This is one of the most famous (and probably misused) quotes from all of Shakespeare’s plays. Do you know who said it? Hamlet, the protagonist and namesake of the story. Most of you probably got that one. But. Do you know what he meant, or why he said it? You may not use it again once you do.
Here’s why I think it’s oft misquoted: he was contemplating suicide. He had returned home after the death of his father (the King) to find that his Uncle had married his mother and taken the throne. Then his father’s ghost appears to him and says he was murdered by Uncle Claudius.
The culture of his time dictated that he should avenge his father’s death. However, his Christian beliefs clearly stated that murder was wrong, no matter what the reason. So he considered ending his life. “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” It’s the beginning of a soliloquy, or monologue, as he goes for a walk. He ponders which would be the better choice – to live and avenge his father’s murder by committing one of his own, or take his own life and face whatever lays beyond.
This is just one of the many opposites in the play, something I find interesting. Hamlet and the King are another great example: Claudius is the Machiavellian villain, he justifies his actions by glorifying the ends they will achieve. Since he knows he’s doomed to Hell, he therefore lives as selfishly as possible to retain all that he has gained in life. Hamlet on the other hand, is paralyzed by fear at just the thought of murder, no matter what the ends may achieve.
It’s been said by many that Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s best plays, in fact has been called “the perfect play.” It was poetic, full of pensive musings about life and death, eternity, relationships, hypocrisy, truth, God, family – it’s all in there. And for the audiences of that time, it had the bloody battles that they craved and cheered.
The duality of Hamlet’s life reminds me of a typical teenager: he has moments when he’s sensitive, poetic, loving, and yet he’s a criminal who stabs a friend in the back, is cruel to his girlfriend, and shows no regret for deliberately killing her father, an “unseen good old man.”
This play is one of my favorites. The one performance I went to was put on by a Shakespeare Company from Ashland, OR, and included “Hamlet in 10 Minutes,” and a version of the play backwards, among others. I’m writing about it today because it was on this day in 1995 that “Hamlet” closed at the Belasco Theater in New York City after 121 shows, and I wanted to share my thoughts on what makes it interesting. Also, did you know that most of you have seen a version of this play several times without even realizing it? Disney’s “The Lion King” is a modern-day story of Hamlet. Next time you watch it, think about this post, and then come back and share your thoughts.