The “to be or not to be” soliloquy in Act 3 Scene 1 is significant in showing Hamlet’s tragic flaw; his inability to decide and inability to take action. The main purpose of this soliloquy is to establish Hamlet as a characteristically reflective, analytic, and moral character which leads to his tragic fall.
In this soliloquy, Hamlet is seen as “the prince of philosophical speculators” (William Hazlitt 1916) as he contemplates suicide and the purpose of existence. This allows the audience to recognize that his actions are not simply reactions to what is going on around him, instead he deeply considers things that prevent him from taking action.
In this soliloquy, Hamlet questions the purpose of existence and whether ‘to be or not to be’. This famous quote is ambiguous and is one of the biggest philosophical questions, it also is significant as the ambiguity reflects the psychological state of Hamlet and makes the audience question his sanity.
The metaphor ‘sea of trouble’ reflects his life and conflicted mind. He continues to think and contemplate the ‘not to be’ option and comparing suicide to ‘sleep’ where all of ‘the heart-ache’ will end in the ultimate sleep. However, he further contemplates showing his overthinking character and his tragic flaws as he looks at the negatives of suicide. He says, “there’s the rub :/ for in that sleep of death what dreams may come”.
The noun ‘rub’ shows that there is a difficulty for suicide and the ultimate pause, as even if death is like sleep, it does not represent an escape from the suffering of existence. Sleep always brings the possibility of unknown dreams and those could be nightmares which are. Worse than bearing the pain and existing.
After listing a list of all the pains and suffering of life which creates a breathless tone, he extends the earlier question of suicide however he immediately counters it with his incoming thought of the “undiscovered country” which is metaphorical for death from which ‘no traveler returns’. This statement sounds straightforward and logical till you remember his father’s ghost.
The audience is forced to either think of the ghost as not a full-fledged return to life as he also did not tell his son about the afterlife or the audience could interpret it as a confirmation that Hamlet’s doubts of the nature of the ghost have grown as it ‘may be the devil’. The second interpretation would be more likely for the Jacobean audience as they had a fear of the supernatural and would’ve considered it the devil playing with Hamlet’s mind.
Therefore, he reaches the conclusion that the unknown is what prevents us from committing suicide and ending all the suffering of existence and that maybe it is better to bear all the ‘ills’ of life that we know of rather than leaving it for something worse. Overall, this soliloquy and hamlet’s questioning of the biggest philosophical question of existence is significant because it is key in reflecting his tragic flaw and overthinking nature, but it also sets up his character as a moral thinker.
Throughout the soliloquy, Hamlet keeps on reaching a conclusion but then counters it again going back and forth. This reflects his overthinking and indecisive character which leads to his tragic fall. During the first part of the soliloquy where Hamlet explores the ‘not to be’ option Hamlet reaches the conclusion that life is too painful and that it would be easier to die but then immediately starts thinking of the consequences and ‘the rub’ of suicide which opens up his question again.
He overthinks and reaches a conclusion once again that we prolong the ‘calamity of so long life’ – ‘calamity’ symbolizing the suffering and anguish of life because the alternative is so dark and unknowable. It is our fear of something worse that keeps us bound to the long ‘calamity’ of life.
The audience here starts to believe that Hamlet reached the conclusion ‘to be’ however he counters it again with a long, breathless list of all the suffering of life which extends his earlier question once more. This continues to show the overthinking nature of Hamlet and as William Hazlitt says that Hamlet ‘is not a character marked by strength of will or even passion, but by the refinement of thought and sentiment’.
He is too much of an emotional character to reach a conclusion. He then returns again to the idea that the unknown prevents us from ending our life and finally reaches the conclusion that it is better to bear all the pain rather than go to the unknown which could be worse. Therefore, this soliloquy is significant in highlighting Hamlet’s tragic flaw of overthinking and indecisiveness.
Finally, after Hamlet reaches his conclusion, he is still left indecisive and he talks about his tragic flaw and inability to take action. As William Hazlitt says about Hamlet that ‘when he is most bound to act, he remains puzzled, undecided …. till the occasion is lost.’
Hamlet discusses overthinking and concludes that ‘conscience does make cowards of us all’ and that the ‘hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’. Here hamlet claims that our ‘conscience’ which makes us overthink is what makes us ‘cowards’ and unable to take action.
He compares decision making to a ‘hue’ which makes us think of something colorful and something desired to the ‘sicklied’ and ‘pale cast of thought’. The image of sick and dim, shadowy image of ‘cast’ reflects how decision-making is weakened by thought. And thus, we postpone action and ‘lose the name of action’ as it is weakened by our overthinking ‘conscience’.
This makes the soliloquy significant as it ends with him discussing his tragic flaws and foreshadows his actions or rather inaction later on in the play and how he misses opportunities to reach his goal due to his overthinking and moral nature.
Overall, Hamlet’s soliloquy is significant as it highlights and establishes the philosophical character of Hamlet and his overthinking nature thus foreshadowing his inability of action later on in the play. Moreover, it makes the audience question Hamlet’s state of mind and whether his ‘madness’ is still an ‘antic disposition’ or he has actually gone mad and is seriously contemplating suicide.