the meaning of act 3 scene 1 from to be or not to be ....of action : LUSENET : Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet : One Thread

the meaning of to be or not to be till of action

-- karimakaro (, February 05, 2002


You're kidding, right? Any good Hamlet reference has this information.


-- mikken (, February 06, 2002.

Very true. If you haven't got a good one, go the library or even a bookshop and get one. You want the Norton (Complete Works - big but really worth it), or the Oxford, or the Cambridge, or the Arden editions. These are some of the editions with accurate footnotes and enough of them.

If, though you want some 'interpretations', check out responses to the questions in this forum entitled "Why dioes Hamlet say the To Be or Not To Be (Larissa 1999-12-03)" and "To Be or Not To Be (Steven Wayne Menefee 199-09-04)".

-- catherine england (, February 07, 2002.

Look: I'm pathetic, I know, but I can't resist it. Anyway it goes with something I'm working on at the moment. (And it's my uni holidays: HAMLET beats the beach!)

I'll do it by line numbers. Also, it's easier to express it as Hamlet talking about himself and his own situation. But note that he never uses "I". He's engaging his mind in an intellectual debate brought on by his own experiences in his situation, but he's not wallowing in personal trauma and self-pity.

56: Hamlet wonders about two possibilities. To exist, or not to exist. The question is academic really; for he believes he has a soul, the soul is immortal and cannot die and therefore cannot not exist, and the soul is the person and therefore the person cannot not exist. But that doesn't put Hamlet off. He thinks it all through in detail.

57-60: To the Renaissance mind fortune (often personified to the female Fortune) is the force which dishes out good and bad stuff to humans. It, or she, is 'fickle', "outrageous", "a strumpet" (II.ii.235-236). That is, she chooses what she dishes out by whim, not according to what people might deserve, or according to any principle of what should be or what is right. People are her playthings. So Hamlet, enlarging on his initial "question", wonders whether it is nobler, or more noble-minded, (look these up, and see the NB below) to put up with the all the crap, or "troubles", Fortune dishes out; or to fight back and thus bring his suffering of all the crap to an end. (The "or" here parallels the "or" in line 56.)

Now lines 60-64, allied to the metaphor Hamlet uses in line 59, make it clear what he means. To draw a sword and attack the sea with it is a waste of energy, utterly useless; and it reeks of hubris (that'll be in the dictionary too - sort of a mixture of arrogance and vanity), which is why Hamlet questions the nobility of it. And trying to fight Fortune would be the same, an absolutely futile rebellion. Except in one way: if he were "to die", Fortune could certainly not affect him, and the earthly crap, the "troubles" would "end".

He immediately euphemizes dying to sleeping, but he is talking about suicide. At this point in his thinking, dying is his not being. Renaissance man accepted that the ancient Romans believed it was noble to commit suicide when they felt they could no longer live with honour (see WS's JULIUS CAESAR and ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA). But under Christianity, suicide is a sin, because it is taking a human life (we see this with tbe discussions over Ophelia's death and burial in V.i). So the nobility of suicide is also questionable.

But dying to Hamlet, in lines 60-64, is an ending of human life which seems very attractive ("a consummation devoutly to be wished") because it would stop all the crap, all the "troubles" that one has to put up with in human life.

But then his thinking goes another step. Lines 65-67, he notes that sleeping involves dreaming; and as sleeping is his metaphor for dying, dreaming is his metaphor for the existence of the soul after death.

And he acknowledges that he doesn't know what that would involve. Lines 67-83 on the fundamental level, continuing on from what he has already said, explain that because he doesn't know what the lot of his soul may be after death, he is unwilling, even afraid, to take his own life. (Compare what the ghost told him about its suffering in I.v.2-4 and 9-20 - scary stuff.) And these lines explain that he puts up with the "troubles", some of which he lists in 62-63 and 70-74, because he is afraid of what would follow if he committed suicide. In basic terms, as we now say, "better the devil you know than one you don't know" is what Hamlet is saying in lines 81-82.

He dreads what comes "after death", probably especially because he could be damned for committing the sin of suicide; and he points out quite simply in 79-80 that if he doesn't like it after death he can't come back to human life.

