You are on page 1of 11

"To Be and Not to Be" the Archetypal Form of Hamlet

Author(s): Harvey Birenbaum

Source: Pacific Coast Philology, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Jun., 1981), pp. 19-28
Published by: Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association
Stable URL: .
Accessed: 01/06/2011 18:10

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at . JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless
you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you
may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.

Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at . .

Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed
page of such transmission.

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of
content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms
of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and
extend access to Pacific Coast Philology.


It is a curious fact, not unnoted, that, though Hamlet has often

been consideredthe intellectual'stragedy and a monumentto meditative
thought, it is a highly theatrical piece of action, often violent, expres-
sing continual anxiety, frustration, and passion. Commentaries have
run off in hundreds of directions tangentially, following thoughtful
observationsabout the hero's thoughtful peculiarities, yet the structure
of the play is a rather simple pattern that conveys the significance
appropriateto high tragedy in the way it is always conveyed, through
a complexof feelings evolving.
The play has been discussed before in terms of a three-part move-
ment. The first part, coterminous with Act One, is the exposition of
Hamlet'spredicament.He confronts the ghost, comprehendshis mission,
and reacts to it, finding himself locked in a state of repulsion and
The time is out of joint. O cursedspite,
That ever I was bornto set it right!
The second part is the prolonged period when Hamlet does not kill
the King but does many other things instead while haunting the
1 This discussion is extracted from a chapter on Hamlet in an unpublishedbook,
TheArt of OurNecessities.
20 ToBe andNot ToBe

court of Denmark. The third part, from our Act IV, scene vi, consists
of Hamlet's return and the culmination of his destiny. His state is
now the poise of integratedstrength:"thereadinessis all."
At the end of Part One, Hamlet has undertakena commitmentto a
voice from the absolute, which has spoken to him personally from
beyond death and from beyond the scope of conscious, rational, and
pragmatic consideration, from beyond the grasp of Horatio's, of our,
"philosophy."It has come as a friend and father, claiming an obligation
to mortality. But as Hamlet realizes the necessity of this commitment,
he realizes also its sense of impossibility. Part One ends with repulse
from life abruptly felt and solidly voiced. Part Three begins with this
negative field overcome,or reversed.The questionremains,what happens
through Part Two? Most interpretations of the play do focus on this
problem in an inverted form: why does nothing happen, why doesn't
Hamlet kill the King? On a deeper level, however, positively put, the
question is arguably the most important in the world: How do we get
from No to Yes? What is the relation between to be and not to be?
Surely it is not a matter of simple choosing but a problemto be worked
out naturally through a dramatic process. Through Part Two, Hamlet
is busily doing what he should be doing, and the process carries us
where we need to be going with him, so that the end comes as no sur-
prise to us but as the only consummationto be wished.
The plotting of Part Two consists of an intensely played duel
between Claudiusand Hamlet. The king sends forth agents, extensions
of his power, to encounter Hamlet and expose him: first Ophelia, then
Gertrudeand Polonius, then Rosencrantzand Guildenstern,and finally
Laertes. A look at the early Hamlet stories in Saxo Grammaticusand
Belleforest, the sources of the Ur-Hamlet play which Shakespeare
apparently has adapted, makes clear the folkloric structure-a cycle
of testing ordeals-which remains in Shakespearebeneath the psycho-
logical sophistication. Saxo's hero, Amleth, whose genius is the crafty
daring of the traditional Trickster combined with a preternatural
degree of honesty, has been playing a highly sustained game of lunacy
by asserting cryptic truths that his companions cannot penetrate.
According to folkloric logic, his trickery can be dealt with only by
countertricks, so the king, Feng, first has Amleth beset with a girl,
the charmingly crude prototype of Ophelia, in order to challenge his
Pacific CoastPhilology 21

