Although Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was written in around the sixteenth century, each film that has been produced almost five centuries later still connects to Shakespeare’s story and goes even further as to provide a unique interpretation and addition to Hamlet’s character. One of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquies, “To be or not to be”, exemplifies an extension of Hamlet’s character in the 1990 film version. Hamlet’s monologue can be separated into the changing opinions of life or death, but the setting, actor, mood, and symbolism in the movie lift the words off the page and give a clearer new meaning on screen.
The famous “To be or not to be” speech that Hamlet makes is so well known because it signifies a pivotal point in the play. Hamlet is considering life or death and battling with some of life’s most puzzling questions. This depth that we see in Hamlet’s character can be distinguished by each part of this monologue. Hamlet first debates what is the nobler option when he asks, “’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And, by opposing, end them?” (III.I.58-61). As true heir to the throne, Hamlet’s first thought is which route is more upright. This proves that his primary concern between life and death is which decision will appear honorable to the people of Elsinore Castle.
The first glimpse on screen that we see of Hamlet as he begins his “To be or not to be speech” is what surrounds him. Hamlet descends a set of dark stairs into what later are revealed to be some catacombs. Being surrounded by this room of tombs, it is immediately apparent that Hamlet is thinking about death by surrounding himself by it. The setting of this soliloquy from the beginning adds a clearer sense of what Hamlet’s original intent is becoming. The beginning tone of Hamlet is curious, and he descends the stairs as he continues to seek his answer.
Next as to make death seem less ominous and simple, Hamlet equates death with sleep, a sleep that ends all “heartache and the thousand natural shocks”. In the play, Hamlet appears to be convincing himself that death is not as serious a state, and at this point seems to be leaning towards death as a more viable option. Hamlet even goes as far as to say that if he “sleeps” he is even “perchance to dream” (III.I.66). Hamlet wants to show the positive aspects of ending his suffering and that an eternal sleep is the solution to the unfortunate events that have ensued beginning with the murder of his father.
As Mel Gibson, the actor who portrays Hamlet, speaks the lines about death being equivalent to sleep, his tone and actions show how seriously Hamlet weighs this option. Hamlet kneels beside a tomb to feel closer and more connected to death itself. As Hamlet recites the lines “To die, to sleep”, his eyes are closed and he takes a moment of silence immediately following. This silence signifies how Hamlet would expect to feel if he were asleep, and in the same position as the remains of the body in the tomb. This moment provides a clearer picture to the viewer through the tone, positioning, and even silence of Hamlet.
Once Hamlet begins to ponder the possibility of dreaming once he is dead, a realization of what can go wrong from death overcomes him. Hamlet gains the insight that “[f]or in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil” (III.I.67-68) Hamlet has not yet experienced death, but knows that his dreams may become nightmares that can never be interrupted by a new day and instead must be endured for eternity. Hamlet was previously inclined to choose death, but death is now becoming more terrifying due to the uncertainty of ending his life. This line signifies the struggle as Hamlet debates both sides.
In the movie, Hamlet is startled by his realization that the uncertainty of what he may dream is a reason to die. Hamlet opens his eyes after his moment of imagining the feeling of death, and moves away from his kneeling position by the tomb signifying his movement away from the decision of death. His voice is now laced with a greater sense of worry and panic as he moves quickly to another section of the catacombs. This movement shows Hamlet now leaning towards continuing life.
Hamlet begins to dig deeper as to why people want to live if they always have to option to die at any time. He wishes to know why people and especially he himself should “bear the whips and scorns of time” (III.I.71) and endure“[t]he pangs of despised love, the law’s delay”(III.I.74). This question is something that even the audience or reader can identify with and establishes a connection to Hamlet. This relationship places both the audience and reader in a position that leaves them feeling just as hopeless and confused as the main character.
To enhance the feeling of being confused, the on-screen Hamlet’s body positioning hints to the viewer what his emotions are becoming. His head facing the ground as his body is supported by another tomb shows the struggle that Hamlet is experiencing. Each hardship in life that Hamlet describes is said with such pain that the viewer can immediately identify with his internal struggle and understand his original reasons for questioning life in the first place. By the end of this section of the monologue, Hamlet grows with passion and looks up from his defeated stance. His tone becomes more crazed illustrating his want for life to end before Hamlet ends in a heap on the ground. The increase of passion expresses the back-and-forth nature of Hamlet’s critical choice of life or death.
