Nothing is certain but death. It is the only inevitability in life, the great equalizer, the future to which humanity grows, leans, reaches. Yet the fear of death is a constant one, universal and unavoidable. Hamlet deeply experiences this fear of death and it is in his most famous soliloquy that he voices his dread and confusion concerning this inevitable end, closer in time and mind perhaps, given his present circumstances.
All the soliloquies in Hamlet, and indeed in all of Shakespeare’s works, serve to characterize, and it is through this method of characterization that one is most clearly aware of the strengths, weaknesses and conflicts of the speakers. In Hamlet, the “To be or not to be” soliloquy fleshes out Hamlet’s tragic flaw, illustrating the debilitating effects of fear on action. An intentionally ambiguous speech, this soliloquy is subject to numerous interpretations, each lending itself to a slightly different characterization of Hamlet.
Whether Hamlet speaks of his own impending death, or his father’s untimely one, depends upon the interpretation. One interpretation of this speech is that Hamlet speaks of his father’s death. Hamlet’s meeting with the Ghost has brought the idea of a disagreeable afterlife into his mind. The Ghost speaks only fleetingly of his state in the afterlife, but what he says is potent and terrifying.
He speaks of, “sulf’rous and tormenting flames” (1. 5. 6), being forced, “to fast in fires” (1. 5. ), and tells Hamlet, “But that I am forbid/ To tell the secrets of my prison house, / I could a tale unfold whose lightest word/ Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, / Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their/ spheres, / Thy knotted and combind locks to part, / And each particular hair to stand an end, / Like quills upon the fearful porpentine. / But this eternal blazon must not be/ To ears of flesh and blood” (1. 5. 18-28). It is not surprising that Hamlet should dwell on death and the afterlife after hearing these tormented words.
His speech, following this interpretation, shows his obsessive concern for his father and his fear that a similar fate will be visited upon himself. He is terrified for his father, trapped in a fiery hell, and wishes to release him from that damnation. But he fears for himself as well and cannot move beyond his fear. Thus he is unable to act when faced with such a picture of death as painted by the Ghost. He fears that by acting he will be risking the terrible fate that his father has been dealt. He fears that by saving himself, he will be further damning his father.
In order to free his father, he must act. But in acting, he risks being thrown into the terrible world his father inhabits. He is unable to move beyond this conflict and is hence paralyzed by uncertainty and fear. This interpretation characterizes Hamlet as a tortured man, unable to move beyond his grief, unable to act in the face of that grief, unable to reconcile thought with action because of his fear. That Hamlet’s musings are a result of his father’s death is but one interpretation of the speech.
Perhaps the most common interpretation is the idea that Hamlet is contemplating suicide. This contention probably results from an isolated reading of the soliloquy. Taken out of context, it seems evident that Hamlet is considering taking the path of “self-slaughter” (1. 2. 136). It is the most basic interpretation of the speech, especially considering the words, “To be or not to bethat is the question” (3. 1. 64). However, Hamlet knows that suicide is contrary to the law of God and is concerned with what will happen to him after his death, should he choose this sin.
In his speech he is conflicted between being and not being or, if one accepts the suicide interpretation, between whether he should choose to live or whether he should choose to die. His life is unbearable but it can be ended. However, the question of the afterlife remains. Hamlet is torn between living a tortured life or risking a tortured eternity. By the end of the speech, Hamlet seems to have come to the conclusion that it is better to live an intolerable life than to risk the unknown world of death and the punishment one might suffer there.
Thus does his fear result once more in his inability to act as he wants. But Hamlet is not blind to this, his tragic flaw. He is well aware of his shortcomings and understands that his tendency to overanalyze does not lead to action, but rather stops his intended actions cold. This reading of the soliloquy serves to emphasize Hamlet’s depression and hopelessness. It also paints the picture of Hamlet as something of a coward, as willing to die himself as to live and deliver vengeance upon his father’s murderer.
Although it may seem clear on the surface that Hamlet is contemplating suicide, that interpretation does not fit well into the plot of the play. Considering that Hamlet has just decided to trap Claudius into a confession, it does not follow that he would flirt with suicidal thoughts. Nevertheless, it is clear that Hamlet has cause to fear death. The last main interpretation of this soliloquy is that Hamlet does not fear death because of the sin of suicide but rather, that of murder. This explication of the speech makes the most sense given Hamlet’s character and the direction of the plot to that point.
Hamlet clearly intends to kill Claudius. This irrefutable fact has been continuously illustrated throughout the play. Hamlet, however, is indecisive, hesitant, and slow to act. He thinks too long and too deeply. And the thought that most occupies his mind is that of death. It is not too difficult to guess why. Not only has he had to suffer the sudden death of his father, but he has also suffered through the tortured moanings of that father’s ghost. He has promised the ghost that he will avenge his father’s death and kill Claudius, his father’s murderer.
It is no wonder Hamlet is plagued with thoughts of death. In the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet is haunted by what may happen to him after he kills Claudius. He seems to have accepted that he too may die. But he fears what will happen after death more than he fears the death itself. He has heard his father’s terrifying portrait of the afterlife. He has been raised to believe that murder will result in eternal damnation. These are the thoughts that plague him as he weighs his options.
He can kill Claudius and risk an infinity of punishment, or he can live a tortured life at Claudius’ side, and be assured of his place in heaven. At the end of the speech Hamlet has not come to any solid conclusions. His only realization is that, “conscience does make cowards of us all” (3. 1. 91). He is well aware of his immobilized position, but is powerless to lean decisively in either direction. This interpretation presents a Hamlet that is less weak, less depressed, less selfish, less cowardly than the other interpretations.
In this reading Hamlet is stronger, more focused, and more in control. Nevertheless, he is paralyzed by thought, unable to act, unwilling to bend. In this, Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, Shakespeare presents the audience with a myriad of different insights into the play. This is accomplished by his allowing the speech to be slightly ambiguous in meaning. Through separate readings of the speech, one can arrive at different conclusions about Hamlet’s character. Within each distinct interpretation can be found the different motivations, fears, concerns and preoccupations of Hamlet.