Some people, therefore,declaredthat his mind was quick

enough, and fancied that he only played the simpleton in
order to hide his understanding,and veiled some deep
purpose under a cunning feint. His wiliness (said these)
wouldbe most readily detected, if a fair woman were put
in his way in some secludedplace, who shouldprovokehis
mind to the temptationsof love; all men's naturaltemper
being too blindly amorousto be artfully dissembled,and
this passion being also too impetuous to be checked by
cunning. Therefore, if his lethargy were feigned, he
wouldseize the opportunity,and yield straightwayto vio-
lent delights.2
Amleth is left to encounter the girl alone in the forest, but a loyal
foster-brother,only vaguely Horatio's original, warns him of the trap
through an unlikely symbolic message. This trap having failed, "a
friend of Feng, gifted more with assurance than judgement,"proposes
Amleth should be closeted alone with his mother in her
chamber;but a man shouldfirst be commissionedto place
himself in a concealedpart of the room and listen heed-
fully to what they talked about .... But Amleth had his
antidote for the treachery.Afraid of being overheardby
some eavesdropper,he at first resorted to his usual im-
becile ways, and crowed like a noisy cock, beating his
arms together to mimic the flapping of wings. Then he
mountedthe straw and began to swing his body andjump
again and again, wishing to try if aught lurked there in
hiding. Feeling a lump beneath his feet, he drove his
swordinto the spot, and impaledhim who lay hid.3
Returning to his mother, who is lamenting his folly, he berates her
for "embracing with incestuous bosom thy husband's slayer, and
wheedling with filthy lures of blandishment him who had slain the
father of thy son."4
Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. V, edited by Geoffrey
Bullough(London& N.Y., 1973), p. 63.
s Bullough,p. 65.
4 Bullough,pp. 65f.
22 ToBe andNot ToBe

Feng's third attempt to trap Amleth is more severe, for Amleth must
now be killed without letting the young man's mother or grandfather
learn of the king's responsibility for the deed. The Prince is sent to
Britain, accompaniedby retainers carrying instructions that he is to be
slain, and Amleth alters the letter. Before he actually kills the king,
Amleth plays a fourth trick. Arriving home from England to discover
his own last rites being celebrated in the banquet hall, he gets all
the assembled courtiers feeble with drunkenness, brings the wall
hangings down upon them, and burns the palace. This whole maneuver
is replaced in the play by the duel with Laertes, another trap laid by
the king which is boundto recoiluponhim.
Shakespeare'sversion is in each instance far more refined than Saxo's,
yet happily it has not lost all of the original extravagance. We are
still given, in Hamlet, a heroic impetuosity that is indifferent to a kind
of moral delicacy. What is more to the point, we still have the series
of tests, made in fact more complex, and its significance remains
basically the same. Claudius tries to trap Hamlet in a climactic series
of encounters, with no explicit concern at first for what he will do
afterwards.Fromeach encounter,Hamlet emerges stronger,and he finds
himself one step closer to the King himself. As Laertes falls, accusing
Claudius, the King and the Prince are ready to meet face-to-face
in the mutual death which marks the ultimate failure of the one
and the ultimate successof the other.
In the meantime, Hamlet has also countered Claudiuswith his own
test, the play of 'The Mouse trap."This also serves no direct practical
purpose. Hamlet has no reason to doubt the ghost's veracity: his
rationale is unconvincing, rather like an afterthought, serving merely
to give the impression that there is some logical reason. The whole
device, furthermore,leads Hamlet nowhere except to the closet scene
and a voyage toward England. But dramatically, rhythmically, the
device weakens Claudius and strengthens Hamlet. We are exhilarated
for Hamlet as we watch the King's discomfiture. Besides the crime
depicted, the very artificiality of the playlet serves as an accusing
metaphor.A player-kingsits upon the throne of Denmark.Emotionally,
'The Mousetrap"is a dress rehearsal for the actual kill, a preparatory
step that will make the real confrontation all the more climactic.
It is an advance in the combat between the two men, also, on the
level of communication.Though they must still fight without direct
Pacific CoastPhilology 23

