For this first Shakespearience blog of the new year, let’s turn to the most famous speech in all drama. You’ll know which one I mean:
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. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his own quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
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 that we know not of?
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 pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn away
And lose the name of action. (Hamlet, 3.1.57-89)
Now, if this is the most famous speech in all drama, it’s also notoriously difficult and confusing. And that’s partly because ‘To be, or not to be’ fundamentally breaks down the opposition between life and death, being and not being.‘To be, or not to be’ it begins, and what does Hamlet choose?
Well, Hamlet clearly chooses NOT TO BE.‘To die is a consummation devoutly to be wished’. Given the pervasive humiliations of life described around the middle of the soliloquy
the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong,
The proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of disprized love,
The law’s delay,
The insolence of office
And the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes
Given these, who wouldn’t make their quietus with a bare bodkin—stab themselves and end all the shame and pain of living? Hamlet sees life in exclusively negative terms in this speech. But death is negative, whereas life is positive—isn’t it? To see life as negative is to see it as a kind of death. Life, in this great speech, is in fact a worse death than death, because it is death which is ongoing and experienced—living death, if you like. For some of Shakespeare’s near contemporaries, Luther, for instance, this is a spiritual opportunity. There is nothing in our life—nothing in ourselves—that can save us, and so we must turn to God.
But Hamlet departs from Luther in seeing all being as intrinsically degraded. This is heretical. What of the life lived by God’s gift, life lived in God, on which Luther staked everything? What, for that matter, of God’s life? Hamlet rejects this life, which Luther rejects too, but Hamlet also rejects all life to come. It becomes increasingly difficult to keep life and death apart in Hamlet’s speech because the only thing that restrains him from choosing death itself is that death may inaugurate another form of life: that’s what he means about ten lines from the end of the speech when he talks about ‘the dread of something after death’. Hamlet sees life as more deadly than death but he chooses not to kill himself from fear of a new life which may be worse than this one. Hamlet rejects creation as such, and to do so is to reject the creator. Like Ivan from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, he wants to return God’s ticket to existence. ‘To be or not to be’ seems to reveal a peril which dogs the Protestant Reformation: it can initiate a distaste for life which is so intense and goes so deep as to involve an irreligious distaste for all being as such.
This isn’t much fun for he or she who experiences it, but it is strangely attractive from the outside. Hamlet’s career in the end conforms to a more Lutheran pattern. He finally sees to the bottom of human degradation and mortality in the Graveyard scene and this seems to facilitate a kind of mysticism. He reconciles himself to a life which he sees as mysteriously propelled and motivated by an obscure providence. And yet, we remember—we are haunted by—the sin-struck Hamlet who wallows in sin and self-loathing, who makes of negativity a kind of vocation. We barely remember at all the more edified creature he becomes.
Such, apparently, is the weird allure of Hamlet’s depression.
Happy New Year!
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