Now it’s time to tackle one of the Big Questions in Hamlet — or, well, maybe we’re not ready to tackle it quite yet. But we’re definitely going to walk straight up and tweak it on the nose. Take that, question!
Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, of course, is the one that begins, “To be or not to be; that is the question.” As the Arden points out, “the question” isn’t as straightforward as it seems, leaving scholars, directors, and actors at something of a disadvantage. Presented in multiple choice form, then, what IS the question, exactly?
a) Is life worth living in general?
b) Is life so terrible that one should take one’s own life?
c) Should Hamlet kill the King?
d) All of the above.
Maybe I’ll return to this meta-question at some point; for now, I leave you to scrutinize the soliloquy, and draw your own conclusions. My Big Question of the day takes us one step further back: IS “to be or not to be” actually a soliloquy at all? Officially, a soliloquy is a speech delivered to oneself (you can see the root “solo” in the first part of the word) — or what the OED describes as “uttering one’s thoughts aloud without addressing any person.”
There are two immediate problems with this; the first applies to Shakespeare’s characters in general, while the second applies specifically to Hamlet in Act 3, Scene 1. The OED also reveals that the term “soliloquy” didn’t enter recorded English until 1613 — about a decade after Hamlet was first performed. So, whatever Shakespeare might have thought was going on in “to be or not to be,” he almost certainly never described it to his actors as a “soliloquy.” It was, most likely, just a “speech” (a word Hamlet himself uses often when describing performance of any kind). And when a speech occurred in Shakespeare when only one actor was onstage, it was probably delivered to the audience, not to the actor himself.
But here’s the other problem with calling “to be or not to be” a soliloquy: Hamlet is not alone. Somewhat inconveniently, Ophelia is onstage throughout the speech, although Hamlet only acknowledges her directly at the very end, when he says “Soft you now, / The fair Ophelia!” (3.1.87-88). Scholars compare this to Hamlet’s line at the end of “too too sullied flesh” in 1.2: “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (1.2.159); that’s a more explicit case of Hamlet telling himself to shut up, but “soft you now” probably means the same thing. So, in both cases, if Hamlet it soliloquizing, it seems he suffers from soliloquy interruptus.
But the Arden editors give us another note about the speech in 3.1, and as a director, I find it much more tantalizing than the previous game of multiple choice. The note refers to a stage direction which appears in the First Folio (though not in Q1 or Q2) just before Hamlet enters the scene: Exeunt. That’s Latin for “they exit,” and it usually means that everyone on stage exits (although Shakespeare occasionally uses “exeunt omnes” to make that super-clear). Yet it’s obvious from the scene’s set-up that nobody is going very far — Claudius and Polonius hide behind an arras, or curtain, while Ophelia, having been instructed by her father to stay put and encounter Hamlet, must surely stay onstage. Given this interpretation, the Arden editors conclude that
the most famous of all soliloquies is not, strictly speaking, a soliloquy at all: three other characters are present, although Hamlet speaks as if he is alone. Derek Jacobi aroused considerable controversy by speaking the speech directly to Ophelia in Tony Robertson’s production at the Old Vic in 1977; Jonathan Pryce did the same at the Royal Court in 1980. (Thompson and Taylor 284)
That settles that, then. But what’s this about productions having Hamlet speak directly to Ophelia?! That is a far more exciting proposition than re-labeling a soliloquy. I wanted to learn more about the controversy mentioned, so I read up on Jacobi and Pryce’s productions in Anthony B. Lawson’s excellent survey, Shakespeare in Performance: Hamlet. But Lawson didn’t go into much more detail, describing Jacobi’s choice as “an innovation that had aroused a fair bit of attention at the Old Vic” (219). “Attention” is more neutral than “controversy,” but the verb “aroused” seems to imply that some spectators didn’t fancy the choice; in any case, Lawson himself is generally negative in his appraisal of Jacobi’s performance, so this bias may have crept into his diction.
It may be time to flex my research muscles, to see if there are any reviews of either production out there which can provide further details about this extraordinary choice. How would Hamlet’s delivery change, once he had an onstage ear to bend about his dilemma? How would Ophelia react? And in what ways would this one-sided dialogue alter the scene that follows it? Does Ophelia have more respect for Hamlet’s “noble mind,” or is his sudden shift, from melancholic philosopher to choleric misogynist, even more disruptive to her image of the man?
What do you think? In “to be or not to be,” is Hamlet:
a) Talking to himself?
b) Talking to the audience?
c) Talking to Ophelia?
d) All of the above (he is Hamlet, after all)?
EDIT: I found reference to a third stage example of the Ophelia-focused delivery option, along with a splendid discussion of its implications, on the blog Hyperion to a Satyr. Of particular interest is a documentary, called “Discovering Hamlet,” in which Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh hash through the speech together. Also: what a great blog! I fear I might be trying to re-invent the wheel.