what is hamlet saying in his soliloquay in act3 scene1?

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i would like to know what hamlet is saying word for word in his soliloquay in act3 scene1.

-- vanessa murphy (vanessamurphy@oceanfree.com), November 12, 2003


I'd give an interpretation rather than a translation. Did it somewhere else, but I can't remember where; so here it is again, line by line.

It's easier to express it as Hamlet talking about himself and his own situation. But he never uses "I". He is engaging his mind in an intellectual debate brought on by his own experiences in his situation, but he is 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 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, (see the NB below) to put up with all the bad, or "troubles", Fortune dishes out; or to fight back and thus bring his suffering of all the troubles 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 (a sort of mixture of arrogance and vanity), which is why Hamlet questions the nobility of it. 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 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 for example 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" - see NB below) because it would stop all the troubles that one has to put up with in human life.

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, in which case his existence after death would indeed be very bad; 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, which he fears.

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" works in triplicate: it refers to a plan to kill himself, his plan to kill Claudius, and also, beautifully, to his plan to solve his original "question".

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, one can be fearful without being a coward; and 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, or honour, as opposed to the more tangible nature of what must be suffered.]

[NB: 60-64: There may be a pun intended by WS 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, though it goes to state of mind. 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 (catherine_england@fastmail.com), November 12, 2003.

To elaborate on something Catherine said above, Hamlet does not use terms such as "I" and "Me", but rather "We" and "Us", because he is engaging in an open arguement with the audience. This is not an introspective and solitary soliloquy, but (as was the nature of Shakespeare's theatre), the character stepping out of the action and discussing with the audience "Is it better to live or to die?"..."Shall I be or not be?"...and "Why?"

Thought I needed to add that.

-- Patrick Walker (the_right_hand_of_doom@msn.com), November 13, 2003.

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