acknowledgement,there is an understandingnow between them. What

Claudius could not extract from Hamlet, Hamlet has hurled in his
face. I know that you know that I know.
As Hamlet refrains from killing the King supposedly at prayer, we
sense that he has more power over him (as he, in effect, claims)
than he would gain by stabbing. Each time Claudiusattempts to check
Hamlet (in the sense of a chess game), Hamlet captures the King's man.
Each time, he responds with spontaneous violence which augments
progressively. He sacrifices Ophelia, killing something in himself
as well - his last hope of a liveable life. His silent performance
in her sewing closet, as she all-too-willingly reports it, seems a
powerful effort to absorb his pain by exposing it - the principle
of crucifixion. However, he is also beginning to cut her off with a
violence directed as much against his own sensibilities as hers. Then
he kills her father (assuring, moreover, her destruction) in a mistake
that yet feels like an achievement because it drives Claudius to still
more desperate ends and raises Hamlet emotionally to a further degree
of power.
Having killed Ophelia psychologically and Polonius accidentally,
Hamlet kills Rosecrantzand Guildensterndeliberately and by cunning,
rebounding from his own closest brush with death, alone on the high
seas. He also "kills" Gertrude emotionally in the closet scene, when
he discloses the truth about her two husbands.Her death, in this sense,
is only confirmed or completed at the end when she drinks the poison
meant for him. None of these victims is evil in the way that Claudius
is (through the calculated destruction of others for one's own advance-
ment and self-protection), yet they all have the responsibility of
unconscious complicity. To some extent, they all have made love to
their employment, in the convenient existence where no questions
are askedand "seems"seems sufficient.
As he takes his victims, however, advancing himself thorugh their
deaths, Hamlet accrues responsibility. He is implicating himself deeper
and deeper into death, immersing himself gradually into mortality -
until he is dead. The side of life that has repelled him utterly -
and that is fully grotesque - engages him. He submits to the reality
of "non-being"and embraces it as he experiences it issuing directly
from his own actions, from his own substance. It should be no disparage-
ment to say that these acts of violenceare all impulsiveand unplanned:
24 ToBe andNot ToBe

Ourindiscretionsometimeserves us well
When our deep plots do pall, and that shouldlearn us
There'sa divinity that shapesour ends,
Rough-hewthem how we will. (V,ii,8-11)5
Would we respect Hamlet more if he were to walk in on Claudius
cold-bloodedlyand strike him dead at a planned moment? A Laertes
or Fortinbras could do that, but something more, something less
successful, is required of Hamlet. Efficiency is not a tragic value,
because survival is not the goal. The hero's action must grow out of
his feeling, as the limbs of a tree grow from the trunk. They must
be organicallycoherent,expresseionsof immediateexperience;they must
be dramaticallymeaningful. As Karl Jaspers writes of Hamlet, he must
be "at one with this own violence."6Thus the manner of his own
death is far more than a disaster consequent upon his hesitation.
It is the process by which the hero blends into his destiny, achieving
a tragic fulfillment.
The progressivecycling of the plot in Hamlet dramatizesthe deepen-
ing involvementwith life mortally.Another level of the same process is
enacted subjectively, primarily through the soliloquies. We are used to
thinking of them as meditationpieces or as symptomsof the Elizabethan
disease of melancholy, which retard the action by rationalizing its
supposed paralysis. But following the cyclical logic of myth and
tragedy, the way from No to Yes is necessarily down into No: the
way out is in. The soliloquies and the running current of Hamlet's
feelings - expressed in conundrums,.jibes, and asides - carry
him deeper into that state of tortured disgust with his being that
surfacedclearlyat the end of Part One.
The soliloquies are all exercises in self-laceration,probingthe nerves
of Hamlet's self-hatred with merciless intensity. Who calls him coward
and villain, breaks his pate across, gives him the lie i' the throat
as deep as to the lungs? No one but himself - and various critics
Quotations from Hamlet follow the Signet edition, edited by Edward Hubler
(N.Y., 1963).
Karl Jaspers, Tragedy is Not Enough (Archon Books reprint, Hamden, Conn.,
1969),p. 64.
Pacific CoastPhilology 25

