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Analysis of Hamlet's Soliloquies in Acts I, II, and III

I have a BA History and am a qualified teacher. I have taught History and Religious Education. I am fascinated by early Christianity.

What can we learn from Hamlet's soliloquies?

What can we learn from Hamlet's soliloquies?

Shakespeare's soliloquies give the reader, or the audience, the opportunity to witness what is going on in a character's mind. While these soliloquies are, of course, spoken by the characters, they offer the reader some insight into Shakespeare's concerns about the human condition.

Soliloquies Covered in This Article

  • Act 1. Scene 2: 'Oh that this too solid flesh would melt...'
  • Act 2. Scene 2: 'Now I am alone. O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!...'
  • Act 3. Scene 1: 'To be, or not to be...'

Hamlet's Soliloquy, Act 1. Scene II

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month--
Let me not think on't—Frailty, thy name is woman!—
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body,
Like Niobe, all tears:—why she, even she—
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn'd longer—married with my uncle,
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.

Analysis of Hamlet's Soliloquy, Act 1. Scene II

This soliloquy begins with Hamlet desiring death, saying, 'this too solid flesh would melt', but this desire comes coupled with the fear that God does not condone 'self-slaughter'. This reveals that Hamlet is feeling melancholic. It's possible that he is suffering from depression. Apart from desiring suicide, he also states that he is finding the world 'weary, stale, flat and unprofitable'. This is more proof that Hamlet is depressed. However, depression does not come absent other emotions.

As we read further, we find that Hamlet's depression leads to bitterness and disgust. This is most apparent when Hamlet describes the world as 'rank', 'gross', and 'unweeded'.

Hamlet's growing sense of melancholy and disgust is a result of two horrific events. First, his father, the king, died less than two months prior to Hamlet's soliloquy. Hamlet is grieving for his father, whom he honoured and loved, comparing him to 'Hyperion'.

Second, his mother, who should be sharing his grief, has betrayed his needs and his father's memory. She has celebrated a hasty and unseemly marriage to the old king's brother, Claudius. Hamlet's distress and disgust are illustrated in his comment, 'a beast that wants of reason would have mourned longer'. Here, we see that Hamlet feels as though his mother has sullied his father's memory saying, 'Frailty, thy name is woman'. The matter torments him so much that he can hardly bear to consider it. 'Must I remember?' he asks in desperation, then he says, 'Let me not think on't'.

He is not only shocked and upset by the haste with which his mother has decided to remarry, but he is also disgusted by the husband she has chosen. Because she marries her dead husband's brother, Claudius, Hamlet believes that she is committing incest. Hamlet dislikes Claudius, whom he compares to a 'satyr'. Hamlet despises being called Claudius's 'son'. While he agrees to 'obey' his mother's wishes, he mocks Claudius's irritating comments. It is obvious that Hamlet cannot stomach seeing Claudius in such a high position of power.

It is likely that he may also feel that his own place has been usurped. He has not inherited his father's crown, but rather, it is now worn by Claudius. This renders Hamlet powerless. Hamlet is convinced that this unfortunate situation 'cannot come to good', but feels impotent. How can Hamlet lead his country and honor his father's death when such a malicious buffoon sits on the throne?

He feels depressed, suicidal, fearful, regretful, grief-stricken, angry, disgusted, betrayed, frustrated, confused and impotent. His thoughts are of death and decay. This speech indicates the level of negativity to which Hamlet has fallen. He is haunted by his father's death, tormented by his mother's marriage to Claudius, and infuriated by his inability to change either event.

Hamlet's Soliloquy, Act 2. Scene II

Now I am alone.
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing; no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn'd defeat was made. Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i' the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?
Ha!
'Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal: bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O, vengeance!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion!
Fie upon't! foh! About, my brain! I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds
More relative than this: the play 's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.

