Hamlet: The Speech

To write about the speech, or to not write about it… there’s really no question.

Oh, come on. Did you really think I’d spend three months on Hamlet and not discuss what is arguably the most famous speech in all of Shakespeare? (though, honestly, I’m thinking it may very well be the most infamous speech in Shakespeare)

So, here we go:

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,
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,
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.
  • III.i.56-90

Ah, where to begin?

Do we begin with a Clintonian parsing of the words “to be”? Naw, I think that might take us too far afield, at least too far afield too early.

What about with stagecraft, as there are two very interesting questions that must be asked on how the speech is performed? We could start there, but I think that may tip my hand.

No, let us begin how I ended the last non-Weekly News, non-podcast, and non-dad-honoring entry: with a lil’ bit of scansion.

The lines of the first sentence of the speech, at least the complete lines, are all feminine endings:

~ / / / ~ / / ~ ~ / ~

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.

Each line is too long to be perfect iambic pentameter, each with an extra unstressed syllable at the end. Even without the extra syllable, each line has definite or possible deviations from the purely iambic: the first line has a trochee mid-line (“THAT is”), and a possible spondee in the second foot (“OR NOT”); the second starts with a trochee (“WHEther”); the third elides the possibly three-syllable “outrageous” (“out-RAY-ge-US” to “out-RAY-jus”); the fourth begins with a trochee (“OR to”) and follows it with a spondee (“TAKE ARMS”). Too many syllables per line. Uneven meter. Obviously, a man with too many–and too many conflicting–thoughts in his head.

In fact, the vast majority of lines in the speech includes departures from purely iambic pentameter. Only eight of the thirty-five lines are textbook examples of blank verse, with no trochees, spondees, feminine endings or elisions. And interestingly enough, they tell the story of the speech in microcosm:

Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep—

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,

The undiscovered country from whose bourn

With this regard their currents turn awry

In other words, it would be great to get to this “sleep,” but what about all those things we don’t know? Well, don’t they change our minds (or “currents”)?

At the end of this speech, the scansion and punctuation give us more clues. The dashes around “Soft you now, // The fair Ophelia” makes this phrase feel more akin to an aside than a continuation of the speech. The scansion at the end of this “aside” is also unusual. The “Ophelia” can be pronounced as four syllables–two complete iambs  (o FEE lee AH)–or elided into three (o FEEL ya); there’s no clue from Hamlet’s only other two uses of the name (the first [V.i.232] can go either way; the second [V.i.259] is elided). Regardless, the period and dash that follow the name presume a caesura, followed by three poetic feet (either trochee-iamb-iamb or spondee-spondee-iamb). If the name is elided, the caesura is half a foot, and the line is six feet long; if the name is four syllables, there’s still a caesura, only now it feels as if the caesura needs to be even longer. Either way, it sets up like he’s waiting for Ophelia to make her move toward him, so he can welcome her verbally.

But with the other lines in the speech all variants of and departures from the rhythm of the heartbeat, this speech is obviously in a man in turmoil.

In turmoil. Over what? What is he debating? The popular answer is suicide. But that’s an answer I have a hard time buying. First, in Hamlet’s first soliloquy, when he is in the depths of his mourning, he says,

O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter!
  • I.ii.129-32

He’s already ruled out suicide from the start. Plus, he’s now got a plan “to catch the conscience of the king” (II.ii.544), using the play to prove the guilt of his uncle and thus clearing the way to his revenge for his father’s death. It would be puzzling for him to return to a debate on suicide.

So there are clues in the scansion of the speech. And clues in the location of the speech. But what about the words of the speech? Let’s take a look at a few phrases and see what our old pal, the Oxford English Dictionary, has to say of note:

“outrageous fortune”

While outrageous is usually seen as “wildly exaggerated or improbable” (“outrageous, adj.; A.3.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 25 May 2015.), its primary meaning in Shakespeare’s day was “of the nature of a gross violation of justice, morality, decency, etc.; wicked, evil” (“outrageous, adj.; A.1.” OED Online.). Fortune was not only “chance, hap, or luck, regarded as a cause of events and changes in men’s affairs” (“fortune, n.; 1.a.” OED Online.), but also “a mishap, disaster” (“fortune, n.; A.2.b.” OED Online.).


A shock, we’ve come to see, is “a sudden and violent blow” (“shock, n.; 3.2.a.” OED Online.), but this use was only coming into meaning around the time (1603) Hamlet was being written. The predominant meaning before this was “the encounter of an armed force with the enemy in a charge or onset; also, the encounter of two mounted warriors or jousters charging one another” (“shock, n.; 3.1.a.” OED Online.), a military term of combat, sometimes single combat.


Yes, consummation means “an act of completing, accomplishing, or finishing” (“consummation, n.;2.a.” OED Online.), but it also meant “an act of perfecting. Chiefly in religious contexts” (“consummation, n.; 1.a.” OED Online.). And given the next word in the speech is “devoutly,” I’d lean toward this concept of religious perfection.