Hamlet concludes his speech by saying that the reason for living is that the fear of death drives people to endure the hardships that life always provides and people stay with the evils that they know. Hamlet boldly states that the reason for living was simply because people were cowards and “And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” (III.I.87). Hamlet finds that overthinking death is what causes people not to be bold enough to end life. Because Hamlet’s first thought is which option is nobler, the fact that he believes cowards choose life causes Hamlet to again lean towards death to avoid being viewed as a coward. Hamlet ends his speech once he reaches the view that overthinking the question of life or death will prevent him from taking any action or reaching any conclusion. Hamlet does not want to “lose the name of action” (III.I.90), which means have his decision be anything other than his own action. Once his decision is overthought, it no longer becomes an action but changes direction.
Following Hamlet’s first spike in emotions, Hamlet ends up on the floor of the catacombs. Here is where Hamlet makes another realization and again another shift in his fate. Hamlet questions what reason any person would have to live, and concludes that people only live because they are scared of death. These lines spark a change in Hamlet where his tone again emulates curiosity, which come across slightly crazy on screen. Hamlet rises from the ground and once more walks around the catacombs as he realizes people endure the hardships of life only out of fear. This fear therefore makes them a coward because they will not die to see what unfamiliar misery they may experience. Hamlet then stares up at the opening of light that streams through the room of tombs, signifying a movement from his darker thoughts of death back towards life. At the conclusion of Hamlet’s soliloquy, Hamlet leaves the catacombs and climbs back up the flight of stairs. This simple action is fitting for the ending as it shows Hamlet leaving the environment of death and instead returning up to the life above. The movie adds a greater sense of closure, although Hamlet’s choice is still somewhat unknown, and Hamlet’s actions lead the viewers to believe that Hamlet has chosen life. The emotion and positioning of the main character help tie the viewer to conflict and change of emotions of the character.
Shakespeare’s use of the “To be or not to be” monologue to add depth to the character of Hamlet is effective only if the scene is broken down and studied. Hamlet shifts his thoughts from life to death numerous times to the point where it is still unclear which side he lands on. But through the lens of a camera, Hamlet’s speech adds the clarity and perspective that the viewer needs to relate to Hamlet’s struggle to reach the final verdict of life or death.
My final essay for the year has shown a progression in writing throughout this year as well as a combination of the habits of mind that show my improvement as a writer and my range in terms of what I have written about. When thinking about what to choose for the topic of my final paper on Hamlet, and seeing that there was an option to compare the play to the film(s), I immediately knew that was something I wanted to do. After comparing Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, I felt more comfortable comparing a work of literature and film together. Unlike before, I decided to alternate my paragraphs by play and movie unlike I did in the Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now essay because I believe it was more cohesive and seen less as a concluding thought. Because I was so eager to incorporate the films into my paper, I started out a little overambitious by wanting to compare a section of the play to that scene in all three movies. I ended up only being able to write about the section of the play and the scene that matched it from my favorite out of the three because there was too much for me to say that by the end I was past the page limits.
When watching the “to be or not to be” speech in the movie, I paused it many times just like I did when I was writing my Pride and Prejudice paper and tried to pay attention to the message the camera was trying to convey. By seeing how the music escalated or how the camera moved, it provided a better understanding to the scene to support my analysis.
By examining the specificity in the language, I was able to take a closer look at what Hamlet was questioning, and how he switches from life to death multiple times. Without this look at the details and picking apart the text, I would not have been able to make the same conclusions.
I am glad that I wrote this paper because now I understand what this speech means and because it is so popular, I will now feel informed when I hear a reference to it which I do very often. I think this was a great piece to end my junior year with, and shows my growth as a writer. If I tried to write the same paper at the beginning of the year, I think it would be far weaker and less supported, but through the papers that I have written in both the fall and spring semesters, each one has prepared me and built upon each other to get me to this point. I was nervous that because this was an AP level course I would be unprepared but the gradual build up of these habits of mind has made the course fit seamlessly with the outside writing experience I have had.