to explore much larger questions about the place of humanity in the universe.
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! / Is it not monstrous that this player here, / But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, / Could force his soul so to his own conceit / That from her working all his visage wanned; / Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect, / A broken voice, and his whole function suiting / With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing, / For Hecuba!
Hamlet's second soliloquy, given after the player has recited the woeful story of Priam's death and Hecuba's grief, explores the nature of performance. How can it be, he asks, that this player can summon up such apparently genuine feeling for a fiction, for a dream, while I (Hamlet) cannot manage to rally my spirits to action in a just cause? Hamlet's speech is very carefully constructed, with reason prevailing for the first long stretch of rhetoric until Hamlet's passion ironically overwhelms him and he explodes, "Fie upon't! foh! / About, my brains." (Hamlet does have a kind of passion after all -- not for revenge, but for expanding upon the lust and depravity of Claudius and Gertrude.) Notice how questions dominate the soliloquy. "Am I a coward? / Who calls me villain, breaks my pate across, / Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face, / Tweaks me by the nose, gives me the lie i'th'throat / As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?" Hamlet is completely incapable of explaining or changing his character; he can merely eloquently wonder at it. Again, his apprehension is god-like, but what good does it do him?
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. To die, to sleep -- / No more. And by a sleep to say we end / The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that Flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation / Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep -- / To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub. / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause.
Here are the most famous words in the play, and likely in all of western literature. Many have taken the speech to be a contemplation of suicide. "To be or not to be" -- that is, "to live or to kill myself." There are some features of the speech that seem to shore this reading up. The speech does suggest that death is a highly attractive destination, and that the only thing that keeps us miserable mortals from seeking it out is the fear of "what dreams may come" in the hereafter. But certainly the speech is more than a simple suicide note. If he is thinking about suicide, he is most definitely contemplating it in the abstract, as a topic of interest more than as an actual option for his own life.
Some critics have decided that the speech is not about suicide at all. To take one example, the eighteenth-century critic Samuel Johnson suggested that the soliloquy is more generally about death, and about the risk of death in a moment of decisive action, than about suicide. He writes, "Hamlet, knowing himself injured in the most enormous and atrocious degree, and seeing no means of redress, but such as must expose him to the extremity of hazard, meditates on his situation in this manner: Before I can form any rational scheme of action under this pressure of distress, it is necessary to decide, whether, after our present state, we are to be or not to be." In other words, Johnson thinks that the speech is really very consistent with the mounting action in the play. Hamlet, in his view, has come to a point where he must decide whether he is willing to put his life on the line, as he surely must, in order to attack the king. The linchpin of this question is -- after we die, do we continue to exist, or do we stop existing? To be, or not to be. If we simply stop existing, certainly the risk is worth the comfort of oblivion. But if, in the hereafter, we retain our minds, our sensibilities, we must pause before leaping into so uncertain, so potentially horrific a fate.
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. [...] Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature; for anything so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first, and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
Hamlet's advice to the players may well be taken for Shakespeare's own theory of theater. Indeed, Hamlet is filled with such metatheatrical moments, from the play-within-a-play to the gossip about the London stage; it's not a stretch at all to here the bard's voice behind Hamlet's. The speech's most significant moment, in terms of aesthetic theory, is the passage that begins, "for anything so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing." Hamlet reveals the primeval roots of theater as he understands them -- to act as a mirror on both the universal and the particular levels, reflecting both human nature across centuries and the peculiar habits of a given time in history. Overacting, clowing, and mugging might gain a moment's applause, but these things are not valuable beyond immediate gratification. Indeed, they run counter to the deepest nature of theater, which is to depict humanity not in a grotesque form, but as it actually is.
Oh, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; / It hath the primal eldest curse upon't, / A brother's murder. Pray can I not, / Though inclination be as sharp as will. / My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent, / And like a man to double business bound, / I stand in pause where I shall first begin, / And both neglect. What if this cursed hand / Were thicker than itself with brother's blood, / Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens / To wash it white as snow?
