This essay is the fourth part of my look at Hamlet and the "To be or Not to be" speech. Why not start with the first one: To Be OR Not To Be: How Shakespeare Charted the Path to the Modern, then chase after the next two: Ay, there's the point: The Bad Quarto of Hamlet and The Last Medieval Man: Richard the Third.
Hamlet (and Shakespeare) realized he had a choice: to be or not to be. At its simplest, the question was to kill his uncle, the king, to avenge his father death or not. Coming from the Medieval Era, this idea of choice was new to Hamlet (and those of the Elizabethan world). It paralyzed him. As soon as he realized he had a choice, he knew he would be responsible for the consequences.
Hamlet wanders through the play not making a decision. The play happens to him as much as he causes the play to happen. He cannot decide the best course of action.
By the end of the Good Quarto’s “To be or not to be” speech, Hamlet comes to the conclusion:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hiew of resolution
Is sickled ore with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard theyr currents turne awry,
And lose the name of action.
I love the back part of this speech. Just when he seems to make a choice his conscience (thinking) challenges his resolve. He is made sick with thought. And so, he does not choose.[i]
The players play the play within the play. It is The Murder of Gonzago, which just happens to portray the exact method by which Claudius killed his brother. Claudius goes berserk. This confirms his guilt. When Hamlet comes across Claudius praying in his closet, there is no reason to wait. Except, he's praying. Damn. Hamlet decides to wait just in case killing him while he's praying would send him to heaven instead of hell. Of course, the audience knows that Claudius is unable to ask for forgiveness. Double Damn.
So, Hamlet kills Polonius instead. He thought that Uncle Claudius was hiding behind the arras, or so he said. Rather than execution, he gets sent to England. On the way, Hamlet witnesses the army of Fortinbras marching into battle with Poland for a piece of disputed land. Fortinbras, unlike Hamlet, is a good Medieval prince. He’s very much into battle and revenge. He’s been busy settling every slight against Norway. When his uncle, the king, lets him he will revenge his father, Fortinbras’ death at the hands of Hamlet, Hamlet’s father. Fortinbras is in many ways Hamlet’s twin or doppelganger or opposite.
Seeing the two armies massing in battle, Hamlet speaks the soliloquy:
How all occasions inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge. …[ii]
During this speech, Hamlet beats himself up for not acting. His brain has been getting in his way. He compares himself with the armies and Fortinbras below him who are going to war and their death over “an eggshell”. He decides “O, from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth.”
Starting with Hamlet, we became confronted with the consequences of our choices. Hamlet really got this. He is paralyzed with the consequences of his choice. This is the source of modern angst, depression and schizophrenia.
Much of our Modern life is about either predicting the outcome of our choices or shielding us from making them. All of the major fields of study originate with the attempt to predict the future. (even History, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” George Santayana)
Before the final duel Hamlet throws up his hands not knowing what to do.
Not a whit, we defy augury, there is special providence, in
the fall of a Sparrow, if it be, tis not to come, if it be not to come,
it will be now, if it be not now, yet it well come, the readines is all,
since no man of ought he leaves, knows what ist to leave betimes, let be. [V.2.219-224]
He gives up and says: OK, let God, Fate or chance sort it out. To quote another of Shakespeare’s characters:
O time, thou must untangle this, not I,
It is too hard a knot for me t’untie. [iii]
Hamlet does end up killing Claudius and revenging his father’s murder. Along the way he contributes to the deaths of Laertes (his girl friend’s brother), Gertrude (his mother) and himself. Oh, and let’s not forget Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (along with some pirates). Also, he left the kingdom in the hands of Fortinbras of Norway. So much to leaving it up to fate.
As we enter a new era, I can't recommend decisive action over taking a wait and see approach. Our question seems to be the same as Hamlet's: Is life fated or is our existence random? Shakespeare in the back end of this play asked the question that continues to be the twenty-first century’s biggest question.
[i] In the original text the spelling of “sickled” is usually translated into “sicklied” taking the root “sick” could also be read with the root “sickle”, a farm implement for harvesting wheat or grain, also used by Death. Thereby, one’s resolve is cut down as with a sickle by thought.
[ii] The complete text of the speech from the Second Quarto in the original spelling and punctuation:
How all occasions doe informe against me,
And spur my dull revenge. What is a man
If his chiefe good and market of his time
Be but to sleepe and feede, a beast, no more:
Sure he that made us with such large discourse
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capabilitie and god-like reason
To fust in us unusd, now whether it be
Bestiall oblivion, or some crauen scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th'event,
A thought which quarterd hath but one part wisedom,
And ever three parts coward, I doe not know
Why yet I live to say this thing's to doe,
Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and meanes
To doo't; examples grosse as earth exhort me,
Witnes this Army of such masse and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender Prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puft,
Makes mouthes at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortall, and unsure,
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an Egge-shell. Rightly to be great,
Is not to stirre without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrell in a straw
When honour's at the stake, how stand I then
That have a father kild, a mother staind,
Excytements of my reason, and my blood,
And let all sleepe, while to my shame I see
The iminent death of twenty thousand men,
That for a fantasie and tricke of fame
Goe to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tombe enough and continent
To hide thevslaine, ô from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth.
[Internet Shakepeare Edition: http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Annex/Texts/Ham/Q2/scene/4.4]
Interestingly, this speech is not in the First Folio. I have no idea why it was omitted. It could have been that Richard Burbage, the lead actor who originated the role and was principal Sharer in the company, stopped playing the role. The speech was then omitted to shorten the script. Or if Burbage was still playing the role late in his life, he needed a break. From 1599 on, all of the big roles like Lear, Macbeth or Othello take off a sizable chunk of the fourth act. Most people feel as if Burbage, who was growing older and rounder, did the Elizabethan equivalent of putting it in his contract: "I will have the fourth act of every tragedy off." In London during the first part of the last century, many lead actors playing Shakespeare title roles were known to step out to the pub during the fourth act with the actor who got killed in the third act. The lead actor would return refreshed for the final fifth act sprint to the finish. Or properly soused.
[iii] Viola, the Ring speech from TWELTH NIGHT, II.1.40-41.