Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Analysis of Act III, Scene 1

Act III, Scene I contains perhaps the most famous line not only in all of Shakespeare, but in all of English literature: “To be or not to be.” This line opens Hamlet’s exploration of suicide not as a personal choice – he never says “I” or “me” – but as a philosophical debate.

What is striking about this speech is that Hamlet is alone. In plays, characters commonly say something other than what they mean to other characters, but in these situations they are consciously hiding their motives. Here, Hamlet is alone – but he appears to be saying something other than what he means. By doing this, Shakespeare manages to give his audience a glimpse not into Hamlet’s conscious, hidden motives, but into his subconscious. In a sense, we are hearing a message Hamlet is not aware of himself.

Even when Hamlet interacts with other people, however, his motives are not always clear. When he converses with (or, more accurately, yells at) Ophelia, the audience knows he is not fully insane. Thus, we think we know more than Claudius or Polonius, both of whom think Hamlet really is mad, albeit for different reasons. But whether we assume Hamlet means what he says to Ophelia or that he doesn’t, his statements to her don’t make sense. Is it true that he loved her once, or true that he never loved her at all? If he really does love her, he destroys his chances of ever having a relationship with her by treating her cruelly in this scene, and he fails to make Claudius suspect him any less – if anything, Claudius now suspects him more. In this scene, Hamlet seems not so much crazy as emotionally fickle or immature.

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