83: "Conscience" is what he does know in his human life, ie, his consciousness, 'the devil he knows'. It makes him a coward because he is afraid that what he doesn't know of, existence after death, might be worse than what he does know of, and as bad as he can fear. "Conscience" is also his knowledge of right and wrong, and that it is wrong, a sin, to commit suicide. In this meaning it makes him a coward because it tells him he could be damned for committing that sin.

But Hamlet, as usual, is probably also enlarging his original argument to a more general one. So, lines 75-76 may ALSO refer to his mission to kill Claudius, to make "his quietus", to pay the debt he owes to Claudius and his father. "Quietus" functions as a lovely big pun. It means payment of a debt: Hamlet owes Claudius death because Claudius killed his father; and he owes his father vengeance against Claudius. But it also means quittance from life, ie death. So Hamlet is still talking about killing himself with "a bare bodlin" (dagger); but also working in a consideration of killing Claudius; and even an acknowledgement that he might die in the process of killing Claudius, which would also lead to the life after death which he fears.

84-88: So now, "resolution" refers to a plan to kill himself, his plan to kill Claudius, and also, beautifully, to his plan to solve his original "question". And God I love this play and WS!!!

You see, he's "thought" about his "question", but hasn't really come up with a solution, a "resolution". (a) He's not happy in his human life, but won't resolve to kill himself; but it is not "nobler" to stay alive and suffer the "troubles" because it is cowardice which is stopping him from killing himself. (b) He wants to resolve to kill Claudius, but is afraid of what that might bring too. He has the great purposes, the "enterprises of great pitch and moment", but thinking about them stops him from acting on them.

But, of course, we see from events in the play that he isn't really a coward. Eg, he faces the ghost bravely, faces his killing of Polonius bravely, faces Claudius the powerful reigning king bravely, faces the pirates bravely, faces death bravely. This whole speech is just thinking, at one moment in his life. And he's always as hard on himself as he is on others.

[NB: 57: I believe that "in the mind" refers to "nobler", not to "suffer". The "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune", the "troubles", which Hamlet lists as those which humanity has to suffer are not only those which the mind has to suffer, but also the body. But "in the mind" referring to "nobler" emphasises the purely abstract nature of nobility, as opposed to the more tangible nature of what must be suffered.]

[NB: 60-64: There may be a pun intended with "die", especially when coupled with "consummation". "Die" was an Elizabethan term for orgasm. Here it would be a reference to Hamlet's desire for Ophelia, which he may not consciously intend at this point. Compare "It would cost you a groaning to take off mine edge", which he says to Ophelia that evening, in III.ii.244.]

-- catherine england (, February 07, 2002.

simply put: if existance means suffering at the hands of fortune (and his suffering at this point is great) than, surely it must be better to not exist? So why do people go on suffering? Because they don't know what comes after life. And that makes them cowards: it 'puzzles the will'. So Hamlet makes up his mind, not to be afraid to die and therefore his plans will not 'lose the name of action'. That's also why he breaks up with Ophelia, so that she can't stop him and so that she won't try to help him. But also because he knows very well that what he's about to do is a deadly sin. And he would rather have her remember him for his sins than to tolerate his situation.

-- bart (, February 14, 2002.

"To be or not to be" means should I live or should I kill myself, does it not? So I thought that the next lines were an ellaboration on that. So when Hamlet says "or by opposing end them" does he not mean to end them by the act of suicide as opposed to the former choice of suffering the slings and arrows? May sound silly but what's going on...

-- Patrick Walker (, November 16, 2002.