who confuse feelings with facts. The soliloquies are a dramatic activity
and the projection of a state of mind. They complement Hamlet's
advances against Claudiuswith their emotional equivalent, an advance
into the essential psychic pain of the self turned bitterly against
itself. Although the situation is grotesque, it is enormously pathetic.
It is the unconscious center, we may suspect, of all tragic feeling.
Exploringthe structureof such feeling without masochistic pleasurebut
with a profoundand curioushonesty, even with ingenuousness,Hamlet
achieves a paradoxicalstature exactly where the ego least expects it,
in the deathlikefeelings of impotence,nausea,and despair.
In the "soliloquyof the question," "To be, or not to be," Hamlet's
concern for a life after death can be understood in neither Christian
nor Stoic terms. We understand it only in terms of the state of
mind that he projects in the speech itself. His concern is for a living
dread, in this world, which puzzles the will, projectingonto the afterlife
the very feeling about life he is trying to escape from, "the heart-
ache, and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to." The
feelings that we fear to dream are the feelings we already have.
What Hamlet would dream in eternal sleep is his own weary self-
disgust and the bitterness to be.
The concluding passage of the soliloquy should be read with an
emphasisthat carriesthe force of his feelings forwardinto an appropriate
Thusconsciencedoes makecowardsof us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sickliedo'erwith the pale cast of thought,
And enterprisesof great pitch and moment,
With this regardtheir currentsturn awry
And lose the name of action. (III,i,83-88)
It is not an eccentric berating his peculiarities or an invalid lamenting
his disease, but a focal character acting as the voice of the play,
moving from his own symbolic experience into a truth that embraces
us all, the truth of a "cowardice"that is our common tragic plight.
'Thought" is not intellection, "conscience"is not moral qualms; both
are equivalent terms for what Hamlet has just been doing - thus -
for the experience of the "dread"that is his own feeling about his
mortal life. The terms are defined dramatically by the speech, in
26 ToBe andNot ToBe

fact by the whole play. Similarly, the famous passage in the soliloquy
on Fortinbras (IV,iv,32ff.) about the "cravenscruple / Of thinking too
precisely on th'event"should be read in terms of "thinkingtoo precisely
on th'event a thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom
and ever three parts coward,"the problem being not the manner of
thinking but the "thought," which is the experience of fear itself.
Even so, Hamlet's sentence moves beyond this explanation of his state
to rest upona more solid certainty:
I do not know
Why yet I live to say, "Thisthing'sto do,"
Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means
To do't. (43-46)
What is most important for us is that we sense dramatically,by what
Hamlet does, that what he calls "thinking" we might better call
feeling, and the particular kind of feeling which is the consciousness
of ones own predicament. What Hamlet is particularly conscious of
here, and most troubled by, is that he is in a state of not knowing,
suspendedin vacuity.
We can say then that Hamlet feels too much rather than that he
thinks too much. If we do, however, we then have to ask: too much
for what? Too much to kill the King forthwith? But we have seen
that it is not enough for Hamlet to kill the King; he must kill
him in such a way that the act expresses a state of consciousness
worthy of a tragic hero. In fact, the intensity of Hamlet's feelings
and his commitment to them is largely what binds him to us.
The vivacity of his spirits, the acuity of his mind, the integrity of
his ideals, the bitterness of his angry grief, and the gratuitous cruelty
of his self-punishmentare all absolutely inseparable. Because he sees,
he feels; because he feels, he sees. We are trapped again by the paradox
that underliestragedy:what gives vitality takes life.
In his praise of Horatio, Hamlet implies that he himself is what he
calls "passion'sslave." Horatio represents to him an ideally balanced
spirit, beyondthe anguishof tragedy:
... thou hast been
As one, in suffring all, that suffers nothing,
A man that Fortune'sbuffets and rewards
Hast ta'enwith equal thanks... (III,ii,67-70)
Pacific CoastPhilology 27

