23 April 2016

Poem of the Week bonus: Shakespeare's birthday (and the 400th anniversary of his death)

The traditional date of Shakespeare's birth is 23 April, a date picked for a number of reasons: the record of his baptism a few days later, the nice coincidence of having England's Poet born on the feast of England's patron St George, and his death on that same date in 1616. In the 400 years since that death, he has become one of the most celebrated, analyzed, scrutinized, performed, and beloved writers in the world, a titanic figure in global culture. During this anniversary month, we've been looking at some passages from plays that can be considered comparatively little-known, at least by Shakespearean standards. But for the anniversary day I thought we'd have what is possibly the most famous speech ever written for the stage, by Shakespeare or anybody else: Hamlet's suicide soliloquy.

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 heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to! 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. 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,
Th' 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 th' 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 traveler 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 pitch and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. – Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia! – Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, scene 1, ll 56 - 89

This soliloquy comes from Act III, the center of the play, but its questions of identity and existence and how to live life are signaled in the very first line of the play: Who's there? Even before his father's ghost arises to order Hamlet to revenge him (an order that does not take him by complete surprise: O my prophetic soul!), the prince was struggling with deep melancholy and despair leading him to thoughts of suicide; in his first soliloquy (Act 1, scene 2, starting at l 129) he says: O that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter. . . . Solid is the most widely accepted reading there, though some editors go with sullied; even the text of Hamlet is indeterminate, filled with multiple possibilities based on various early copies, and of course either reading might contain a punning reference to the other, suitable for a character whose first two lines (A little more than kin, and less than kind and Not so, my lord; I am too much in the sun) involve ambiguous playing with words. I do prefer solid in the first soliloquy, because it plays off melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew in a way that sullied does not. Already we see a certain disgust with the flesh and a desire for dissolution (dissolution in the sense of dissolving and breaking down; Hamlet, with his strictures on drinking and make-up and his revulsion against his mother's sexual appetites, fights against the dissipation kind of dissolution). Resolve itself into a dew: resolve can mean to break down into basic elements, but it also can mean to decide firmly on a course of action, and dew plays off of do: that is, on the surface Hamlet is wishing his body would simply dissolve into something like the morning dew (suggesting a wish for his tired self to turn into something of morning freshness), but below the surface he's saying he wishes he could make a firm decision to act: the action with which he is most comfortable is the not-quite-action of thinking, speculating, wondering (hence the importance of his soliloquies, which are Hamlet thinking out loud); for Hamlet, action is linked with the outside world and with the loss of self, yet action is necessary for him as both a prince and a man. Constant anxiety on both these questions troubles him throughout the duration – the action – of the play.

These themes surface again in this soliloquy. His analytical mind breaks the question of existence into two simple and opposite terms: to be / not to be. You can be, which is a state of existence that may or may not include action, but would include thought (Hamlet anticipates Descartes's I think, therefore I am), or you can not be in that state (so despite his reverence for the Everlasting and His prohibitions against self-slaughter – because to end your own life is to give in to despair, and to despair is to give up on God's grace, and, in the Christian tradition, despairing of grace is the ultimate sin against the Heavenly Father – Hamlet comes close here to atheism and denial of an eternal soul, though he will soon retreat from this particular way of despairing). Of course, Hamlet being, inevitably and inextricably, Hamlet, he immediately complicates the question he has so elegantly simplified. It's not a matter of mere existence, but what is nobler – not more pious or dutiful, not more conducive to contentment, not wiser, certainly not easier – but nobler, an interesting term that hearkens back to his anxieties about the proper and appropriate behavior for a prince and a man. And, again, Hamlet being Hamlet, he asks what is nobler in the mind, since the mind, not the outside world, is where, for him, the truly significant actions take place (the phrase the mind's eye comes from this play – Act I, scene 2, l 185). What he sees outside of his mind is mostly painful, an existence in a world filled with suffering, and he asks whether anyone should suffer (which includes the sense of allow) the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune – Fortune, the goddess spinning her wheel to determine who's up and who's down, who personifies the arbitrary and unjust chance that rules the world, as opposed to self-controlled thoughtfulness, the thinking that, Hamlet will declare, of itself and on its own makes things either good or evil.

