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To live or to die

December 31st, 2007 in Art

The vital question and its approach in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

In doubt, if life has any sense, Hamlet raises the question whether to live or rather to die. He balances the hardships of life against the promises of death for relieve from the pains of the material world. Whatever the decision is, to bear all hostilities or to fight against them, death will be the end. Death is compared with sleeping: The only uncertainties are the dreams that will infest us. Although it could be so simple, just a needle would be enough to enter, but people rather suffer than take a risk in pre-drawing their inescapable fate. Death seems like a new and yet to discover country, from which no traveller ever returns. The strength of purpose grows weak over qualms and regards.

However the answer is, asking this question can only be the beginning of the individual search for a sense in life, never the end. Hamlet himself finds no answers, he even owes the reader the endeavor for solutions, as all events lead to a bitter end. He was imprisoned in his only material view of the world, where everyone consists just of what his body is made of. Every man, even the greatest, would end as dust (Act 5, Scene 1). And nothing to remain? Unfortunately, after an attempt to assassinate him, he stopped to finalize these thoughts and to find a conclusion. Instead of dying the new question was, if and how to satisfy his thirst for revenge by killing his uncle. He put his concerns away and considered thoughts to consist of three quarters cowardliness (Act 4, Scene 4). From now on acting was his maxim.

Finally, even Hamlet himself didn’t dare to commit suicide, as his only goal was vengeance. In that he was successful, for the price of the extinction of his whole dynasty. And in his own last words: The rest is silence.

What remains is the most outstanding and famous soliloquy in the history of theatre and dramaturgy.

The Original, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1:

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 to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them. To die, – to sleep, –
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to – ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, – to sleep; –
To sleep, perchance to dream! Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. …

Further reading:Wikipedia article
full text of the tragedy available at:

Open Source Shakespeare
The Internet Shakespeare Editions
(University of Victoria)
Project Gutenberg
Shakespeare Info

Books:

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