To be or not to be? In this lesson, that really is the question. Watch this video to learn all about Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. We’ll explore its plot, characters and the meaning of that famous phrase.
So, we’re talking about Hamlet.
The first version of Hamlet was published in 1603. To be or not to be is probably one of the most famous quotes from anything, ever. It’s kind of a universal reference by this point.
You can see this if you go, like I did, and try to Google the phrase with any verb put in for ‘to be’. I tried ‘to see or not to see’. I got a bunch of scientific papers about vision (I guess this shows that scientists aren’t immune to clich;s). I also tried ‘to pee or not to pee’ (because I was feeling like a 5-year old), and I got a children’s book about going to the bathroom and also an article about how Lady Gaga uses the bathroom when she’s in her fancy costumes. So, it’s a phrase that’s endlessly malleable and endlessly interpretable – it’s sort of a metaphor for Hamlet the play! Hamlet is like that too (on a much larger scale).
It’s referenced in everything. If you’ve ever seen someone holding a skull and talking to it – that’s Hamlet. If you’ve ever yelled at someone ‘get thee to a nunnery’ – that’s Hamlet. If you’ve ever seen The Lion King – that’s Hamlet. It’s all over the place.
So, we’re going to go over what happens, who’s who and a blow-by-blow of major events. Spoiler alert: this is one of those fun ones where everybody dies at the end! We’re also going to act out some of the most famous scenes. We’re going to take it to the stage, so it’s going to be really fun.
We’re going to talk about one of the major themes of the play: action vs. inaction, which is the common diagnosis and root of Hamlet’s problem. We’re going to dig in and figure out why it’s had such lasting impact. Finally, we’ll put that famous ‘to be or not to be’ phrase in context so you can make fun of it correctly! Don’t go with ‘to pee or not to pee’- go with something a little more informed.
As for characters, who do we have? We have:Hamlet: Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, and Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest part. He’s kind of the hero of this story. He’s the Prince of Denmark.
Gertrude: Hamlet’s mother and she’s the Queen of Denmark. Her husband, who was Hamlet’s father, has recently died, and Gertrude has quickly married his brother.Claudius: He was Hamlet’s uncle, who is now the new king of Denmark.
Brother of the old king, now married to Gertrude.Polonius: The advisor to the king. He’s also kind of up in everyone’s business.Ophelia: Polonius’s daughter and kind of Hamlet’s love interest.Laertes: He’s Polonius’s son, Ophelia’s brother.Horatio: He’s Hamlet’s buddy.So, what do they do? Here’s the plot:
Act 1: Hamlet Returns Home
Hamlet is your typical troubled college student.
He’s back from university to Elsinore Castle (it’s where they all live). Things have really gone to hell in a hand basket.He’s got problems. He’s upset about the whole dad-dying-mom-marrying-uncle situation. Ophelia might be in love with him, but her family is Polonius and Laertes.
They’re telling her to watch out because Hamlet was way too high-born to take her seriously. If that weren’t enough, there’s a ghost that looks like Hamlet’s father who’s wandering around Elsinore.When Hamlet goes and talks to the Ghost, the ghost (who’s Hamlet’s father) says he was murdered by Claudius. Let’s take it to the stage!I am thy father’s spirit,doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,and for the day confined to fast in fires,till the foul crimes done in my days of natureare burnt and purged away.;List, list, O list!If thou didst ever thy dear father love–Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
Ghost explains that Claudius did it, and that’s how the plot is kicked off. Also, it’s how indecision is going to rear its ugly head because Hamlet says he’s going to avenge his father, but he can’t quite pull the trigger on it. He keeps thinking he just needs to really prove that Claudius is guilty or find the right time; he just can’t do it.In this vein, he’s going to pretend to be crazy so he can observe everyone without making them suspicious. It’s not exactly how I would do it, but I guess it makes sense to Hamlet, so that’s what he’s going to do.