This is the only soliloquy in Hamlet that does not belong to the title character. In it we finally learn for certain that Claudius is guilty of the murder charged to him. We also learn, perhaps, a little bit of sympathy for this simple, murderous and lustful man. He is, briefly at least, capable of looking into his soul with the same questioning, searching self-examination that Hamlet displays elsewhere. And he does admit the impossible logic of his situation. He cannot truly repent while he still possesses the fruits of his sin, his brother's crown and wife. His situation, then, becomes at least somewhat pitiful, and his motivations much clearer.
Hamlet, in this scene, is not nearly so sympathetic. He comes upon Claudius in his attempt to pray and decides not to murder him for fear that his soul, being in a state of repentance, might ascend to heaven. Speaking of his cruel reasoning in this moment, Samuel Johnson wrote, "This speech, in which Hamlet, represented as a virtuous character, is not content with taking blood for blood, but contrives damnation for the man that he would punish, is too horrible to be read or to be uttered."
How all occasions do inform against me, / And spur my dull revenge! What is a man, / If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. / Sure he that made us with such large discourse, / Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and godlike reason / To fust in us unused. Now whether it be / Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple / Of thinking too precisely on th' event -- / A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom / And ever three parts coward -- I do not know / Why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do', / Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means, / To do't.
This, Hamlet's final soliloquy, is much like "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I." It is another meditation on the inscrutability of his failure to act when he has so much reason to do so. Whereas in the earlier soliloquy, the passion of an actor for an imaginary griever, Hecuba, occasioned Hamlet's self-reproaches, here the sight of Fortinbras' army marching to contest a worthless piece of land fixes his mind and leads him to wonder at himself. With Hecuba, the emphasis is on feeling; with Fortinbras, the emphasis is on honor. In both cases, though, Hamlet sees men who have petty or fictional objects, and who nevertheless rise to great things; whereas he, with his very palpable reasons for action and feeling, cannot manage to summon any such accomplishment. Of course, as always, he is not sure why this is the case (and nor are we, not really), but he shows the uncertain searching of modern subjectivity in his attempt to formulate this very confusion.
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio -- a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know now how oft. Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chop-fallen? Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that.
Harold Bloom has suggested that despite his protestations of his dead father's greatness, Hamlet did not really have a very happy household growing up. His father was, indeed, a great military ruler, off conquering and governing conquered lands. Bloom suggests that the closest thing Hamlet had to an affectionate father was likely Yorick, the court jester, from whom he likely learned his excellent wit, his macabre sense of humor, and many more of his most Hamlet-esque characteristics. We need not go so far to see the strange mixture of affection and disgust that Yorick's skull give rise to in Hamlet. This is a moment of pure and deep contemplation of death. The fact of mortality is, so to speak, staring Hamlet in the face. Yorick's skull is a very powerful memento mori, a reminder of death -- no matter how much you try to stave off aging, Hamlet says, you're inevitably doomed to be like Yorick, a dirty and lipless skull buried in the ground, forgotten by all but the gravediggers. This sort of reminder was quite common in the Renaissance, with its plagues and its widespread starvation. Death was much more familiar to them than it is to us. Nevertheless, despite our modern dreams of scientific immortality, the universal truth of this final destination still holds.
HOR. If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.
HAM. Not a whit. We defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.
This exchange seems to capture in its essence the changed Hamlet that we see in Act Five scene two. No longer is Hamlet his old questioning, searching, tormented, macabre self. Now he has almost a zen-like acceptance of things as they are. What will be will be. All the world, at this point, seems to exist within a greater order -- perhaps an unknowable order, but an order nonetheless. The speech, while short, contains several rich paradoxes. First, Hamlet claims that there is rhyme and reason to the slightest events of the universe -- there is "special providence in the fall of the sparrow." At the same time, he asserts that we know nothing of the world -- "no man of aught he leaves knows." So all things are rich with meaning, yet we know not what such meaning might be. Thus Hamlet closes the play in a quiet and mysterious counter-poise with fate. He no longer attempts to understand the unknowable, but accepts it as such; indeed, he accepts unknowability as an inescapable condition of all existence. What good is it, then, to roil one's guts over future plans? On the contrary, not the action, but the readiness, is all.
Hamlet Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Hamlet is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.