Analysis of Hamlet's Soliloquy, Act 2. Scene II

This soliloquy illustrates Hamlet's continued inability to do anything of consequence. He lacks the knowledge of how to remedy the pain caused by his present circumstances, so he wonders how an actor would portray him, saying, '[he would] drown the stage with tears'. One has to assume that this is what Hamlet wants to do, and what he feels his father's death deserves, yet he is unable to respond in this way. He wonders if he is a coward, since he does not 'cleave the general ear with horrid speech' or 'make mad the guilty and appal the free'. He asks, 'who calls me villain?', but the only person speaking is himself. At this point, he is accusing himself of villainy for not speaking on behalf of his dear, recently-deceased, father.

He believes that he must be a 'pigeon-liver'd' coward, lacking 'gall', because he does not do anything about the 'bloody, bawdy villain', Claudius. He wants revenge on his 'remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless', uncle, but he can only complain to himself and accomplish nothing. He criticises his own inaction, calling himself 'scullion', 'whore', and 'drab' for not doing more in respect of his father's death; for saying nothing about a king, 'upon whose property and most dear life a damned defeat was made’; for not killing Claudius and ‘feeding his innards to the kites’.

However, his feelings settle some when Hamlet remembers that a play, reflecting the murder of Old Hamlet, by Claudius, might cause the latter to react in such a way as to prove his guilt. He needs this evidence because he worries that the ghost that he has spoken with could turn out to be 'a devil', luring him, in his weak and melancholy state, to commit a sin against his possibly innocent uncle. The play, which he plans with the acting troupe, will give him the answers that he requires.

Hamlet still feels grief-stricken, frustrated and angry, but his impotent and confused cowardice is being overcome by a belief that he can do something about his situation.

Hamlet's Soliloquy, Act 3. Scene I

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 heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. 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,
The 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 the 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 undiscover'd country from whose bourn
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;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Analysis of Hamlet's Soliloquy, Act 3. Scene I

Hamlet's third soliloquy is the famous 'to be, or not to be' speech. Once again Hamlet is confused and contemplating death. He is wondering whether life or death is preferable; whether it is better to allow himself to be tormented by all the wrongs that he considers 'outrageous fortune' bestowed on him, or to arm himself and fight against them, bringing them to an end. If he were to die, he feels that his troubles, his 'heart-ache', would end. Death is still something that he finds appealing, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished'. Yet, even death troubles him, as to die might mean to dream and he worries about the dreams he might have to endure, 'in that sleep of death what dreams may come'.

He is still contemplating suicide and considers how, by taking one's own life, with 'a bare bodkin', or dagger, one might avoid 'whips and scorns' and other hard-to-bear wrongs. However, he refers to death as 'the dread of something' in the 'undiscover'd country', and this shows that he worried about how his soul might be treated in the afterlife.

He decides that fears concerning the puzzling and 'dreadful' afterlife, together with the conscience, cause people to bear the wrongs inflicted during their life on earth, rather than commit suicide and risk offending God. The fear of arriving somewhere unknown and frightening—possibly the torments of hell—is proof that 'conscience does make cowards of us all'. People, he concludes, tend to think things over, lack resolve and do nothing.

When Hamlet is remarking on such people, he is actually talking about himself. He believes that his uncle is wicked and deserves to die. He believes that it is he who should end his uncle's life. But he is afraid of going to purgatory, as the spirit claiming to be his father has done. He is afraid of risking hell by committing suicide. He is afraid of doing the wrong thing, and is inactive, partly because of his conscience. He is afraid of the potential consequences that his religious upbringing—an upbringing that would have been the norm—claim would come if he commits suicide.

Hamlet continues to feel frustrated and angry in his grief, and his feelings of impotence have returned. Although Claudius's response to the play indicated guilt, Hamlet still does not know what the right thing to do is—right in the eyes of God, that is.

