Analysis of Hamlet's Soliloquies in Acts I, II, and III
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 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!
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?
'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!
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,
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 his 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 consequences that his religious upbringing—an upbringing that would have been the norm—have instilled in him.
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.
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.