Hamlet: To Be or Not to Be

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To be or not to be, is that the question?

To be or not to be, is that the question? Or would it be better expressed, to live or not to live? Death and vengeance is a major theme in Hamlet, a theme that is worthy to be explored.

First, the id�e fix with suicide or self murder; and then with murder, whether justified or not, of others.

Hamlet was the first to contemplate suicide. In one of his first soliloquies, Act I, scene ii, lines 1-158, Hamlet speaks these lines after an encounter with Claudius and Gertrude who wish for him to lay aside his mourning and also, not to return to Wittenburg

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“O, that this too too sullied flesh to melt,

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d

His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Imagine the sorrow Hamlet was feeling. Even though Hamlet was a man, he was never in the position that he had to take on the role of a man. For the most part, Hamlet was carefree, and intellect, a man of privilege (being the son of the king), and without much responsibility. He wasn’t married, nor was he even responsible for picking his own bride. Hamlet took the death of his father very hard. One could imagine that he had a good relationship with his father, but that is left to be assumed. Hamlet seemed to idealize his father, as in Act III, scene iv, lines 54-68. With the premature death of his father and his inability to return to Wittenberg, Hamlet is depressed. The hasty marriage of his mother to his Uncle Claudius, of course, does not help matters. Hamlet’s depression and confusion becomes more complicated once Hamlet discovers that the death of his father was done by the hands of Claudius.

After Hamlet discovers the murder of his father, he, in another soliloquy, contemplates suicide again Act III, scene i, lines 58-0. His question “to be or not to be”, that is to live or not to live. He weighs the burden of living and dying. Is it nobler to suffer life’s, “slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes” passively or to actively seek to end ones suffering? He sees death and sleep as a means to end suffering and pain, and yet, the fear of the unknown is more foreboding to him than knowing his present.

One of the ironies in this play is that while Hamlet contemplated suicide/death, Ophelia took that step into the “undiscovered country”. She is found to be drowned and the question of whether she ended her own life or whether it was truly an accident is not deliberated. With her state of mind it could be easily justified that the burden of living without the men that she loved might have been far too great for her mind bare the men being her father, Hamlet and Laertes who was not at home.

“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord”, Deuteronomy 5. Hamlet debated the spiritual application of suicide and to some degree, if he should kill Claudius and when not to kill Claudius. However, he neglected this very important verse in the Bible, a verse that would have given him some peace and released him from the duty of vengeance. The peace that Hamlet and the ghost of Hamlet’s father desired could only be attained by the physical death of Claudius by Hamlet’s hands the old “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” philosophy.

Vengeance and family honor are main themes in Hamlet, with family honor being the more prominent. While attempting to maintain the family honor, vengeance most certainly is the means of achieving that end. Fortinbras’s father was defeated in battle by the late King Hamlet. Fortinbras’s plan to take back the lands and power is a means of avenging and maintaining family honor. (He plans to attack Denmark.) Claudius sends out the couriers, Cornelius and Voltimand, with a proposal that will satisfy the need to restore family honor, and hopefully this will dissolve his need vengeance and avoid further conflict.

Next, consider Hamlet and his father. The ghost beseeches Hamlet to avenge his murder by killing Claudius. Hamlet is slow with fulfilling the ghost’s request and his dutiful need. He is lost in indecision and lacks the ability to act quickly, or possibly the courage to act.

He could have killed Claudius at any moment in time. The unspoken law seemed to allow a justified killing as a means of avenging a wrongful death. But, Hamlet was the only one who knew that Claudius killed King Hamlet, (Act I, scene V, lines 11-10). He did not tell Bernardo or Francisco or even Horatio of what the apparition had revealed. So would the killing of Claudius be viewed as justified, or a murder committed by an insane, jealous son of the late King? Would Hamlet then be tried for murder of a King or locked up in the asylum for the rest of his days?

The ideal time to murder, one would hypothesize, is when the anger and rage would be the greatest in Hamlet; it would be understandable after learning how and who killed his father, or after the wrongful death of Polonius, or even after the death of Ophelia. Hamlet eventually does kill Claudius, and it is after the moment of great revelation and anger learning that Claudius plotted to kill him and the death of his beloved mother.

Laertes is the third son to avenge a father, but he, too, causes great destruction. He, as does Hamlet, does not immediately react, but, Laertes becomes a cohort of the evil king. Laertes is not only responsible for the death of Hamlet, but, also for his own death in the end. Ultimately, Laertes and Hamlet ask forgiveness from each other, thus freeing Laertes from questionable eternal damnation or at least from maybe this sin will not be counted. Laertes and Hamlet fix themselves on murder as the only means of revenge and this ultimately becomes their own demise.

Hamlet is play of multiple, interrelated tragedies, with many attempting to regain the honor of their family; and yet in the end the families are dissolved, and honor is but a fantasy. The mystery of the death yet to come and the tragedy of life left to live is left unresolved as “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler return” (Act III, scene i, lines 58-0). So for Hamlet, is the question still “to be or not to be”? Revenge can no longer be sought for the dead, as all the logical seekers are dead, and those at whom revenge was aimed, are also dead. The only vengeance that is left to be taken will be determined at the judgment of their souls by God.


The Bible, New American Standard Version (p.158). Anaheim, California Foundation Publication.

Charters, Ann, & Charters, Samuel (001). Literature and its Writers, an Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Boston, New York Bedford/St. Martins.

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