Act II: Hamlet Pretends He’s Crazy
When Act II opens, he’s doing a magnificent job of pretending to be crazy. He upsets Ophelia, who complains to her dad. He goes and confirms that Hamlet’s nuts.Then, it’s kind of interesting, some traveling players come to put on a show. It’s basically like a traveling band, essentially, but that puts on a play instead of a show.
He gets the idea that he’s going to have them put on a show that will make Claudius feel so guilty about what he’s done that he’ll be able to see his reaction and tell that he’s guilty. So, it’s kind of like if you got a band to play the song that you associated with a guy you have crush on and then you’re going to watch his face for a reaction. (A pro tip is that this does not work in real life!)But Hamlet thinks this is going to work brilliantly for him, and he says ‘The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.’ He needs to figure out for sure that Claudius is guilty. He’s going to use the play.
The play is the thing that he’s going to use to do that.
Act III: To Be or Not To Be
In Act III, the play is getting ready to be put, on and it’s time for that famous ‘to be or not to be’ speech! We’re there!So, this is before they’re all going to go and watch this play, and Hamlet is characteristically worrying about stuff. This speech is thought to be mainly Hamlet deciding whether or not to kill himself, honestly – whether he should ‘be’, or ‘not be’. This indecision thing is really coming up again and again, here. He argues that anyone would kill themselves if they knew for sure that everything after death was going to be okay and that it’s not being sure of that that stops us.
So, we’re going to go through the speech and explain a bit of what’s going on.To be, or not to be: that is the question:Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to sufferThe slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,Or take arms against a sea of troubles,And by opposing end them?So, he’s basically saying: is it better to put up with life even when it sucks, or to take action and kill yourself and ‘end them’ – end the troubles, end the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And he goes on:To die: to sleep;No more; and by a sleep to say we endThe heart-ache and the thousand natural shocksThat flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummationDevoutly to be wish’d.He’s reinforcing here how good it would be to die – no more heart-ache, no more thousand natural shocks. It would be pretty good, he’s saying.
Then he goes on:To die; to sleep;To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;For in that sleep of death what dreams may comeSo, the rub is that no one knows what’s going to happen during the sleep of death. The dreams which here are referring to some sort of afterlife, they might be worse than what Hamlet is dealing with now. This makes him worry about it. And he goes on, and he’s wondering:Who would bear the whips and scorns of time…When he himself might his quietus makeWith a bare bodkin?Basically, who would go on if you’re quietus make (kill yourself) with a bare bodkin (a sword)? Then, he elaborates on this a little bit: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 bournNo traveller returns, puzzles the willAnd makes us rather bear those ills we haveThan fly to others that we know not of?Thus conscience does make cowards of us allWhat he’s saying is who would continue to carry the fardels (burdens) in their life, unless they were afraid of what might happen when they die.
So, thinking makes you unable to end your life because even if it’s awful, you don’t know what comes next and you worry about it. So, conscience (thinking) makes cowards of us all. Hamlet, as we’ve seen, is super into thinking about stuff.
He wants to be sure before he does anything.And, it’s the longest Shakespeare part – there are a lot of lines, and there’s a lot of thinking.If Hamlet just listened to the Ghost, he’d be golden; he’d be fine. But he doesn’t, he has to think about it.
I guess the moral of Hamlet is: listen to the ghost! Maybe? No. But remember every time you’ve had to make a big decision, you’ve had to think about it a lot, and it can be paralyzing trying to work through all of the options. It makes you unable to do anything.
At least that’s what happens to Hamlet.After he gives this long speech, Ophelia turns up. Hamlet’s super mean to her and this is when he says ‘get thee to a nunnery’, which is not nice.
You know how if a guy doesn’t call, he’s not that into you? If a guy says ‘get thee to a nunnery’, he’s probably not that into you. She just thinks that he’s insane. He’s not – he’s just not that into you!After this, they all go down to the play.