“shuffled off this mortal coil”

The phrase makes the most sense with shuffle’s primary meaning “to move the feet along the ground without lifting them” (“shuffle, v.; 1.a.” OED Online.), However, it’s interesting that Claudius uses the term later (IV.vii.135) with a different bent: “to bring in in a deceitful, tricky, or surreptitious manner” which is related to “to manage in secret; to hush up” (“shuffle, v.; 5.a. and 5.e., respectively” OED Online.). While mortal means “destined to die” or “deadly, fatal” (“mortal, adj.; A.2.a. and A.3.a.” OED Online.), its primary meaning in Shakespeare’s day was “seeking to bring about the destruction of an adversary” (“mortal, adj.; A.1.” OED Online.). And coil was not only “fuss, ado” (“coil, n.2; 3.” OED Online.), but “‘row’; ‘tumult, turmoil” (“coil, n.2; 1.” OED Online.).

“insolence of office”

Insolent not only means “being insolent” (“insolence, n.; 1.” OED Online.), but the more nuanced “offensive contemptuousness of action or speech due to presumption” (“insolence, n.; 1.b.” OED Online.); office not only “an official or officer” (“office, n.; 2.c.” OED Online.), but also “duty towards others; moral obligation” (“office, n.; 3.c.” OED Online.).

“the spurns // That patient merit of th’ unworthy take”

A spurn is both “a kick” (“spurn, n.1.; 3.a.” OED Online.) and “the beak of a war-galley” (“spurn, n.; 3.a.” OED Online.); patient both “exercising patience” (“patient, adj.; A.” OED Online.) and “able to wait calmly” (“patient, adj.; A.1.b.” OED Online.); merit not only “the condition or fact of deserving reward or punishment” (“merit, n.; I.2.” OED Online.), but also “the quality of deserving well, or of being entitled to reward or gratitude” (“merit, n.; I.1.b.” OED Online.); and take “to seize, grasp, capture” (“take, v.; II.” OED Online.) as well as “to take root” (“take, v.; II.6.a.” OED Online.).

Some interesting alternative meanings there.

While there are conventional ways to take this speech, it can also be delivered in such a way to show a blatantly antagonistic tone toward the listener. Hamlet questions the idea of suffering the unjust disaster of his current situation. His heartache is linked (compared?) to the single combat between Hamlet and his rival, a victory over whom would be religious perfection. This combat imagery resurfaces in the row (coil) to bring down his rival (mortal), no matter how deceitful his rival is in an attempt to hide his actions. This rival is contemptuous and presumptuous and not bound by morality; unworthy–though in a position where he should be in a position to earn reward–he is able to wait calmly as his war-like preparations take root.

Sound like anyone we know?  cough-Claudius-cough

Consider the possible definitions of “to be” available to Shakespeare. The most obvious, of course, are “to exist” (“be, v.; I.1.b.” OED Online.). In this sense, the concept of the speech being about suicide remains your most likely subject. But if you take the alternate meaning of to “be carried out or done” (“be, v.; I.2.” OED Online.), you can bring in the idea that what he’s debating is “carrying out” the murder of Claudius. All fair and good. But there are a couple of other meanings that I find interesting: “To have gone to perform and returned from some activity” (“be, v.; II.8.b.” OED Online.), “expressing an appointed or arranged future action” (“be, v.; IV.18.” OED Online.), “expressing a hypothetical condition” (“be, v.; IV.20.” OED Online.). All three of these have a connotation different that the former two, both of which fall under the first major subgrouping of meanings: “to have or take place in the world of fact” (“be, v.; I.” OED Online.; emphasis mine). These three latter meanings are all shot not through the prism of a “world of fact”; instead, they connote performance, an arranged future action, a hypothetical condition.

Again, this ties into the idea of “playing,” not madness, not suicidal depression or desperation.

Now, we get to the questions of stagecraft.

When Hamlet enters the stage, he is not the only actor on that stage. Ophelia has been left there by both Claudius and Polonius. Or has she? While “Exeunt King and Polonius” (III.i.55 stage direction) appears in the edition I’m using (the Pelican Shakespeare, edited by A.R. Braunmuller), that stage direction appears in neither the First (“Bad”) Quarto (which does, however, include an explicit stage direction for the Queen to exit) nor the Second Quarto (which includes no stage direction for King, Queen or Polonius to exit); these are all editorial emendations.

But what if these characters don’t exit, but merely “withdraw” (III.i.55), as Polonius directs. They are on stage, probably separated by some space from Ophelia, but not at two opposite sides of the stage.

What if Hamlet sees them?

Then this speech becomes a “play,” a theatrical performance of an improvised soliloquy, one to perpetuate the fiction of his “antic disposition” (I.v.175). We know Hamlet’s an actor of some type, sort, or self-delusion–his recital of the speech for the First Player just a scene earlier attests to this. This speech not being a soliloquy, but rather a speech aimed at a character/audience is no longer a major conceptual leap to make. And it would explain the weird placement of this scene within the trajectory of Hamlet’s mind-set and emotional journey.

It sort of makes sense now. Or at least it gives us something to think about.

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