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“To be or not to be?” It is a question without an answer, composed from a single verb — to be — and a negation. What does it mean to be? And this question, why doesn’t it have an answer? To fiddle with such things would be foolhardy, to attempt to answer them even more so. And yet, it seems only fitting to try. Death and life have always been topics of debate among people, whether openly or silently, sitting in the pews of a church or standing next to an unmarked grave. We all live, and we all die. What happens in between, and why does it happen? Voltaire and Shakespeare gave a crack at this question, and both came up with vastly different answers. Which was correct? Or are they both wrong? Is Hamlet’s quandary really a question without an answer? And where does that leave us, those who do not live across centuries between the pages of a book?
Hamlet is a troubled figure to say the least. His father is dead, murdered by his uncle, who is now his stepfather and the king. He has lost whatever footing he might have had in this world: the rug has been pulled out from under him, and we as readers are there to watch him fall, to see him try to pick up the pieces of a toppled-over life. As readers, we are and have been attached for centuries to The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and the fate of its protagonist. But what is his appeal as a character? He is not particularly brave or witty, kind or even good.
Perhaps we see some semblance of our own toppled-over lives in his, perhaps we find his monologued introspections a mirror of our own, or perhaps he forces us to think for a moment outside of where we are comfortable. “To be or not to be”, he says. To exist, to live. Or to die. In the face of his rapidly changing life, his view of the future is dim. Why, he asks, “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” when one can “take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?” What keeps him, and us, from the “bare bodkin” that would end all that we stumble through here? Hamlet boils our reluctance down to fear, and cowardice. “To die, to sleep”, he says, “to sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come”? We do not know what will come next, and neither did Hamlet, and it is this uncertainty that keeps us tethered to our lives here, this “dread of something after death … that puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than to fly to others we know not of”. Voltaire, in the form of his Old Woman in Candide, has a different answer to Hamlet’s question. This old woman had an equally hard life, and was even worse off than Hamlet, as she had lost her family, her position, her beauty, and half of her rear end, among other things. Though Voltaire was not intentionally answering Hamlet’s question, posed roughly a century and a half before Candide was published, he was writing to contradict another writer’s most recent claim: that “whatever is, is right” (Pope). But by negating a claim like this, Voltaire posed and answered the question, why do bad things happen? And his immensely unhelpful but painfully true answer: they just do. What then, is the point of Candide? One might claim that it is an exploration of the purpose of life. And in this sense, Voltaire’s characters, who suffer immensely at his omniscient hands, all ask the question that Hamlet asked: why not “shuffle off this mortal coil”? Why “wish to carry continually a burden which one can always throw down? to detest existence and yet to cling to one’s existence? in brief, to caress the serpent which devours us, till he has eaten our very heart”?
The Old Woman’s answer: “A hundred times I was upon the point of killing myself; but still I loved life”. In direct contrast to Hamlet’s response, then, the old woman claims, even after all she’s been through, to still love life. Even a life such as hers, a life that had included rape, slavery, even cannibalism. What is the difference between Hamlet’s response and the old woman’s response to this same question of existence? Why would one fear death? Hamlet puts it down to uncertainty, not knowing whether what comes after will be worse than what is already here. And why would one love life, except for its fleetingness, its solidity. We, like the old woman, are familiar with this life as it is. We do not know how long we will be here, we do not know what will come next, and we do not know when it will be our time to leave. Our uncertainties here, as opposed to in Hamlet, make us aware and grateful for our lives, even if they are lives full of pain.
Uncertainty, then, is ultimately an answer to the question of why we keep living. But why does Hamlet view this uncertainty as cowardice, while the Old Woman views it as love? The Old Woman looks outside of herself. She steps outside of her own troubles, both to tend to Cunégonde and to “cultivate her garden”. In other words, she finds something in her life to love. She becomes a person who loves; her uncertainties become her strengths. Hamlet is, on the other hand, bogged down by revenge, anger, and worry. His uncertainties make him afraid. It is only at the funeral of Ophelia that his fear abandons him; it is only when he loves that his uncertainty is set aside. “Be buried quick with her, and so will I” he says to Laertes, though just moments before death had been something to be “abhorred”, something that returned us to “base uses”. Death, which was once so puzzling to Hamlet, becomes suddenly of little importance now that Ophelia is gone, now that he loves rather than fears. This, though, is just one answer of many. In the end, “to be or not to be” is not a question that can be answered by one person, or even by three people, across three centuries. It is a question that everyone answers differently, and that everyone must answer themself at one point or another. To live or to die, and how to live in between? “The rest is silence”.
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