Hamlet’s famous speech exploring suicide provides insight into his motivations in relation to Shakespeare’s tragedy (3.1.56-88). In this particular speech, Hamlet’s action is to reflect on suicide as if he were a madman. His objective is to convin ce Polonius and the King that he is mad and his obstacle is that they may not believe him. This is evident in many ways. First, the context of Hamlet’s speech, particularly his audience, reveals what Hamlet is trying to accomplish in this instance. Second , the speech itself excessively obsesses over death and suicide to the extent that he is playing a role for an audience. Finally, the speech itself contributes to the character-through line, linking Hamlet’s attempt to feign madness to his desire to avoid avenging his father’s death.
The context of Hamlet’s speech provides insight into the intentions behind his action- excessive reflections on suicide. Taking place in the king’s castle, the speech is intended for an audience. The King, Polonius and Ophelia are involved in a pl an to investigate the source of his madness (3.1.34-37). The King and Polonius are spying on Hamlet behind the arras, and have arranged for Ophelia to appear, so as to determine whether she is the cause of his delirium. His speech begins immediately after the onlookers disappear. How appropriate that Hamlet reflects on suicide under the gaze of men to whom he is supposed to appear mad. Both men are opposed to Hamlet in some way, moreover. Polonius has tried to persuade Ophelia, Hamlet’s previous lover, to be wary of his wooing (1.3.123-131). The ghost of Hamlet’s father accuses the King of his murder (1.5.39). Hamlet’s uncle has also arranged for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him, as Hamlet is aware (2.2.288-9). The speech is quite likely an extr avagant staged performance intended for these two men. Ophelia, in contrast does not hide, so she may be visible to Hamlet. She was Hamlet’s first victim, so to speak, of his mad spectacle, and she is the suspected cause of his madness (2.2.142-150). The Queen has stated that she hopes Ophelia’s virtues will calm his madness (3.1.40-41). She is posed as his virtuous previous lover, and he acknowledges her presence immediately after his speech. In fact, his recognition of the ‘fair Ophelia’ seems to confir m Polonius’ suspicions about the Prince’s madness (3.1.88). But this contrived and abrupt recognition may be simply another act. Significantly, Hamlet has shown throughout the play his ability to detect spying, for instance, in the case of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He is also feigning madness throughout the play (1.5.170-2). The Prince of Denmark has made a similar speech on ‘man’ in which he reflects on man’s reduction to dust and the futility of human action (2.2.312-317). Similarly, the character’s present are also spying on Hamlet to understand his madness, that is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This implies that Hamlet is staging a performance of madness and melancholy, in order to further insinuate his madness to his observers. Thus, Hamlet’s obj ective is to convince his audience that he is mad, and his obstacle is that Polonius and the King may not believe his staged madness. His reflections on suicide make a strong case for his derangement to the observers that he seems to be acting for.
Hamlet’s direction of his speech at his on-stage audience is supported in the speech itself. Although the complexity of his ideas denotes sanity, the topic of suicide opposes normality. He obsessively finds faults with existence to an extreme that does not match his present situation of a murdered father. Repetition of words such as calamity, scorns, oppressor, despised, dread and weary emphasize the mental trauma he is portraying. He also uses metaphors to convey his inner bondage, which he links with the outer world. Referring to fortune’s ‘slings and arrows’, he portrays life as a source of wounds (3.1.58). Further, he mentions the ‘whips and scorns of time’, which manifests the power existence has to make him weary (3.1.70). He continues with a tiring list of life’s miseries in the form of the oppressor, proud men, love and the law (3.1.71-72). This dramatization downplays his sanity. It is a way to perform madness, in order to surpass his obstacle of his onlooker’s disbelief. Hamlet also uses alliteration to emphasize how he devalues life. For instance, he refers to this ‘long life’ (3.1.69) and a ‘bare bodkin’ (3.1.76). He represents life as weary and presents suicide as a solution. Then, to emphasize how he fears his obsession-death, he men tions the ‘dread of something after death’ (3.1.78). Moreover, the register Shakespeare uses in his direct references to death can be contrasted with Hamlet’s speech as a whole. Of course the strongest example is ‘To be, or not to be’ (3.1.56). He also re peats twice: ‘To die, to sleep,’ once ending with the final ‘No more’ (3.1.60,64). The contrast of these statements with the other lines, draws more attention to them. This presents a clear repetition of Hamlet’s death wish. Furthermore, this passage is w ritten in verse, and the metre is primarily iambic pentameter. In certain lines the metre is different than the rhythm, stressing the importance of the particular phrase. The opening lines to Hamlet’s speech provide such an example. The line contains a si ngle extra syllable, ending on a unstressed syllable with the word ‘question’ (3.1.56). Given that that line deals with the question of existence or death, again Hamlet’s continual obsession with suicide is central. This serves to present an image of him as melancholy and unnaturally preoccupied with taking his own life. In short, Hamlet is presenting himself as deranged in order to convince the King and Polonius of his madness.
Hamlet’s speech contributes to his character through-line in a number of ways. His super-objective is to avoid avenging his father’s death by getting the true story told. So by feigning madness, he hopes to catch the King off guard. The King’s tri vial encouragement to get him involved with the players (3.1.26-27), when it is this that displays his guilt is one example (3.2.275). Also, by acting mad, Hamlet downplays the threat he represents and is able to put his traitorous friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death in his place, thereby able to continue seeking that his uncle’s guilt be proclaimed (4.7.43-47). He is also able to excuse his own responsibility for avenging his father’s death by stepping into the role of a madman. The speech is a n attempt to devise a plan to face his obstacle, the King. And his reflections on suicide also contribute to his main action- to feign madness as a form of procrastinating his oath to avenge his father’s death-in a sense reaching his super-objective of av oidance. Thus, Hamlet’s objective in the speech of convincing the King and Polonius that he is mad is a means to attain his super-objective of avoiding avenging his father’s death and getting the real story told.
In many ways Hamlet’s ‘To be, or not to be’ speech is aimed at his onlookers, and is a form of spectacle to construct his madness to his on-stage audience. His previous history throughout the play of developing a deranged identity and his detectio n of spies backgrounds his knowledge of falsity and acting. Likely aware of his audience, Hamlet’s speech contains obsessive concerns with suicide and death. His representation of himself as mentally unstable is an attempt to accomplish his super-objectiv e of avoiding avenging his father’s death while still revealing the truth. Moreover, Hamlet’s speech perhaps contributes to the line of action ‘to witness’: by leading the King to think he is suicidal, Hamlet may get a chance to witness him unexpectedly i n his guilt.