Soliloquies Never Die
The Timelessness of Classic Characters
There are some literary characters who never seem to grow old. Oedipus continues to remind us that unbending pride—what the ancient Greeks called hubris—is still with us. Othello will not let us forget that jealousy, the “green-eyed monster,” can still take us down. Ibsen’s Nora Helmer from A Doll’s House is still a beacon of feminine independence.
And Hamlet can still send shivers up our spines in his relentless pursuit of revenge, clearly telling us that there are tragic consequences to such an obsessive pursuit.
The timelessness of these characters is not just because they continue to be mirrors of humanity’s universal flaws and aspirations. Often, they leap out on the page or the stage to reveal some nuanced shift away from the predictable psychological traits that many of us could easily identify on a literature multiple-choice exam.
Recently, I went back to a Hamlet soliloquy, his famous “To Be or Not to Be” speech.
For those of us who are still in the classroom engaging students with that speech or have pulled the speech out of the files to give one more shot at it, it appears to be nothing more than a fairly straightforward question and answer: “Should I kill myself or not?”
“The Dread of Something After Death”
In response to that question he merely says to himself, “Well, I’m not sure what ‘dread’ lies in store for me after death” (‘the dread of something after death/the undiscovered Country from whose bourn/No traveler returns’). So, I’ll just continue living my life in spite of the drudgery.”
Hamlet, we must remember, is still a Renaissance character. He has a brief “prick of conscience” in this soliloquy, a conscience telling him not to do himself in, to bear the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” because he is not sure of what potentially horrific punishment would await him on the other side of his mortality.
The Trauma From the Ghost’s Story of Purgatory
When I reread the passage, I was struck by Hamlet’s momentary moral hesitation. He has been informed by his father’s “spirit,” in the form of a ghost, that the king, Claudius, assassinated the prince’s father. The ghost tells him to “revenge this most unnatural act.” Hamlet, the dutiful son, of course, takes on the charge.
There is a side of me that is tempted to question Hamlet’s sincerity, or more aptly, his moral consistency in his soliloquy. He was just visited by the ghost of his father telling him to avenge his assassination. Regicide is not a sin that could, in any way, be labeled “venial.” Yet the prince frets about a potential punishment he would receive from having committed suicide. Hamlet seems like an intelligent “chap,” as the British might say. But logic, of course, has nothing to do with it.
Although he may have had an unconscious conviction that the killing of Claudius would be morally justified, there is also a strong possibility that Hamlet has been totally traumatized by the ghost’s previous hair-raising description of purgatory as his soul burns “in fires,” he tells Hamlet, “Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature/Are burnt and purged away.”
Purgatory was invented by Catholic theologians as a place where souls would be given a second chance to work off their sins, or “burn” them off, if we are to believe the dead King Hamlet. Theoretically, the sins were not egregious enough to warrant eternal damnation.
About the horrors of purgatory, the ghost continues, “I could a tale unfold,” whose lightest word/Would harrow up they soul, freeze thy young blood,/Make they eyes, like stars, start from their spheres/Thy knotted and combined locks to part/And each particular hair to stand on end/Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.”
Shakespeare did not want Hamlet to take the consequences of any his actions lightly. It is fear, I believe, that grips Hamlet’s soul, the fear that he picks up from his father’s “fretful” description of purgatory. It is very possible that he absorbs that fear into his consciousness and then frantically unloads it in his soliloquy as an antidote to his perhaps more natural inclination just to say “to Hell with it” and cash in.
Claudius, the Villain; Gertrude? The Jury’s Still Out
After all, Hamlet, at this point in the play, has a lot on his plate. He’s just been told by his dead father’s ghost that his uncle murdered his father, that Claudius seduced Hamlet’s mother. “With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts,” he tells the prince.
The king makes it clear that Hamlet is to spare his mother, even though the ghost slips in some words of ambiguity about her “seeming-virtue.” (Hamlet and literary critics will continue to mull that one over for a very long time.)
Hell and Purgatory, the Vestiges of Medievalism
I have to say this is the first time I ever caught the connection between the soliloquy and the ghost’s first appearance. The two scenes, it seems to me, are thematically connected because Shakespeare is still steeped in an Anglo/Catholic culture.
It was a culture that did not give up the medievalism of its heritage. Hell and purgatory were part and parcel of the Renaissance Zeitgeist. Shakespeare knew very well that he did not have to ask his audience to suspend their disbelief about the ghost’s “real” presence either. (It is interesting to note that Horatio and the castle guards also see the ghost, giving its apparition even more credibility.)
The Art of the Soliloquy: The Individual and the Universal
On one level, Hamlet is a fictional character inside of a made-up story. On another level, he also belongs to the playwright and the director, both of whom know full well that the character has to be convincing, either as a sympathetic character or as a tortured human being traumatized by his father’s assassination. It is also clear that Hamlet is in a state of grief-stricken rage over his mother marrying Claudius so quickly after the death of the prince’s father.
Soliloquies in Shakespeare have fascinating roles to play in the playwright’s plays. They give us a particular insight into a character. They are also planted in the plays as small sermons, a collection of overarching perceptions about the human condition. The playwright uses many of these soliloquies to convince the audience that a character has something to say to the world, some universal commentary that everyone can identify with.
Hamlet’s List of Humanity’s Complaints
It is very clear that the soliloquy is a personal statement about Hamlet’s fears, fears that could have easily been jump started by his father’s ghost. But it is also a not-so-subtle list of complaints that a servant might make to a master, a union rep to his or her employer, a child to a parent.