Being all tolerant he knows all hardship (suffering in both senses)

but is therefore free of all misery. As in the soliloquies, Hamlet's
deprecation of himself is to be taken as an activity rather than a
verdict. He sees in Horatio's balance of passion and reason ("blood
and judgment") and ideal that he himself should be able to fulfill.
However, like the moderation of a Greek chorus, it is a paradoxically
inadequate ideal. In tragedy, being right is too easy; whatever can be
told is meaningless.
A few minutes before praising Horatio, Hamlet indicated the tragic
way, his own necessaryway, in his instructionsto the players:
. . . use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest,
and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must
acquireand beget a temperancethat may give it smooth-
ness. (5-8)
He must, to be sure, both acquire and beget a temperance that will
give life smoothness, but this temperance will emerge by itself in the
very torrent, tempest, and whirlwind of passion, in the confusion and
intensity of the problem. And he will deal with this violence by using
all gently, by a responsivesensitivity to the demandsof experience.
All tragic heroes experience themselves as passion's slaves. Per-
haps what is "intellectual"about Hamlet is that he is aware that
he does so. His tragedy focuses on this predicament itself. As Helen
Gardnerhas observed, the revenge-play'sstructure necessarily imposes
a disastrous task upon the hero.7 In Hamlet the specific crime for
which revenge is sought generalizes itself easily. Life is an imposed
situation, mortality is intolerable. Life is imposed upon us with no
concern for our feelings about the terms we must live by, yet we
are responsible for being mortal. As Oedipus acknowledges, when he
blinds himself for the crimes he did not know he had committed
and had striven to avoid, this gratuitous responsibility is the essence,
the starting point, of one's identity. Hamlet's revenge expresses a
7 Helen Gardner,"The Historical Approach:Hamlet" from The Business of Criticism
(Oxford,1959), reprintedin Alfred Harbage,ed. Shakespeare:The Tragedies(Englewood
Cliffs, N.J., 1964),p. 64.
28 ToBe andNot ToBe

natural bitterness at this imposition but also an honest effort to

involve himself in it throughthe violencehe feels.
Throughoutthe second part of the play, on several levels at once
-in terms of plotted structure, in terms of his symbolic relation with
Claudius, and in terms of his emotional ordeal-Hamlet accumulates
mortality. The conclusion of the play confirms the mortality that
Hamlet has accepted: he kills and is killed. There is no sense at the
end that his own death comes as a punishment for hestitation or
any flaw in character. In fact, the play has led us to assume from
the start that for him to kill Claudius is to die, although there is
no practical reason this should be so. "In the backgroundof Hamlet's
soul,"writes Hegel, "deathlurks from the beginning."8Hamlet becomes
more and more implicated in death by both action outwards and medi-
tation inwards until he becomes one with death in perfect balance
of dealing it and suffering it. He asserts his existence by taking
life, he confirms his limitations by losing it. In both ways he sub-
stantiates his mortality. When he and Claudius finally meet, they
meet death to death, in an act of ultimate communication.
If "To be, or not to be" is the question, what then is the answer?
The play itself, in whole, shows us by dramatizing it. This answer
is the encompassing theme of tragedy, certainly of Shakespearean
tragedy, integrating being and non-being into each other. After his
soliloquy, Hamlet proceeds to do just what he should be doing, what
he has been doing all along. He experiences his non-being;as he does
so, he becomes. On one level, we have no choice but to be dying,
steadily, progressively, in more ways than one. But on another level,
we have the potentiality of letting ourselves die in such a way that
we may become more truly alive. We may become then more human by
being more mortal. The facts, of course, will remain the same. It will be
at best a matter of "readiness,"and that will be all we can require.It is the
suggestion of catharsis, furthermore,that as we become more human,
there may emergein our feelings all that we need to know about divinity.
As surely as Hamletlives, flights of angels sing him to his rest.

San Jose State University

8 quotedby WalterKaufmann,TragedyandPhilosophy(N.Y., 1968).

Related Interests