SHAKESPEARE: HAMLET Act III Sc.1 To be or not to be

1157 Hamlet is one of the so-called “Golden Tragedies” of the third period. It is a “revenge tragedy” and deals with the use and misuse of power, honesty and dishonesty, corruption and ambition of power. It  has been   debated and analysed in every time both in political and psychoanalytic terms. Hamlet, too, has been differently seen as an irresolute man, torn with moral conflicts, oppressed by melancholy, full of Freudian complexes and so on.

After his father’s death, Hamlet returns from abroad to become king and finds his throne usurped by his uncle Claudius who   has married his mother. His father’s ghost appears to him, tells him that he has been poisoned by his brother  Claudius and asks for revenge. Hamlet wants to take the revenge but he loves his mother,  too. This conflict reduces him to despair. His mother’s marriage has made him distrust and despise all women. He wants to escape the situation,  pretends to be mad  and rejects Ophelia, the girls he loved. As a consequence, Ophelia goes mad and commits suicide drowning herself. Hamlet decides to test the ghost’s story and asks a company of actors to perform a play in which the Queen marries the king’s brother who has killed the king. Claudius reacts at this and demonstrates guilty. In the final scene in a duel with Ophelia’s brother, Hamlet succeeds in killing him but he is also mortally wounded. Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, drinks from a poisoned cup prepared for Hamlet and dies. Hamlet, too, dies after stabbing the king and making him drink the rest of the poisoned cup.

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 Heart-ache, 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; Aye, 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 despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the 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,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveler 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 pitch 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 remembered

OPHELIA     Good my lord,                                                                                                            How does your honour for this many a day?                                                                HAMLET      I humbly thank you; well, well, well.                                                      OPHELIA     My lord, I have remembrances of yours,                                                               That I have longed long to re- deliver;                                                                                                I pray you, now receive them.                                                                                           HAMLET      No, not I;                                                                                                                           I never gave you aught.                                                                                                      OPHELIA     My honour’d lord, you know right well you did;                                                And, with them, words of so sweet breath compos’d                                                                        As made the things more rich: their perfume lost,                                                                       Take these again; for to the noble mind                                                                                        Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind .                                                                       There, my lord.                                                                                                                         HAMLET      Ha, ha! are you honest?                                                                              OPHELIA     My lord?                                                                                                           HAMLET      Are you fair?                                                                                                    OPHELIA     What means your lordship?                                                                          HAMLET      That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should  admit no discourse to your beauty.                                                                                                                             OPHELIA     Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty? HAMLET      Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner  transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness: this was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof. I did love you once.               OPHELIA     Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.                                             HAMLET      You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot  so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of  it: I loved you not.                                                                       OPHELIA     I was the more deceived.                                                                            HAMLET      Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at  my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling    between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.Where’s your father?  OPHELIA     At home, my lord.                                                                                       HAMLET      Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool nowhere but in’s own house. Farewell.                                                                                                            OPHELIA     O, help him, you sweet heavens!                                                                HAMLET      If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for  thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go: farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and quickly too. Farewell.                                 OPHELIA     O heavenly powers, restore him!                                                              HAMLET      I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and  nick-name God’s creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath made me mad. I say, we will have no more marriages:those that are married already, all but one, shall live; the rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go.                                  [Exit]

OPHELIA     O! what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!                                                              The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword;                                                              The expectancy and rose of the fair state,                                                                                      The glass of fashion and the mould of form,                                                                                The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!                                                                         And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,                                                                                     That suck’d the honey of his music vows,                                                                                       Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,                                                                          Like sweet bells jangled out of tune, and harsh;                                                                           That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth                                                                   Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,                                                                                                  To have seen what I have seen, see what I see

This passage is taken from act III. Sc.1. King Claudius and Polonius, Ophelia’s father, are hidden somewhere waiting for the encounter they have arranged between Ophelia and Hamlet to test whether Hamlet’s madness is due to his disappointed love for Ophelia or to confirm the suspicion that Hamlet has discovered the truth about his father’s death.

