Someone Completely Different

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Daniella Choynowski


Writing About Literature

Dr Jerz

Someone Completely Different

         Hamlet is one of the most famous plays ever written. Nearly everyone can quote a line from the play, especially the “to be or not to be speech”:

“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 take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them….” (III.i.56-60)

         When asked, many would say that Hamlet was talking about suicide in the speech. Historically, this passage has been defined as a suicide soliloquy, that Hamlet, cracking under the pressure of the monstrous task ahead of him, was contemplating killing himself. However, if the words of the speech are examined more closely and the events of play thus far are considered, evidence suggests that Hamlet may not have been speaking of suicide, but of something far nobler: self-sacrifice.

         It is near impossible to read Hamlet without having some pre-conceptions. After all, wouldn’t Hamlet being the world’s “greatest play” mean that it would be the most famous? Teachers of literature and drama have found that “one of the biggest parts of the job is unteaching” (Cohen 1). Students often read Hamlet, and that is all they do. They often assume to be true what they have been told in the past about Hamlet, not bothering to search for evidence. Nothing can be discovered if all that is done is reading. Analysis of the text leads to new and different discoveries, which can lead to different interpretations of a character. What one person sees in the text of Hamlet may not be what another person sees. While “Hamlet is different and strange; we cannot help reading it with some pre-conceptions, but we need to also find the experience new” (2).

         Combing through the text and examining every phrase in the speech can reveal a different meaning. The beginning of the speech is clearly talking about death: to exist or not to exist. However, the next few lines can be perplexing. What exactly are “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? We must backtrack and recount everything that has happened to Hamlet thus far. What is outrageous fortune? “Hamlet’s heroic and warlike father is now dead. The ambition and lust that drove Claudius to murder the king, the sexual passion that led Gertrude to the hasty wedding that began Claudius’ reign…and the answering demands for revenge” are the unpredicted events that have befallen our hero (Fisher 5). So what is outrageous fortune? Outrageous fortune is all these recounted events. All were unexpected. Hamlet has been hurt by these entire goings on (the “slings and arrows”) (5).

         Hamlet suffers from unpredictable obstacles, but he has a chance to correct an injustice. But in doing so, he may also die. Let’s face it: it is near impossible to kill a king and get away with it.“The promise of certainty” is what causes Hamlet’s delay (Zamir 5).

         “The undiscovered country, from which whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will…thus conscience does make cowards of us all” (III.i.79-83). No one knows what happens to a soul after death. This fear of the unknown, Hamlet is human, and scared of the unknown. Suffering may be terrible, but it is also familiar. So is it better to stay suffering, but where you know what is to come?

         “Taking arms against a sea of troubles” refers to the multitude of issues that life has thrown at Hamlet. “And by opposing end them” that Hamlet has to fight. He has to fight against all the things that have happened to him by avenging the one event that all subsequent events stem from: his father’s murder. Fighting, however, would mean marking himself for death. The question is not “to be nor not to be”, but is whether Hamlet is willing to die to correct an injustice? Hamlet, then must decide whether to sacrifice himself for the common good or to live amongst all the tragedy. So yes, it can be said that hamlet was speaking of killing himself. But, he was not speaking of suicide. “He is not a coward” (Zamir 10). Suicide is a quick but permanent escape from life’s crippling-at-times troubles. Self-sacrifice is far nobler. To do what is right is seldom easy. It takes person of great strength with a tremendous sense of justice to make such a sacrifice. Hamlet must then decide if he is such a person. If he wasn’t, the play would not end with Hamlet dueling unskilled against a swordsman he knows is about as skilled as he is, which is to say, not that skilled (“but to know a man well were to know yourself” V.ii.135-136). Preparing for the match, Hamlet knows something is amiss (“I shall win at the odds. But thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart.” 195-196 ). Hamlet has a sinking suspicion that he will lose and die (since he knows Claudius’ history of under-handedness, i.e the England incident). Hamlet becomes that noble person, deciding to fight anyway. Horatio begs him to reconsider, but his mind is made up. Hamlet may lose, Hamlet may die, but one thing is certain: he has passed to point of no return. “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. if it be not now, yet it will come” (204-207). The situation is out of Hamlet’s hands. It is all up to God now.

         Some may say that Hamlet went mad with grief over his father's death and mother's hasty marriage to his usurping uncle. It could also be said that Hamlet, not mad to begin with, finally cracked under the pressure of the daunting task before him. And it is also possible that Hamlet sacrificed himself. All of these interpretations of Hamlet's character are possible. The evidence is there in the text. It all depends on how the reader interprets it.

Works Cited

1. Cohen, Michael. “On Reading Hamlet for the First Time”. College Literature. Vol. 19. issue 1(fall 92): pages 48-60.EBSCOhost. Seton Hill University Greensburg, PA. 22 Sept 2007.

2. Fisher, P. “Thinking About Killing: Hamlet and the Paths Among the Passions”. Raritan. Vol. 11 Issue 1 (summer 91): pages 43-78. EBSCOhost. Seton Hill University Greensburg, PA. 22 Sept 2007.

3. Shakespeare, William. "Hamlet." The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama. Ed. W. B. Worthen.. Boston, MA: Thomson-Wadsworth, 2007.

4. Zamir, Tzachi. “Doing Nothing”. Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisplinary Study of Literature. Vo. 35 Issue 3 (September 2002): pages 167-82. Literary Resource Center. Seton Hill University Greensburg, PA. 22 Sept 2007.


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