But in a much broader sense, they are the universal complaints of a believing culture that puts up with the daily pains of just being in the world. It is a kind of stoic “grin-and-bear-it” speech because, as Hamlet so convincingly tells us, the cure (suicide) and its potentially toxic effect, Hell and damnation, would be worse than the disease of just putting up with life’s troubles.
Like so many of Shakespeare’s soliloquies, the “To Be or Not To Be” speech is one in which Hamlet takes a brief moment to pull back from the revenge narrative in order to put his plight into a broader philosophical statement. And, of course, Shakespeare uses the speech to draw an audience in. He does this by adding a list of “ills” that humans have to deal with in every day life.
It is clear in the speech that just being alive is a “Calamity” of any of a number “Whips and Scorns” we put up with to avoid the alternative.
We certainly get what the poet/playwright means by the “Oppresor’s wrong.” As we are sitting in an audience, who can’t relate to being oppressed by a boss, a relationship, a neighbor, the guy who just cut us off on the Interstate 5, a snarly cashier, some raving internet fanatic full of spleen, or another jihadist’s sound bite about the West being doomed to Hell?
Some of us may think that agonizingly slow court decisions are just a modern Western problem. Or that legislators won’t make up their minds until an election year. Or that juries agonize too much. Or that lawyers are never up to speed on the paper work.
Hamlet seems to be taking the side of his home-grown English audience in excoriating the “Law’s Delay” as just another bar-stool critique of “what’s wrong” with English society. Or with every society for the absence of a speedy trial or for quick justice.
And the “proud man’s Contumely”? Well, there’s enough of that to go around: An arrogant teacher putting us down with a sarcastic remark in a classroom; a haughty coffee-shop conservative with a machine-gun delivered laundry list of complaints against all governments; some power-driven border-patrol worker with an attitude (I live on the Canadian Border), or some religious zealot who exudes a blinding confidence in tautologies?
“The proud man’s Contumely” is paralleled as a sentiment in a later phrase, “Insolence of Office.” Who doesn’t know a Congressman, a judge, or someone recently promoted who doesn’t suddenly morph into a know-it-all?
“The pangs of despised Love”? Shakespeare uses the adjective, “despised,” and purposely places it in front of “Love,” to tell us that the very act of love we put out there is often “despised” (bitterly, almost hatefully rejected). We are humiliated by that rejection. And we walk away feeling the needle-like “pangs” of that rejection.
Anyone who has had a teenager knows how angry the rejection of a parent’s advice can be. That scene can become very, very dark. The feelings of “despised love” are also not poetic exaggerations if we’ve ever had the experience of having to place a parent in a nursing home. Or even the hatred we project on to a partner who wants out of the relationship.
One of the less transparent phrases in Shakespeare’s list of human “ills” is the confusing line, “Spurns/That patient merit of the unworthy takes.”
The preposition, “of” is the stickler here. We have to think of it in the sense of “belonging to” or a “characteristic of” and the phrase begins to open up. It is not unusual, of course, for a Renaissance playwright to put the verb at the end; it is a holdover from Latin prose.
A modern translation would simply be the “spurns that those who wait patiently to be merited take from those who are unworthy of that merit.” The “unworthy,” of course, have no patience and they are always snubbing those who do.
“Spurns” is a beautiful Anglo-Saxon word conveying, like “pangs,” the urgency of the moment and the bee-like stings we experience emotionally every day from those who are proud, oppressive, arrogant, rejecting, abandoned, delaying, or just plain hurtful.
Hamlet’s Fears, a Rationalization For Procrastination
“Conscience does make Cowards of us all,” Hamlet tells us. We won’t do ourselves in because we would rather bear the “ills” of all those pangs and spurns than live our lives in eternal punishment.
Hamlet then goes on to justify his own procrastination in killing Claudius, denouncing his lack of “resolution” because of his moral scruples (“the pale cast of thought”). But they are the scruples of an Anglo/Catholic anticipating what the Roman Catholic Requiem refers to, in spine-tingling language, as the Dies Irae, Dies Illa (Day of Wrath, Day of Mourning) on the final day of judgment.
Five Acts later, of course, he resolves his scruples. But like so many tragedies, the innocent are dragged down into the pit of annihilation along with the guilty. Claudius dies but so too do a host of other characters in their various stages of innocence or redeemable culpability: Ophelia, Polonius, Gertrude, and Hamlet himself
Hamlet Continues to be Forgiven by Audiences
Gertrude’s innocence is still being debated among literary critics and Freudians. But Hamlet, in my judgment, is generally released from moral guilt by audiences who, more often than not, are consistently attracted to his scruples, his interiority, his frenetic loyalty to his dead father, and all of his insights into the plights of humanity.
In the moral landscape of Renaissance England, regicide, no matter how personally justified, would have condemned Hamlet to Hell, if not a public execution. However, Western audiences continue to resurrect the character to prove their compassionate loyalty to him.
In every new viewing of this classic character, audiences continue to be drawn into the character’s moral dilemmas. He may lie on stage as just another fatal victim of his own obsessions, but he will always be resurrected by audiences who want one more chance to fully understand this dark and brooding character.
It is in that resurrection that audiences bring him back to life to give him a second chance to be fully known, and, in that knowing, to be forgiven, one more time for the doubts, scruples, and self-condemnation we all face as part of our humanity.