The alternative to such suffering is to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them. The suggestion here seems to be that one actually can battle against troubles, and win just by fighting back – in this case, presumably by killing oneself, which is an odd way of fighting back. The phrase to take arms sounds very active, but given its place in the balanced expansion and examination of to be or not to be, this is the not to be part, so the recommended action is essentially a negation, one aimed at oneself, which Hamlet apparently sees as the only effective type of action, putting an end to the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to (again, we see the discomfort with the flesh, and Hamlet is haunted by the sense of being an heir, a son and a prince). But Hamlet's metaphor betrays itself: even the most heavily armored man cannot fight against the overwhelming ocean; the image brings to mind the famous tale of King Canute illustrating the limits of an earthly king's powers by ordering the rising and indifferent tide to roll back. A sense of the futility of action is built into even his urges towards resolution.

Hamlet tries to reassure himself that to die is the same as to sleep, but then his fertile and even fevered brain immediately expands on the possibilities inherent in his winding thoughts: if to die is to sleep, then to sleep is also to dream, and the unknown and indeterminate dreams of death might be more fearful than nightmares and also, unlike the dream that is life, everlasting. Action always brings unintended consequences, and to the troubled and depressed young prince that uncertainty is the only reason anyone puts up with the certainty of injustice, pain, rejection, and weariness in this mortal life. That is what puzzles the will (bewilders and confounds our strength and resolve): the mysteries of that undiscovered country, which is death: bear in mind that this play was written during a great age of European voyaging, and the thought of men setting out for "undiscovered" countries and never being seen or heard from again was a very real thing for the audience. Also, Hamlet, possibly led astray or wandering off as he follows his twisting path of speculation, is forgetting that he has in fact had a visitor from that country: the ghost of his Father, who has told him that though he is forbidden to describe the afterlife to the living, it is a scene of horror, at least for him. Hamlet repeatedly doubts and then believes in the Ghost; in this speech, filled with ennui and disgust at life and himself, he may have slipped back into thinking that the apparition was some evil spirit and not what remains of his admired Father.

He ends by rebuking himself again for his tendency to think rather than act: conscience makes us, not strong and resolute, but cowards; the native hue of resolution is made sickly and pale through overthinking. Cowardice, sickly, pale: these are in line with Hamlet's other scornful terms for himself. His great compliment to his Father is: he was a man (that is, a man, an ideal man, a "real" man); in denigrating his uncle he says that Claudius is no more like his Father than Hamlet is like Hercules (the demigod personification of masculine perseverance and, especially, strength), ranking himself with the despised Claudius as an unworthy man. He calls himself pigeon-livered and compares himself to a whore, a drab (also a whore), and a stallion (a male whore, though an alternate reading is scullion, that is, a low-class kitchen wench) – and those are just a few terms, and from only one speech (which begins with the self-loathing line O what a rogue and peasant slave am I) – further examples can be found throughout the play of Hamlet's denigration of his own masculinity and hence his suitability for playing the role he is fated to play in the world. (This strain in him may explain his fairly nasty treatment of the "waterfly" Osric at the end of the play; Osric is usually played as a flamboyantly effeminate man, though I think it would be more accurate to play him as affected and overly fashionable rather than stereotypically queeny; after all, he is made the judge of the fencing match, suggesting at least some traditionally masculine expertise.)

Hamlet's great strength is speculative thought, but his role as prince, as wronged son and heir, as revenger, calls for a very different type of man, one like the more resolute Laertes or the soldierly Fortinbras, who ends the play by marching in, taking over, and declaring, with a sublime sense of what needs to be said and an equally sublime indifference to what has actually taken place, that Hamlet should be carried off in state like a royal soldier: Hamlet, whose great strength proved to be a great weakness in the haunted court of Elsinore.

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