Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

SHAKESPEARE: Hamlet (To Be or Not To Be)

To be, or not to be, that is the question… That’s not just a question; it’s also the most famous line in all of English literature. Shakespeare was good with words. Even though we may not realize it, many of the phrases he invented are still with us today: What's in a name? That which we call a rose; The lady doth protest too much; Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?; Parting is such sweet sorrow; The winter of our discontent; What a piece of work is a man... the list goes on and on. These are all memorable lines. Any of us might have come up with phrases like these. Only Shakespeare actually did it. Such is the power of language.

But language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It has to represent something. In Hamlet’s case language is used as a tool. Hamlet fakes being crazy by saying crazy things. Hamlet tells Polonius that the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams: all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward. By acting crazy Hamlet can insult Polonius, who really is old. And Polonius ponders to himself that Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't. There is indeed a method going on here. Hamlet relates to his more intimate friends that I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw. In other words, Hamlet can turn his “insanity” on and off whenever the mood suits him.

However, there are some things Hamlet can’t just turn on and off whenever he wants. His father is dead, and that bothers him. His mother has quickly remarried, and that seems to bother him even more. Worst of all, Hamlet has seen his father’s ghost and has been warned to take vengeance. In short, emotionally Hamlet is a mess. He can be a fake on the outside but he can’t fool himself about his inward feelings. He’s falling apart. That’s when he has the famous discussion with himself about 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. The question, simply put, boils down to this: is life worth living? Is it worth it to get out of bed every morning and have to face all the trials of life, all the pain and suffering and turmoil that we go through nearly every single day? Is it worth it?

Maybe not. There’s always the temptation to let problems slide; just crawl back in bed and withdraw from the world. Hamlet puts it this way: 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. But Hamlet isn’t talking about a temporary withdrawal from the world. He’s talking about a permanent exit, stage right: To die—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. The problem with death is this: what comes next? How do we know we won’t be headed into something worse than the life we’re leaving behind? Again Shakespeare’s words heighten the meaning of this quest to leave life’s troubles behind: the dread of something after death, The undiscovere'd country, from whose bourn (boundary) 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… Death is that “undiscovered country” from which no man returns; it’s a one-way ticket. In the end words really do mean something. To be or not…


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