Some view this speech as a literal translation with a Christian point of view because at first, Hamlet may be thinking more along the lines from this viewpoint. "For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law's delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of th' unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life" (3.1.70-77). Hamlet is pointing out the problems with mere existence and why humans endure this life even though there are so many hardships. It's the fear of life after death, "what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil Must give us pause"(3.1.66-67). In these lines he feels that the hardships of life seem to appeal more than any uncertainties that accompany suicide. The uncertainties being whatever life comes after death. This also could lead you to believe that Hamlet, being bound by the belief of that enduring evil passively is just a part of life, would sit still and hope virtue overcomes. Also, thinking from this point of view, the words "To be or not to be" would mean, in the literal sense, to exist or not to exist. It would seem that Hamlet is considering suicide as a choice in handling this problem. During this soliloquy Hamlet is debating his fate and asking himself whether it is more noble, in the mind, to passively accept and suffer through all the pains of life fate throws at him, or to end in death these numerous troubles and ultimately end his pain. He questions whether it is better to live in a world where he cannot see any goodness or take his own life. For this reason, he cannot take his life because he does not know what happens after one dies. He is not positive of an afterlife, therefore he doesn't have the courage to end his own. Looking at Hamlet's "To be or not to be..." speech existentially, the question posed here isn't one of suicide. At this point in the story the question of suicide is irrelevant. Queen Gertrude asked Hamlet early in the play "cast thy nighted color off, And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark" (1.2.69-69), Hamlet has done just so and no longer is sunk in the depths of melancholy. He has formulated a plan and set into action his plot to test the ghost's words. Shortly before this soliloquy Hamlet was anticipating the night's performance in which his plan was to unfold, and moments after his speech, excitedly giving orders to the stage players and instructing Horatio of his plan. To believe that Hamlet is debating the idea of suicide would be inconsistant with the time and point of the story he has given this speech. The metaphors Hamlet uses suggest that his choice is coming more from an existentialistic view point, as in whether he should suffer the ills of this world and take resolute action against them, not the belief he should endure evil and evade it by enacting suicide. The Prince makes this apparent when he states, "To be or not to be, that is the question" (3.1.56). Here Hamlet is facing the moral question that has too long been thought irrelevant to the play: whether or not he should effect revenge upon Claudius. Choice is what makes us human. Hamlet presents his problem in the very begining of his speech, "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" (3.1.57-60). Should he remain passive, hope, and believe justice will prevail or "take up arms" and directly confront this injustice and end the whole situation by his own hand. Here he is debating whether he should even choose a course of action at all, to be human or not to be human, that is the question he poses. Looking from an existentialist point of view, he fears the unknown and shows this when he states, "The undiscovered country, from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others we know not of?" (3.1.79-82). The 'undiscovered country where no traveller returns' is the uncertain future that he is facing. Consequences of any act lies in an unguaranteed future and this uncertainty makes him think hard about what is about to become. Hamlet is given pause when he thinks about what is to come of his decision and when he says, "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pitch and moment With this regard their current turn awry And lose the name of action" (3.1.83-88), he realizes that we are prisoners of our own conscience, unable to act on what we may think is right due to an uncertain future.

-- Mickey (, November 13, 2003.

