As promised, at last, is my scandalous, blasphemous post. It is potentially so scandalous and blasphemous, that I may very well be taken to Stratford to face the Shakespeare Inquisition, where I will be burned at the stake for heresy.
Last Friday I watched David Tennant’s Hamlet (review forthcoming) and what struck me most was the famous soliloquy. As I watched the film, I had a thought that I had never thought before, or had never allowed myself to think.
What on earth is the “To be or not to be” speech doing in the play?
All of Hamlet’s other famous soliloquies are essential to the story of the play. “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt” tells the audience that Hamlet is very hurt, not simply by the death of his father, but by his mother’s “o’er hasty marriage” to his uncle, and that he considers this union to be incestuous. “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” tells of Hamlet’s plan to stage the Murder of Gonzago to determine whether or not Claudius really killed Old Hamlet. Even Hamlet’s soliloquy after meeting Fortinbras’ army directly references the army, and thus squarely placing it within the world of the play.
“To Be Or Not To Be” is different. With the exception of the end of the soliloquy (“Soft you now, the fair Ophelia,”) there is no reference to the world of the play within it. Hamlet contemplates suicide from a totally abstract, philosophical way. It’s divorced from Hamlet’s own predicament. Among the struggles Hamlet’s lists “the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong” he never mentions murder, incest, betrayal, lack of trust in friends, moral dilemmas, the very issues of the play itself. Furthermore, once Hamlet resolves not to commit suicide, he never mentions this moment again. He never tells Horatio that he was thinking about suicide. He is never again attempted to commit suicide.
In truth, this abstract, reasonable way of thinking about a very painful, frightening subject is partly what gives this speech its power.
However, here’s the rub.
Hamlet, the play, is about four hours long uncut. It is rarely, if ever performed unedited. Some productions, including the David Tennant one, cut the last scene where Fortinbras arrives at Denmark (a mistake, which I will explain in another post.). Every director who decides to direct Hamlet must decide, “Do I perform an unedited Hamlet?” and in most cases, the answer is no. The next question is, “What do I cut?”
Now comes the blasphemy. I imagine what I would say if a director came to me and asked me “What parts of Hamlet should I cut?” If Hamlet was any other play, and “To be or not to be” was any other speech, I would say, “Consider cutting the ‘To be or not to be’ speech.”
Here’s my reasoning. When cutting a play, or adapting a book, the primary goal is to keep the most essential parts of the story, the plot, and the theme. Hamlet’s temptation to suicide is not, strictly speaking, central to the dilemma of the play. A person could, in my opinion, read the play without the “To Be or Not to Be” speech and still come away with a good understanding of Hamlet. In contrast, I could not cut “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” without compromising a person’s understanding of the basic action of the play. The reader or audience member would no longer understand why Hamlet stages a play for his uncle.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that this speech should be cut, and I’m certainly not saying that the speech’s stature in English literature is undeserved. It most certainly is. But the speech is not a poem, written to stand alone. It has a context, and its context is Polonius and Claudius observing Ophelia and Hamlet to see if Hamlet is in love with Ophelia. Also, the last time the audience saw Hamlet, he had a very well thought out plan for determining his uncle’s guilt. Why, at that moment, does Shakespeare give us Hamlet’s philosophical musings about suicide?
I am simply asking why the speech is in the play.
That is the question.