‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, spoken by Hamlet in Act III, scene 1, is probably the most famous speech in the English language. In this speech Hamlet is thinking about life and death. It is the great question that he is asking about human existence in general and his own existence in particular – a reflection on whether it’s better to be alive or to be dead.
In the last lines of the soliloquy Hamlet concludes, that the dread of the afterlife leads to excessive moral sensitivity that makes action impossible:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
In this way, this speech connects many of the play’s main themes, including the idea of suicide and death. Here he uses the word ‘cowards’ to describe those who choose to live. He makes the profound judgment that ‘conscience does make cowards of us all,’ This sentence is probably the most important one in the soliloquy. There is a religious dimension to it as it is a sin to take one’s life. So with that added dimension, the fear of the unknown after death is intensified.
But there is more to it than that. It is not just about killing himself but also about the mission he is on – to avenge his father’s death by killing his father’s murderer. Throughout the action of the play, he makes excuses for not killing him and turns away when he has the chance. ‘Conscience does make cowards of us all.’ Convention demands that he kill Claudius but murder is a sin and that conflict is the core of the play.
At the end of the soliloquy, he pulls himself out of this reflective mode by deciding that too much thinking about it is the thing that will prevent the action he has to rise to.
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