They’re putting on a thing called The Murder of Gonzago in an effort to catch the conscience of Claudius. Weirdly, it works! Claudius freaks out and runs away. Hamlet’s going to go up and see his mom and talk about this, and he encounters Claudius praying and saying: ‘O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven.’ This is basically a confession; he’s saying he’s done this and Hamlet’s listening to it. Hamlet thinks about killing him right then, but he’s kind of worried because if he kills him while he’s praying, maybe he’ll go to heaven. Excuses, excuses – come on, just do it!But he doesn’t.
Instead, he goes up to talk to his mom. Polonius is Ophelia’s dad, and he’s been hanging out with Gertrude talking about stuff. When Hamlet is coming up the stairs, Polonius goes to hide behind a curtain/tapestry.Hamlet barges in, he’s kind of guns blazing, accusing Gertrude of being a disgusting whore for marrying Claudius.
Remember, that’s her husband’s brother. She’s freaking out, and Polonius makes this noise from behind the curtain. Hamlet thinks it’s Claudius back there watching him, so he goes and he stabs through the curtain. He stabs Polonius and he kills him, which is a mistake!At that point, the Ghost comes back and reassures Hamlet to keep on his course. Gertrude doesn’t see the ghost, and that raises the question: is Hamlet crazy, is he just pretending to be crazy, is the ghost really only appearing to him? Lots of questions, and we don’t totally know what’s going on.
Act IV: Claudius Sends Hamlet to England
So, in Act IV things start to move pretty quickly now. Gertrude tells Claudius what happened. That’s not cool.
Claudius decides he’s going to send Hamlet off to England with some old acquaintances whose names are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (which are the best names ever). Little does Hamlet know, he’s been sent along with orders that he will be killed when he gets to England. So, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are carrying these orders.
So, Hamlet goes away.Ophelia’s super torn up about Hamlet leaving and going insane and all that stuff, and she starts to go crazy. Also, her dad being dead doesn’t help.
And her brother Laertes is really not happy. Again, because his sister’s crazy and his dad’s dead, he wants revenge on Hamlet.Lucky for him, Hamlet comes back. No one really knows why, Claudius’s plot must have failed. Turns out that Hamlet convinced the people in England to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead of him. Now he’s on his way home.
Claudius makes a new plot with Laertes to kill Hamlet, basically. They’re going to have a duel, and Laertes will have a poisoned sword. If that doesn’t work, they’re going to have a poisoned cup of wine that they’ll offer to Hamlet, if Hamlet ends up winning. So, he’ll definitely be dead by the end of the duel is the plan.At the end of that act, they find out that Ophelia has killed herself. This does not do anything to make Laertes feel more charitable toward Hamlet.
Act V: Gravedigger Scene & Duel
So, Act V – we are almost there, this is a very long play.
This is the famous gravedigger scene. There are gravediggers digging Ophelia’s grave – remember she killed herself – and Hamlet’s hanging out with them. They dig up a skull. Let’s take it to the stage!Hamlet:Whose was it?Gravedigger:A whoreson mad fellow’s it was. Whose do you think it was?Hamlet:Nay, I know not.Gravedigger:A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! A’ poured aFlagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull,Sir, was Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester.
Hamlet:This?Gravedigger:E’en that.Hamlet:Let me see.Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellowof infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.You can see that Hamlet is upset.
This dovetails nicely through the earlier musings on death. This is a real obvious something-after-death that’s horrifying because someone that Hamlet knew could be reduced to this anonymous skull is deeply upsetting to him. To us, I would imagine, too.That’s what happens immediately before the big duel scene. That’s when everyone is about to die.The duel starts and Hamlet’s winning, so he’s offered the wine.
But he’s smart, so he says no. Unfortunately, Gertrude drinks it because she doesn’t know about it. So, the clock is ticking on body number one – the clock is ticking on Gertrude.The duel continues and Laertes actually ends up scratching Hamlet a bit with the poisoned sword.
Hamlet gets a hold of the sword and scratches Laertes with it. Now, the clock is ticking on bodies two and three.The queen suddenly realizes that she’s been poisoned and she dies. Body number one is down.
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