Essays

Soliloquy Essay

The dramatists use various elements in their work to grip the audience and deliver certain social messages. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of the most celebrated plays that continues to entertain and impact the public in an indelible manner since 1601, when it was first performed by Lord Chamberlain’s men. Richard Burbage, a revered actor of this time, played the role of Hamlet. Various scholars believe that the famous soliloquy “To be or not to be” delivered by Prince Hamlet in Act 1, Scene 3 carries a hidden and implicit message for the Elizabethan audience. Structurally, the plot of Hamlet resembles the technique of the classical Greek plays. Based on a Norse legend of 1200 AD, it is regarded as one of the oldest and most effective plots in the history of literature. The enigmatic qualities of Shakespeare’s portrayal of the characters and the language used, insinuate the effects of the play on the target audience. Shakespeare has intertwined the famous speech with various allusions to the novelties of his time, exhorting his contemporaries to embrace new experiences; and he also accented some aspects of the English society, inviting the public to meditate on themes like dishonesty.

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The analysis of language used in “To be or not to be” is imperative to see the social and political implications of the speech on the Elizabethan audience when the play was first performed. The paper would discuss the characteristics of Elizabethan audience for which the author wrote the soliloquy, the complicit attributes of Elizabethan age, and the universality of the language used by scrutinizing its various linguistic twists and literary devices.

Shakespeare wrote the speech to deliver a political and social message to the audience of his time. To understand the impact of Hamlet’s words on the public, it is necessary to first understand the kind of society that attended a theatrical performance. Unlike the modernity, the Elizabethan audience was divided in social classes: it consisted of aristocrats as well as pickpockets, seated together in a space that resembled a multi-layered courtyard. Compared to today’s enthusiasts, the Elizabethan viewership perpetuated the view of uncultured and uneducated ruffians. The use of words like “bodkin”, “scorns”, “grunt”, “awry” etc. seem to prove how Shakespeare advocates a violent and colloquial jargon so that the audience is able to relate it with Hamlet’s words.

The speech further mirrors the social, political and economic picture of the 17th century England. While the political backdrop of the royal family captures the attention, Shakespeare has provided the portrayal of hypocrisy and pretence of the power. Hamlet intends to seek revenge from his usurping uncle who killed his father to win the crown and marry his mother. The phrases, “the oppressor’s wrong”, “insolence of office” can be seen as allusions to the portrayal of corruption and debasement of the state’s authority. Moreover, the phrase “undiscover’d country” can be seen as a reference towards various travelling expeditions that were undertaken during that time. Furthermore, with the scientific advancements and development in every sphere and Renaissance at its peak; the humanist view of a man that shapes his own destiny can be inevitably seen when Hamlet meditates about whether to afflict himself for “outrageous fortunes” or end them. The decision lies in the prince’s hands rather than the conspiring Gods. Therefore, Shakespeare appears to be encouraging the audience to reflect upon their power to make a choice for themselves.

This soliloquy fascinates each and every human being as Prince Hamlet appears to be speaking on the behalf of all human beings. In the face of the numerous complexities of the play, the pacific principles adopted by the playwright bear greatest reward for the audience. After Hamlet accidentally kills his lover’s father in his attempt to seek justice, the ensuing tragic situation leaves him with depressing feelings, when he delivers this speech. The line, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all” stirs a deep emotion in every human to reflect upon their mortal ventures and ensuing outcomings. Passages like “mortal coil”, “penchance to dream”, “pangs of despised love” arouse a deep cathartic effect in the mind of the audience. James Hirsh posits that Shakespeare wrote this monologue “to be perceived by experienced playgoers of his time as a feigned soliloquy” (1). At many times, it appears that the soliloquies delivered by the prince are not meant for himself but for his enemies so they begin to doubt the state of his mind. This speech further unleashes the speculative and wavering mindset of Hamlet who has developed an incapacity for any action. His poised yet relaxed condition while talking with an impersonal tone, makes one question if he is only feigning his dilemma or if he really means it. The word “antic disposition” that he uses to refer to his enemies connote some sort of grotesque. Shakespeare may want the perceptive audience is meant to take the cue and understand the broader meaning of the soliloquy.

There is a direct disagreement – to be, or not to be. Hamlet is considering the choice between the two alternatives: to continue existing or to put an end to his sufferings by committing suicide. The impending effect of this dilemma on the Elizabethan audience must have been profound and entrenched. Lord Chamberlain’s men might have worked harder to keep the comparably ruffian audiences’ attention, but essentially the Elizabethan public gathered around Shakespeare’s stage to watch the play for the same reasons as we continue to do 400 years later—to see the full spectrum of human emotions being displayed right on the stage with its inevitable enigma and charm.

Works Cited

Hirsh, James. The ‘‘To be, or not to be’’ Speech: Evidence, Conventional Wisdom, and the Editing of Hamlet. Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 23, 34-62.

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