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Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
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“To be or Not to be”, Hamlet, Act III, Scene I (Soliloquy)

William Shakespeare

Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of the unit, the learners will be able to:

  1. familiarise themselves with Shakespearean drama
  2. obtain some ideas on tragedy as a dramatic genre
  3. become acquainted with the soliloquy of William Shakespeare
  4. acquaint themselves with the key features of revenge plays


William Shakespeare’s writings occur between the time span of 1590 and 1613. In the beginning, most of his plays were staged at a building which was later renowned as the Globe Theatre in 1598. Shakespeare’s plays could be categorised under three genres such as tragic, comic and historical plays. The most noted and debated plays of Shakespeare come under the genre of tragedy. Tragedy as a genre was quite popular among the Elizabethan audience. Some of the common traits of Shakespearean tragedies are the rise and fall of the noble characters, their tragic flaws and ending in violence and bloodshed.

Shakespearean tragedies are renowned for their explorations of complex psychological patterns of their characters. Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Julius Caesar are some of the key tragedies of William Shakespeare which project the psychic turbulence of their key characters. Hamlet is considered as the longest and the most distinguished play by Shakespeare. Soliloquies in Hamlet are appropriately employed in order to showcase the internal crisis and dilemma of Hamlet, the title character of the play. Soliloquy is a dramatic technique employed by playwrights in order to expose the mind and internal ruminations of the characters which they keep as a secret from other characters.

Key terms

Theme of Revenge (Coming under the genre of revenge plays, the play deals with the theme of revenge).
Procrastination (Through the projection of the personal traits of Hamlet, the protagonist or the title character, the play sheds light on the procrastination or postponement as an obsessive factor which disturbs his peace of mind).
Bloodshed (As a typical end of all revenge plays, in the concluding scene of Hamlet, the stage is filled with blood as the major characters of the play are murdered).


In the beginning of the play, there appears a ghost in Elsinore Castle in Denmark. The guards and Horatio, a school friend of Hamlet, happen to witness the appearance of the ghost. Horatio and the guards note that the ghost resembles the father of Hamlet. They plan to inform prince Hamlet about it. The uncle of Hamlet, Claudius, becomes the new King and marries Getrude, the wife of senior Hamlet. Hamlet appears heart-broken by the death of his father and immediate marriage of his mother to his uncle Claudius. When Hamlet listens to the news of the ghost’s appearance, he wants to meet the ghost himself. When the ghost appears in front of Hamlet, it informs that he is the spirit of his father Hamlet, and Claudius, his brother is his murderer and it urges him to seek revenge upon Claudius. Though Hamlet determines to take revenge on Claudius, his contemplative and thoughtful nature blocks him from taking revenge on Claudius.

4.3.1 Summary – Act III, Scene I – “To be or Not to be” (Soliloquy)

Claudius speaks on the confused appearance of Hamlet. He expresses his concern over the mad appearance of Hamlet as he spends his good days with the disturbing thoughts. Rosencrantz says that Hamlet himself admits that he feels distracted but he never discloses the reason behind his mental agony. Guildentern also comments on the aloofness of Hamlet and his unwillingness to confess his true mental dilemma. Getrude inquires how Hamlet received Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and to this query, they answer that they have been received in a quite gentle way. Rosencrantz and Polonius inform Getrude and Claudius that there are some actors who plan to perform a play for Hamlet and he is quite impressed with the idea and invites the king and queen to attend the programme. Claudius expresses his delight as Hamlet finds some pleasures in entertainments like plays and suggests them to further motivate Hamlet to come back to normality. Claudius plans to verify whether his dilemma is due to his emotional affliction caused by his strong desire/ love for Ophelia. When Hamlet enters the place, everyone gathered there hide themselves to know the mind-set of Hamlet.

Here appears the renowned soliloquy of Hamlet “To be, or not to be — that is the question” which reflects his confused and restless mindscape. The most confusing question that vexes Hamlet is whether to remain a silent sufferer to the tortures or take arms against the dangers and put an end to it. The soliloquy then shows Hamlet’s longing for death, the eternal sleep, whereby Hamlet thinks of relieving all the hardships of life. Hamlet seems torn between the burden of time in our daily life where humans suffer from failures of love and anonymity of the hereafter world which is an unknown region.

During this soliloquy, Hamlet watches Ophelia approaching him to express her deep love for him as a response to his first love request. In their conversation, Hamlet’s disillusionment with love and life is revealed as he negates his `love for Ophelia. Hamlet begins a conversation with Ophelia which deals with the question of beauty and honesty. When Hamlet rejects the love request of Ophelia, she feels that she is greatly deceived. Ham-let’s sceptical attitude towards human beings is clear in his suggestion to Ophelia to go to a nunnery rather than breeding sinners. Hamlet himself wishes that he had not been born. He confesses his dejected state of being ambitious and revengeful. He awaits each moment for a proper chance to take revenge upon the murder of his father. He advises Ophelia not to believe in any of the human race, instead go to a nunnery. In his final statement, before the departure, his contempt and hatred towards Claudius is apparent. Requesting her repeatedly to go to a nunnery, he says that there should not be any further marriages as he does believe nothing worthy in the institution of marriage. Ophelia laments the fall of Hamlet from his noble position to a state of madness. From his soliloquy and conversation with Ophelia, Claudius understands that his madness is not formed out of frustrated love but some serious unresolved issues remain unsettled in his mind. Claudius gives an order to send Hamlet to England. As a response to King’s request, Polonius says that in his opinion, the origin of Hamlet’s madness is the result of the rejected love. So he suggests that a meeting should be arranged between Hamlet and his mother so that he may open up his mind. In Polonius’ view, only after this meeting Hamlet should be sent to England. Claudius agrees with this opinion, stating that the madness of the great men should be observed carefully.

Critical Analysis

Hamlet is the longest drama written by William Shakespeare. The exact date of Hamlet’s publication is unknown but the scholars admit that it was published between 1601 and 1603. Hamlet could be considered as the milestone artistic work by William Shakespeare in his progression as a playwright. In this play, Shakespeare fuses together two contradictory and opposing forces such as Hamlet’s moral sensitivity and the internal compulsion for taking revenge on his father’s murderer.

Hamlet is a revenge play which introduces the character of Hamlet who, being a character with a philosophical bent of mind and reflective in nature, remains an inappropriate character for executing the act of revenge. The context of this revenge is Claudius’ killing of King Hamlet and marrying his wife soon after the murder. So the ghost of the King Hamlet suggests Prince Hamlet to take revenge upon the murderer. But the moral and contemplative nature of Hamlet blocks him from taking revenge. Hamlet even becomes sceptical of the truthfulness of the ghost’s version of the story. Hamlet follows the conventions of revenge plays such as the depiction of violence and bloodshed on the stage. However, it deviates from the contemporary dramatic conventions through the portrayal of internal crisis and dilemma of Hamlet.

The play is structured with dramatic phases like exposition, complication, crisis, climax and falling action. The ‘exposition’ of the play is formed by the appearance of the ghost, and three guards find the ghost as a figure resembling the former King Hamlet. When Hamlet watches the ghost, he is left with the confusion whether the ghost is a good spirit or bad spirit.

The play moves to the phase of ‘complication’ when Hamlet appears as a mad man, posing a serious confusion and threat to Claudius and his companions who attempt to find out the causes of his erratic and strange behaviour. Claudius becomes seriously concerned with Hamlet’s discovering the truth of his father’s murder. In order to avoid the threat from Hamlet and maintain his power, Claudius sends him to England. Hamlet wrongly assumed that the person hiding behind the drapes was Claudius. He kills Polonius by mistake and this act takes the plot to a complex level. The death of Polonius leads to the madness and death of Ophelia.

The ‘crisis and climax’ phase of the play occurs when the fencing match is held between Hamlet and Laertes, then the audience witnesses a series of violences on the stage. Both Laertes and Hamlet are wounded by the poisoned foil. When Laertes confesses that Claudius is the cause of Getrude’s death, Hamlet kills Claudius with the same poisoned foil. The ‘falling action’ of the play occurs by the death of Hamlet, the title character. The sound of the marching army from Poland could be heard this time. The information on the death of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz is also announced by the ambassador of England. As all major characters die, listening to Horatio’s narration of the story, Fortinbras gives orders to conduct a funeral ceremony for Hamlet in a quite befitting manner as for a soldier.

Soliloquy is a dramatic device employed by playwrights to expose the complex inner feelings and thoughts of a character through his self-speech which the audience can listen to but other characters in the play remain un-aware of. These soliloquies are long speeches that are articulated by a single character on the stage which provides information on the private thoughts of the character. In Hamlet, there are seven soliloquies by Hamlet which unfold the complex psychological state and internal crisis of the title character. The lengthy soliloquies in Hamlet shed light on the inner conflicts of the tragic hero of the play. Each soliloquy in Hamlet serves to contribute to the progression of the play.

The first soliloquy happens before the ghost’s appearance in front of Hamlet. The second soliloquy takes place soon after the ghost’s first meeting with him in which the ghost assigns him the responsibility of taking revenge upon his father’s murderer. As he has determined to take revenge upon Claudius, in the third soliloquy, Hamlet charges himself for postponing the act of revenge. The fourth soliloquy in Hamlet is the most philosophical soliloquy in the play. The fifth soliloquy takes place just before Hamlet’s encounter with his mother. The sixth soliloquy happens when he was on his way to Getrude’s chamber. Here the ghost is Hamlet’s own conscience to scold and accuse him for the delay of execution of the revenge.

Among these soliloquies, the fourth soliloquy is the most renowned as it is a highly philosophical and contemplative one. The soliloquy ‘to be or not to be’ consists of 262 words and 33 lines. The Act III, Scene I, the scene of Hamlet telling Ophelia to ‘get thee to a nunnery’ is referred to as the ‘nunnery scene’. This soliloquy raises fundamental questions on hu-man existence which deal with issues like life and death. The most disturbing dilemma of Hamlet is expressed in this soliloquy which foregrounds the dilemma whether to silently suffer the misfortune of life or fight with the fierceness of fate. Here the soliloquy preoccupies with choices of enduring life and putting an end to life. In this soliloquy Hamlet comes to the conclusion that it is the total ignorance of the hereafter life that compels people to endure life even if it is filled with hardships and challenges.

Through the projection of these confusions and dilemmas in this soliloquy, the irresolute nature of Hamlet is shown. Enlisting painful moments, it showcases the problems and anguish of human existence. Though this soliloquy is the manifestation of Hamlet’s worries and internal ruminations, it reflects the problems of every individual in the world, thus it has a universal appeal. The function that this soliloquy serves in the play is to present the reason for Hamlet’s postponement of taking revenge and consequent mental distress that he suffers.


Exposition – Beginning of a plot/story which introduces the audience about the setting, characters, and other background information.
Procrastination – An act of postponing or delaying a task or set of tasks
Rumination – A deep or considered thought about something
Soliloquy – It is a monologue that is expressed when a character is alone


  • Ghost appears in the castle in Denmark
  • Guards and Horatio witness the ghost
  • It resembles the father Hamlet
  • Claudius becomes the new king-marries Getrude
  • Hamlet – mad and heart-broken
  • The ghost requests to take revenge on Claudius
  • His contemplative nature – blocks him from taking revenge
  • Madness of Hamlet – make Claudius and Getrude disappointed
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – assigned to observe Hamlet
  • To identify the reason of madness – the conversation between Ophelia and Hamlet
  • Hamlet suggests Ophelia to go to the nunnery and calls for banning the marriage
  • Travelling troupe of actors – enact the murder of Hamlet
  • To verify Claudius’ involvement
  • Claudius appears restless and leaves the room
  • Token of Claudius’ crime – Hamlet to take revenge on Claudius
  • Claudius praying – Hamlet reluctant to kill him- may enter heaven
  • Hamlet’s madness – frightens Claudius
  • Claudius plans to send Hamlet to England
  • Hamlet’s encounter with Getrude in bedchamber
  • Polonius – behind the tapestry
  • Hamlet stabs Polonius – misjudging him as Claudius
  • Ophelia – grief of her father’s death – drowns
  • The ghost reappears – request to take revenge on Claudius
  • Hamlet along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England
  • Envelope – requesting Hamlet to be killed
  • Realising Claudius’ plan of killing him- Hamlet returns home alone
  • Laertes-returns from France
  • Vows to take revenge on Hamlet
  • Fight between Laertes and Hamlet
  • Claudius poisons the blade of Laertes- poisoned goblet
  • Getrude drinks-poisonous goblet-dies
  • Laertes dies as his own sword cuts his body
  • Laertes- Claudius is responsible for the death of Getrude
  • Hamlet also dies
  • The Norwegian prince invades Denmark

Objective questions

  1. Where does the ghost appear in the beginning of the drama?
  2. Who is the school friend of Hamlet?
  3. Who is the new king of Denmark?
  4. Who is the mother of Hamlet?
  5. Why does Hamlet appear heart-broken?
  6. What does the ghost request from Hamlet?
  7. What does prevent Hamlet from taking revenge on Claudius?
  8. Who are the two friends assigned to observe the erratic behaviour of Hamlet?
  9. What does Hamlet suggest to Ophelia?
  10. What do the travelling actors enact?
  11. How does Claudius behave when the murder scene is staged?
  12. Why does Hamlet appear reluctant to kill Claudius when he was in his prayer?
  13. Why does Claudius send Hamlet to England?
  14. Who was hiding behind Getrude’s bedchamber when Hamlet visited her?
  15. How does Hamlet kill Polonius?
  16. Why does the ghost reappear?
  17. Why does Hamlet return home alone?
  18. What is the reason for Ophelia’s madness?
  19. Who does vow to take revenge on Hamlet for killing his father?
  20. What does Claudius do to kill Hamlet in the fight between Hamlet and Laertes?
  21. How does Getrude die?
  22. How does Claudius die?
  23. Who does invade Denmark towards the end of the play?
  24. What does the prince of Denmark do to the dead body of Hamlet?


  1. Elsinore Castle in Denmark
  2. Horatio
  3. Claudius
  4. Getrude
  5. By the death of his father and the immediate marriage of his mother Getrude to his uncle Claudius
  6. To take revenge on Claudius
  7. His contemplative and thoughtful nature
  8. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
  9. Hamlet refuses Ophelia’s love and suggests her to leave for nunnery.
  10. They enact a story resembling to the event of king Hamlet’s murder.
  11. Appearing restless and annoyed he leaves the room
  12. The fear that it may take Claudius to heaven
  13. In order to ensure his safety from the revengeful Hamlet
  14. Polonius
  15. Misjudging that man behind the curtain is Claudius
  16. To inform Hamlet to take revenge without any delay
  17. Realising Claudius’ plan of killing him
  18. Hamlet’s killing of her father Polonius
  19. Laertes
  20. Poisoning the goblet and the blade of Laertes’ sword
  21. Drinking the poisoned goblet
  22. As Hamlet stabbed him with poisonous sword and made him to drink the remaining poisonous goblet
  23. The Norwegian prince, the Prince of Fortinbras
  24. Hamlet’s dead body had been given proper funeral as that of a soldier.


  1. What is the significance of the ghost in Hamlet?
  2. Discuss the revenge motif in Hamlet.
  3. What is the tragic flaw of Hamlet ?
  4. Comment on Hamlet’s madness
  5. Why does Claudius send Hamlet to England?
  6. What happens to Polonius who remains hidden behind a tapestry?
  7. Comment on the tragic end of Hamlet
  8. Analyse the features of Shakespearean tragedies
  9. Consider Hamlet as a revenge play
  10. Comment on soliloquies in Hamlet ?

Suggested Readings

  1. Wilson, John Dover. What Happens in Hamlet. Cambridge U.P, 1951.
  2. Newell, Alex. The Soliloquies in Hamlet: The Structural Design. Fairleigh Dickinson U. P, 1991.