Similarities in Hamlet's Three Soliloquies

All three speeches illustrate a man, confused and wracked by grief, wanting revenge, but not knowing how to go about responding to what has happened. He is uncertain of his own feelings and how to cope with them. He feels weak, melancholic and powerless. He does not know what the right thing to do is, or how to do it. In all three soliloquies, Hamlet is struggling to make sense of his overwhelming grief.

Modern Adaptations of "Hamlet"

AdaptationYear Released

"The Lion King"

1994

"Strange Brew"

1983

"Ophelia"

2018

"Let the Devil Wear Black"

1999

"Khoon Ka Khoon"

1935

"Strange Illusion"

1945

"The Bad Sleep Well"

1960

Great Actors Preforming 'To Be or Not to Be'

Though the words remain the same, I feel that different actors and directors may bring different interpretations, and, of course, different qualities, to the soliloquies.

Some of the greatest actors in the world have portrayed Hamlet, and we are lucky that many of their performances have been recorded. Here are a few of those great performances.

What Is a Soliloquy?

Soliloquy (noun): an act of speaking one’s thoughts aloud when alone or regardless of hearers, especially in a play.

Shakespeare’s soliloquies are written in blank verse of unparalleled variety, invention and rhythmic flexibility. This technique is suggestive of the rapidly changing moods of their speakers. You'll notice that the soliloquies appear when a speaker is on the verge of madness, vengeance, or heartache.

Who Was Shakespeare?

Born: April 1564

Died: April 23, 1616

Spouse: Anne Hathaway

Home: Stratford-upon-Avon, United Kingdom

Bio: Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright and actor, who was widely regarded as both the greatest writer in the English language and the world's greatest dramatist. He is often referred to as England's national poet, or the "Bard of Avon." His works consist of approximately 39 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and a few other verses. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.

Shakespeare produced his works between 1589 and 1613. His early plays were usually comedies and histories. They are regarded as some of the best work ever produced in these genres. After this, until about 1608, he wrote mostly tragedies. These included Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, all of which are considered to be among the finest works in the English language. In the last phase of his life, he wrote tragicomedies (also known as romances). He also began collaborating with other playwrights.

Why Is "Hamlet" Such a Famous Play?

First performance: 1609

Genre: Tragedy

Setting: Denmark

Hamlet has been adapted into, or has inspired, hundreds of other plays, books, and movies. The play has stood the test of time due to its powerful moral themes and its maddening existential questions.

Characters: Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Horatio, Ophelia, Laertes, Fortinbras, The Ghost, Rosencrantz And Guildenstern, Osric, Voltimand And Cornelius, Marcellus And Bernardo, Francisco, Reynaldo

Morality in Hamlet: Throughout the play immoral acts result in death and a cycle of the need for revenge. One character deems avenging his father a moral action and in doing so he creates a cycle of death. Many lives are lost in the pursuit to commit a moral act.

Greek philosophy in Hamlet: On the surface, Hamlet contains the elements of a classic revenge tragedy. However, the themes run much deeper, alluding to philosophical musings by Aristotle and Socrates. The play is like a greek tragic drama wherein a character's tragic flaw causes a catharsis in an audience.

Influence on Existentialism: Hamlet is called to choose and create his identity or essence or self because man, according to existentialism, has no fixed nature. This freedom of choice entails commitment and responsibility. Therefore, he is caused great anguish.

Breakdown of Main Characters in "Hamlet"

CharacterDescription

Ophelia

Ophelia is a character in William Shakespeare's drama Hamlet. She is a young noblewoman of Denmark, the daughter of Polonius, sister of Laertes, and potential wife of Prince Hamlet.

King Claudius

King Claudius is a fictional character and the primary antagonist of William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet. He is the brother to King Hamlet, second husband to Gertrude and uncle and later stepfather to Prince Hamlet.

Polonius

Polonius is a character in William Shakespeare's Hamlet. He is chief counsellor of the king, and the father of Laertes and Ophelia.