Im working on the play at the moment as part of my as course, and i do share many of the same ideas of what this Act actually represents. From my understanding, this is like a turning point in the play, where we finally receive the notion that the king believes that Hamlet is suffering from not just an ampling madness, but a sorryful one, where he gathers the accusations that he himself can help Hamlet get on the mend of his overshowering emotions. This is suggested towards the end of the scene. The reader also receives the suggestions of Ophelia actually being unaware of what Polonius and the king are trying to do, by eavesdropping on Hamlet's and her conversation: Polonius: You need not tell us... Therefore,it can be strongly indicated that Ophelia's role in the mini conspiracy doesn't involve her, and can therefore suggest her loyalty towards Hamlet, as she has not deceived him entirely. Hamlet's strong soliloquy of "to be or not to be" (sorry im skipping parts, i have a party to go to, got to get stoned!), anyway, this famous quote shows Hamlet in a distressing situation, where he is pondering on the ideas, of whether to commit suicide or accept the obstcales in life, i which he must find a soloution to, in this case, trying to avenge his father's death. This soliloquy also introduces the major them within the play of madness. Is Hamlet really starting to lose his sanity, or is he actually inducing this insane state of mind, so he can be isolated from the consequences of his actions, if people thought he was supposedly sane? Either way, he totally has no idea of what he actually wants to achieve, like a foggy window full of negativity of people who may be hurt in the process, such as the queen his mother, who finds true love again, before the bed sheets are cold. What a slut! Back to the storyline... Polonius and the king think that the reason of Hamlet's madness is due to his blinding love for his one and only Ophelia. Thus, by confining both diverse characters in a room, they are able to see with their own eyes whther he is really possessed by his love for Ophelia. But then crunch down, he totally disses Ophelia by the way she speaks, dances and walks:"You jog, u amble and u lisp", typical dissing from a patriarchal society at the time, and still exists! But with insulting Ophelia, condemning her, explaining how she should be put into a nunnery, where her sexual temptations can be controlled, proves that maybe his madness, has gone beyond the point, where his real emotions (maybe his real feelings for ophelia) are discared by the act of madness he is developing. Hamlet also starts to become suspicious of why Ophelia is here without a chaperone, reagrdless of ophelia holding a prayer book which inevitabily suggests that she does not need one at the present time of her praying. Thus, it comes to mind that hamlet arouses this suspicion, asking ophelia "Where's your father?". This is the turning point then, when Hamlet realises they have company, and therefore decided to go a step further, and play with their minds, insulting Polonius as being a fool, and over exaggerating the fact that he has no love for Ophelia. Well thats all i really gotsa say, and i hope anyone will give me feedback on this drug induced piece of work, Gibs

-- Gibs Rheel (, February 19, 2004.

I think you're wrong. Way missing the point.

-- Patrick Walker (, February 20, 2004.

I dont have much to contribute to the meaning, although i agree mostly with the first and second responses given. The point being, that Hamlet is not sure whether he should continue living and deal with the plights of a hard, unhappy life, or if he should kill himself. He decides neither are "noble" right away and questions subtly if he should kill claudius. He thinks this to be un noble too, but figures he must resolve to something. I think he realizes later to carry out with claudius' death. But i'm not quite sure of his thoughts when he says "With this regard their currents turn awry,/ And lose the name of action." This confuses me somewhat and makes me unsure of his decision on what is more noble. I wonder if i am close to being correct. I am reading this for school, sorry if i made spelling errors but mainly i am more concerned on if i am right on this notion or not...correct or not correct: that is the question. :)

-- Kate (, March 17, 2004.

to me it means practically the same as what i have read from the previous responses... hamlet is strugling to figure out whether he should overcome claudius throgh using his mind or whether he should resort to revenge by seeking violence. through the soliloquy he aims to debate in his mind which would be the most benificial and noble way out.hamlet raves on about the moral delema's and injustice issues that have arrisen...e.g "the pangs of disprized love" as this to me suggests that he loves but is not loved. hamlet convinces himself that when patient you recieve no reward so he has influenced his thoughts that killing claudius with a dagger,"bodkin", is the quick and easy action to resolve the matter.

-- dom (, November 01, 2004.

hello, i love hamlet

-- alfred shum (, December 01, 2004.

sorry to interrupt, but i have a question regarding Hamlet. after the to be or not to be bit of the play, Hamlet and Ophielia have a fight. so my question is how do you interpret that scene, since Hamlet is consistantly contradicting himself throughout the arguement? and how does that relate to the Rosetti illustration depicting the two of them? any thoughts would be of great assistance, as i have a paper due in a few weeks and i find myself rather lost.

-- Amara (, December 10, 2004.

to whomever emailed me, i think we were on different pages of thought. i wanted different interpretations on the fight between Hamlet and Ophielia. the scene where he says get thee to a nunnery no less than five times. i just wanted some opinions as to what is really going on with Hamlet in that scene.

-- Amara (, December 10, 2004.

People have talked about this and related issues in other questions in the forum. Have a look at:

violence played on ophelia in branagh´s hamlet (beatriz carton feliz, 2002-03-20)

Nunnery Scene - alternative way of playing/reading. (Patrick Walker, 2002-11-16)

The Nunnery Scene. (Patrick Walker, 2002-11-16)

There are also other questions about Ophelia, and women generally, that might be useful for context.

-- catherine england (, December 11, 2004.

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