To Be Or Not To Be ” To be, or not to be .. ” Prince Hamlet, Hamlet, III, i, 105 The most notable line by Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is ” To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Hamlet’s statement defines the central theme of the play and provides the reader with insight into Hamlet’s psychological dilemma. His self-inquiry is a projection of what will occur in the play. Again and again, Shakespeare brings us back to Hamlet’s plight: can he act or is he paralyzed by cowardice? Throughout the play Hamlet is unable to come to a concrete resolution of avenging his father’s death, whether to kill Claudius, and reconciling himself to his mother marrying his uncle. Hamlet’s indecisive personality determines how he deals with these issues.
At the very outset of the play, Barnardo sets the stage by posing the question “Who’s there?” (I,i,3) Little does the reader know at this time that this question will be repeatedly asked in different forms throughout the play. Who is Hamlet? And does Hamlet really know who he is himself? Will the “real” Hamlet step forward and be a decisive and righteous avenger of his father’s death or will he be a timid and irresolute fumbler unable to make up his mind about matters of life and death? Before Hamlet poses the identity-defining “To be or not to be” question, the ghost of his late father confronts him (III,i,105). His father’s spirit informs Hamlet that: “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life/Now wears his crown” (I, v, 35-39). Hamlet is now cognizant that his father’s life was not taken by a wild beast, but by his own brother Claudius. . The strange appearance of his father’s ghost should have been enough to motivate Hamlet to action.
But Hamlet’s indecisive nature causes him to hesitate and satisfy himself through investigation that Claudius was his father’s murderer and usurper of his mother. If Hamlet had acted impulsively (as many would have done), Shakespeare would have deprived us of a psychological tragedy. But Hamlet’s wrestling of his conscience provides the vehicle for establishing Claudius’s guilt and allows Hamlet to resolve his internal struggles. Hamlet is so indecisive that he is not certain how to go about avenging his father’s death. Hamlet must resolve this divided intentions regarding his father, uncle and mother and his intense emotional turmoil before he is able to act to avenge his father’s death.
One can see how incredibly weakly Hamlet behaves by measuring the time before Hamlet can establish even a plan of action. Hamlet is faithful I his pledge to his father, yet he procrastinates until, by chance a group of players come to Elsinore. Upon arrival Hamlet excitedly greets them, “Gentlemen, you are welcome to Elsinore” (II, ii, 384). Continuing to wait for the “perfect” situation confirming Claudius’ guilt is another instance illustrating Hamlet’s psychological timidity. Hamlet may be anticipating a moment of truth that will never happen.
Although Hamlet’s plan of re-enacting the death of his father is a good idea, the promise of revenge took place long after Hamlet swore his revenge against Claudius in act one. Hamlet is afraid to take his own initiative and can only act when a convenient situation is ready-made. He cannot act on his own convictions or make the decision to act or not to act on his own. As a weak personality with strong intentions, he can only act when all the circumstances are in his favor. At the core, Hamlet is indecisive and a coward unable to act in critical situations.
Hamlet is presented with the opportunity to kill Claudius in the chapel, but instead decides to wait for a better time to avenge his father’s death. As Hamlet dangles the sword over Claudius he muses to himself, “And am I then revenged/ To take him in the purging of his should, / When he is fit and seasoned for his passage? / No” (III, iii, 74-96). But delay and procrastination do not work to his advantage. Although Hamlet has the intention of killing Claudius at this moment, he hesitates again and gives a lengthy speech to himself. This self-analysis is inadequate. All Hamlet can do is analyze his predicament.
AS much as he strongly believes that his father’s death must be redressed, he cannot take definite response. If he truly had the desire and will to accomplish his objective, he would have used the opportunity to achieve this specific task. Hamlet does not create a situation in which he can assassinate Claudius, but again he chances upon the defenseless King. Even when the situation appears right he cannot act. He is a coward psychologically torn into pieces of inaction. Hamlet tries to rationalize why he will not kill the king, ” Now might I do it pat, now a is a-praying,” (III, iii,73). Unfortunately, Hamlet’s rationalizations about why he cannot seize the moment exacerbate his cowardice and inability to take a definite course of action.
Hamlet’s inability to kill Claudius in the chapel is another example of Prince Hamlet’s irresolute manner and cowardly behavior. He is not mature enough to form and create opportunities to attain the ultimate goal for which he strives and plans. Lastly, when Hamlet does kill Claudius, it a chance incident that cannot be appreciated by Hamlet because he too is fatally injured. Hamlet is pitted against Laertes in duel, which Claudius deviously thinks up. Hamlet is to be killed by a sword with poison at the tip and then “If he by chance escape your venomed stuck, Our purpose may hold there” (IV,vii, 158-160).
During the duel, three main events occur: 1. Gertrude accidentally drinks the poisonous cup intended for Hamlet and proclaims to the world, “The drink-the drink-I have been poisoned!” (V, ii, 282); 2. Laertes and Hamlet are both fatally injured by each other during the duel. Horatio says that they “bleed on both sides.” (V, ii, 280,283); and 3. before Hamlet can die, Hamlet kills Claudius telling him to “drink off the potion” that killed his mother as well (V, ii, 301-305).
When Hamlet kills Claudius, it is his final act before he dies. One can infer that had Hamlet not been presented with an opportunity to kill Claudius before his own death, then Hamlet would have never avenged his father’s death. Had Laertes killed Hamlet in the duel, as planned, Hamlet would not have been able to wound and poison Claudius. Hamlet fortunately was provided with the chance to kill Claudius and ultimately seized the moment. This demonstrates that Hamlet’s actions capitalize on chance happenings, while he really lacks the maturity and ambition to create his own opportunity to vindicate his father’s death.
In sum, Hamlet is an indecisive character who is unable to act on impulse or take initiative to achieve what he wants. He chances on situations that force him to put his thoughts into action. This trait of only acting when other events force decisions illustrates Hamlet’s weakness and inability to kill King Claudius even when given an opportune moment. This indecisive weakness of resolve can be summed up in the pensive thought “to be or not to be.” This is the ultimate question of “Who is there?” that underscores the indecision that plagues Hamlet throughout the play. This character flaw ultimately leads to his own demise.