Laertes

Laertes is a character in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. Laertes is the son of Polonius and the brother of Ophelia. In the final scene, he kills Hamlet with a poisoned sword to avenge the deaths of his father and sister, for which he blamed Hamlet. While dying of the same poison, he implicates King Claudius

Horatio

Horatio is a character in William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet. Horatio's origins are unknown, although he was present on the battlefield when Hamlet's father defeated 'the ambitious Norway', Fortinbras, and attended Wittenberg University with Prince Hamlet.

Fortinbras

Fortinbras is either of two minor fictional characters from William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet. The more notable is a Norwegian crown prince with a few brief scenes in the play, who delivers the final lines that represent a hopeful future for the monarchy of Denmark and its subjects.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are characters in William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet. They are childhood friends of Hamlet, summoned by King Claudius to distract the prince from his apparent madness and if possible to ascertain the cause of it.

Ghost of Hamlet's Father

The ghost of Hamlet's father is a character from William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. In the stage directions he is referred to as "Ghost". His name is also Hamlet, and he is referred to as King Hamlet to distinguish him from the Prince.

Main Themes in "Hamlet"

  • Madness: Does Hamlet truly go "mad," or is it all an act? What lines of thought are within our control and which are not?
  • Revenge: The play isn't about Hamlet's ultimately successful vengeance for his father's murder at all. Instead, most of the play is concerned with Hamlet's inner struggle to take action. The play is more interested in calling into question the validity and usefulness of revenge.
  • Mortality: From Hamlet's initial confrontation with a dead man's ghost, to the final sword fight and bloodbath, the play is trying to come to grips with just the question: if we all die eventually, then does it really matter who kills us?
  • Lies and Deceit: Hamlet depicts a scandalous political world, where deception is a necessary part of life. It's no wonder why directors seem to think it's infinitely adaptable: deceit isn't limited to one time or place.

Amazing Quotes in "Hamlet"

CharacterQuote

Hamlet

“To die, to sleep - To sleep, perchance to dream - ay, there's the rub, For in this sleep of death what dreams may come...”

Hamlet

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Polonius

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.”

Polonius

“Brevity is the soul of wit.”

Claudius

“One may smile, and smile, and be a villain. ”

Hamlet

“God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another.”

Hamlet

“I must be cruel only to be kind; Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.”

Queen Gertrude

“So full of artless jealousy is guilt, It spills itself in fearing to be spilt."

Polonius

“Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love .”

Hamlet

“To be or not to be that is the question.”

More 'Hamlet' Articles From Trish_M (Tricia Mason):

Comments

Gerald on January 28, 2020:

This play hv helped me in my literature studies... shakespeare was an ultimate genius

manar on December 23, 2018:

Great effort

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on October 04, 2012:

Hi Linda :)

It's amazing that 'Hamlet' can still be so gripping, after several centuries!

Linda Cassini from Las Vegas NV on October 03, 2012:

Oh I love Hamlets writing and am coming back to visit your article for more scenes... :) thnx 4 sharing

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on September 22, 2012:

Hi Music-and-Art-45 :)

Very pleased to have inspired you! :)

I agree with you. 'Hamlet' gives us more with every reading.

Music-and-Art-45 from USA, Illinois on September 21, 2012:

I enjoyed your analysis of Hamlet's soliloquies. I read this play a few years ago, and have been meaning to re-read it since, I think this hub just inspired me. You get something different out of it every time.

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on May 26, 2012:

Hello Anju Arya :)

Thank you.

I am pleased that you enjoyed it and found it helpful :)

Anju Agarwal from India on May 26, 2012:

Great, So much deliverance and so hard work. Really appreciable. I have read a few about Hamlet in school course but now this information will help me in my poetry creation. Thanks a lot my friend.

