The Soliloquy in
Hamlet

Hamlet: 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 wish'd
. 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 despis'd 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 these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death --
The undiscover'd 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 awry
And lose the name of action. -- Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! -- Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins rememb'red.

Ophelia: Good my lord

The soliloquy in Hamlet, wherein the Prince contemplates suicide, is one of the most profound reflections in all of literature. It is also almost overwhelmed by the beauty of its language, contributing jewels of phraseology (as highlighted in red at left) to English discourse for the last four centuries.

Schopenhauer's brief discussion strikes to the essence. In German, we see a line even quoted in English, which Schopenhauer knew from his period of education in England:

Der wesentliche Inhalt des weltberühmten Monologs im »Hamlet« ist, wenn zusammengefaßt, dieser:  Unser Zustand ist ein so elender, daß gänzliches Nichtseyn ihm entschieden vorzuziehen wäre. Wenn nun der Selbstmord uns dieses wirklich darböte, so daß die Alternative »Seyn order Nichtseyn« im vollen Sinn des Wortes vorläge; dann wäre er unbedingt zu erwählen, als eine höchst wünschenswerthe Vollendung (a consummation devoutly to be wish'd). Allein in uns ist etwas, das uns sagt, dem sei nicht so; es sei damit nicht aus, der Tod sei keine absolute Vernichtung. [Die Welt als Wille under Vofstellung, Band 1, Philipp Reclam, Stuttgart, 1987, §59, p.458]

Schopenhauer's knowledge of English may have helped him avoid the pitfalls of writing philosophy in German that have bedeviled it ever since. He certainly translates easily into great eloquence in English:

The essential purport of the world-famous monologue in Hamlet is, in condensed form, that our state is so wretched that complete non-existence would be decidedly preferable to it. Now if suicide actually offered us this, so that the alternative "to be or not to be" lay before us in the full sense of the words, it could be chosen unconditionally as a highly desirable termination ("a consummation devoutly to be wish'd" [Act III, Sc. I.]). There is something in us, however, which tells us that this is not so, that this is not the end of things, that death is not an absolute annihilation. [The World as Will and Representation, Volume I, translated by E.F.J. Payne, Dover, 1958§59, p.324]

Shakespeare's language is often incomprehensible to me. Hamlet's soliloquy is not that bad, but some vocabulary items are either unfamiliar or used in archaic ways. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary has the relevant definitions:  "Contumely" is "rude language or treatment arising from hautiness or contempt." "Quietus" is "removal from activity, esp: DEATH." "Bodkin" is a "needle or sharp instrument," or a dagger. "Fardels" are "burdens." "Bourn" is "boundary" or "destintation." "Conscience" we know, but in this case it means "consciousness" or "awareness." "Pith" (as survives in "pithy") is used to mean "importance" or "significance." Finally, "orisons" are prayers. Hamlet wants Ophelia to remember him in her prayers.

Return to Fragments of Parmenides

History of Philosophy

Home Page

Copyright (c) 2005, 2009, 2011 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved