To be or not to be
To be or not to be. Arguably the most well known phrase in the English language.
Benedict Cumberbatch took his turn playing the lead in Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the National Theater in London. Watching it streamed in a buttery-smelling movie theater in Omaha NE doesn’t have quite the same feel. But the production was phenomenal, nonetheless.
I studied Hamlet in high school. Everyone can recite at least the first two lines of “to be or not to be.” But I’d never really thought about the play.
During the live-streamed production, I had the opportunity to sit back and study the plot. What does it really mean? Life? Death? Man eternally searches for meaning in the things around us.
Hamlet is tired of being betrayed by the people around him, his uncle in particular. People think he’s ignorant and Hamlet loses his patience. One of my favorite lines is when Hamlet compares himself to a flute, saying that he is not someone who can easily be played:
Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me (Hamlet Act III, Scene II).
Then Hamlet descends into madness, throwing people off his revengeful trailer. He becomes like a whimsical child, dressing like a toy soldier and hiding in his own toy castle.
But that leaves me with an important question. In the beginning he’s merely pretending. But by the end, is he still pretending? Or has he slipped into his own delusions?
The famous “to be or not to be” speech is uttered time and time again. But many people overlook what it’s about: Hamlet, contemplating whether his own life is worth living. This theme of death continues throughout the play, especially the powerful scene when Hamlet holds the skull of the court jester he remembers from childhood:
Alas, poor Yorik! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?
(Hamlet Act V, Scene I)
His words were his life. But now even the tongue he used to speak those words is gone. And what remains besides the skull of what he once was? Nothing. Soon after, Hamlet learns of Ophelia’s death.
Hamlet was written between 1599 and 1602, but it’s interesting what Shakespeare noticed about mental health. Ophelia commits suicide. Hamlet considers it, eventually voluntary drinking the poison that killed his uncle and mother. In essence, by pretending insanity Hamlet made himself insane. Shakespeare forces the reader to reflect on life. Life only has meaning if we take the time to make it mean something.