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on May 17, 2012:

"Thus conscience does make cowards of us all"

Shishunki Miman Okotowari on May 16, 2012:

the undiscovered country from whose bourn

no traveller returns,puzzles the will

amd make us rather bear those ill we have

and fly to others that we know not of?

thus coward does make of us all;

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on October 03, 2011:

Hello Collegatariat :)

Thank you very much for your kind words. I find that there is always something new to discover in 'Hamlet'.

collegatariat on October 03, 2011:

Great analysis! I first read Hamlet when I was fifteen and didn't understand a great deal of it, but this makes me want to re-read it and find all the wonderful nuances that it holds.

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on June 20, 2011:

Hi emichael ~ That's fine! Thank you. I'll post a link to yours!

emichael from New Orleans on June 20, 2011:

Hello again :)

I just finished a Hamlet hub (https://hubpages.com/literature/The-Role-of-Provid... ), and I referenced a few of yours in it. I hope that is OK :)

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on May 24, 2011:

Hi emichael :)

Thank you for your comment ~ and I agree with you. Hamlet is helpless, it seems.

As for King Lear, I haven't read it, yet, I'm afraid, but it sounds really good, and I shall try to read it soon. I think that I would enjoy it.

emichael from New Orleans on May 24, 2011:

Hamlet is one of my all time favorites. I enjoy your examination here. Hamlet's inaction in the play fascinated me when I first read it. You want him to do something-to put some action behind all the things he is feeling. But getting inside his head through these soliloquies, you feel just as stuck as he does. It's amazing what Shakespeare can accomplish with these speeches.

Have you read King Lear? It is my favorite of his tragedies. I'd be interested to see a hub from you on that one.

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on April 10, 2011:

Thank you for that information, Stessily :)

stessily on April 10, 2011:

Trish: I totally agree that David Tennant is a brilliant Hamlet. I admire Derek Jacobi, and I hate to say this but his Hamlet is not one of my favorites; I thought that he was absolutely amazing in Richard III. In fact, I admire the work of all of the above Hamlets, but David Tennant's "to be or not to be" seems to have the most range in it. I think that I would be impressed with Daniel Day Lewis' delivery of that touchstone soliloquy but alas! (I try not to repeat negative information but apparently D D Lewis could not complete the performance because Hamlet's grief over his father's death in the play opened up D D Lewis' grief over the death of his own father and their rather queasy relationship.)

Once again thank you so much for this hub.

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on April 10, 2011:

Hi Stessily :)

I hadn't heard that about D D Lewis.

I thought that David Tennant was a brilliant Hamlet.

stessily on April 10, 2011:

It's interesting in the "to be or not to be" videos to compare the nuanced performances of these highly respected actors. The one performance that I still wish could be recorded would be by Daniel Day Lewis. I've often thought of him as the perfect Hamlet, even though I know that he famously left the stage during that play and never reprised the role.

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on March 22, 2011:

Hello MMPG :)

Thank you for your comment!

Yes, there is always something new in Shakespeare.

And yes, that is, indeed, the question :)

MMPG on March 22, 2011:

Great analysis of the soliloquies. Shakespeare offers such complex and insightful views of humankind--no place better, I think, than Hamlet. One of my favorite speeches is Act 2, Scene 2:

"What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how

infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and

admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?"

What a great question: "what is this quintessence of dust?" We've speculated for so long on this question and its so perfectly phrased here.

Thanks for the hub; always enjoy Hamlet.

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on December 30, 2010:

I took English lit A'level last year and I really enjoyed it. That led to quite a few Shakespeare hubs ~ especially 'Hamlet' ones. :)

Adela Rasta from Dublin, Ireland on December 30, 2010:

Fantastic analysis. My kid is studying Hamlet for her Leavning Cert (Irish equivalent of A Levels) so I will making her read this hub for sure!

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on October 27, 2010:

Thank you cdub77.

I'll take a look at your 'Hamlet' hub ~ sounds interesting! :)

cdub77 from Portland Or on October 26, 2010:

Great analysis of Hamlet. I also liked the inclusion of the video examples. I published a hub today discussing the linguistic creativity of Hamlet. Excited to read more of your literary hubs!