It starts with a soliloquy by Hamlet  which enables the audience to enter inside  Hamlet’s mind and know  his intimate thoughts. The  first line, “ To be or not to be: that is the question”, sums up the dilemma that haunts his mind: should he continue to live and have his revenge or should he put an end to his life committing suicide? Soon after, his speech becomes a general analysis of the human condition. He  wonders whether it’s nobler to bear the difficulties of life or oppose them by putting an end to life itself. He does not refer to any event in particular. His words   can be interpreted in various ways: is life worth living or it’s better to commit suicide?  must he be passively submitted to the injustices and sufferings of life or react and rebel? must he   act and kill Claudius or   give it up? better react against an adverse destiny or  surrender to it?

 Hamlet meditates on the idea of committing suicide and considers all  available points of view. He  analyses life and death.  Life appears to him as a long series of evils, both inherent in human nature and interpersonal relationships – “to suffer  the Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune….   and the thousand Natural shocks that flesh is heir to….. bear the Whips and Scorns of time (ageing)….. the pangs  of despised love” – and  the products of social organization – “The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely, the Law’s delay (inefficiency in legal procedures), The insolence of Office (mistreatment by authorities), and the Spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes (unjust criticism)”. In Hamlet’s opinion to live means    “ to take arms against a sea of troubles…. to grunt and sweat under a weary life  ”.  Against this “weary lifesuicide would be a solution. To Hamlet death seems to have a positive connotation at first and he associates death with sleep, rest and peace  : “ to die, to sleep, no more”; Death  is the end “ of heart-ache”; Dying  while sleeping is “ a consummation devoutly to be wished”. But  when he associates death and sleep  to dreams ,“To die, to sleep,To sleep, perchance to Dream“, he realizes that death may not be an escape” Aye, there’s the rub”. Dreams are not always pleasant; they can be nightmares and death may bring an unknown and perhaps dreadful condition: “For in that  sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil”.  There are two obstacles to suicide:  the fear that death would not end everything  and the shame of being charged with cowardice. The   after-death   is an“  undiscovered Country, from whose bourn no Traveller returns”. The impossibility of not knowing what comes after death “puzzles the will” and makes us fear death.   Our decision is then weakened, “  the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’’er”. Eventually  he   chooses life, but his choice isn’t really a choice for life.  He   does not know what the after-death reserves for him, so better “ bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of”.

The monologue ends when he realizes the presence of Ophelia. Hamlet is rude to Ophelia, pretends to be mad,laughs and speaks illogically: “ I did love you once…..I loved you not…..I never gave you aught …..ah, ah”.   He knows   that she has been asked by her father and by the king to spy on him and charges her with using her beauty as bait to trap him:“ …..That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty”. Pretending to speak to Ophelia, Hamlet attacks women and marriage: all women are prostitutes.   His attitude to women is probably influenced by his mother’s behaviour.  He thinks that beauty and chastity cannot coexist in women :“Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness”  ; women are corrupt and would be “ breeder of sinners”;  wives betray their husbands (“….for wise men know what monsters you make of them”); women deceive men  because they “change their faces”  using make up (“God hath given you a face and you make yourselves another”) and they “jig and amble….” to drive men mad; they are hypocritical because  they make their   false ingenuity an excuse for their lascivious behaviour(“ you make your wantonness your ignorance”) .   Ophelia    is disconcerted by his contradictory words. She  is a naïve simple girl and   fails to understand the double meanings of some words Hamlet uses (nymph, nunnery / standing for whore,  brothel) and his invitation to her to” go to a nunnery”.  As far as marriage, Hamlet is horrified by his mother’s  incest and is against marriage: “Only fool men can marry….marry a fool…… I say, we will have no more marriages…..”. According to a psychoanalytic interpretation, the attack on women and marriage may reveal  an Oedipus complex.

The passage ends with a soliloquy by Ophelia. She describes Hamlet’s  change from what he was before,   a perfect gentleman of the Renaissance, and his sorrowful present state:  “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword; The expectancy and rose of the fair state, The glass of fashion and the mould of form,……….. Now see that noble and most sovereign reason, Like sweet bells jangled out of tune, and harsh; That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth Blasted with ecstasy”. The soliloquy ends with a sad consideration on herself: She considers her own misery and desperation:” O, woe is me, To have seen what I have seen, see what I see”.


About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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