To Be Or Not To Be

slingers hamlet

Jonathon Slinger as Hamlet
To be or not to be is not just about the contemplation of suicide; it is also about procrastination and the disjunction between thought and action.
Hamlet’s inability to act quickly is mirrored in the Pyrrhus play in Act 2,2 – ‘Pyrrhus stood/And like a neutral to his will and matter/Did nothing.’ When the Ghost first appears to Hamlet and reveals the King has been murdered by Claudius there is deep irony in Hamlet’s response: ‘Haste me to know’t with wings as swift/As meditation or the thoughts of love/May sweep to my revenge.’ (Act 1, 5) Surely the first audiences would have been puzzled by Hamlet’s delay for the rest of the play? (Although Dover Wilson, in What Happens in Hamlet, is among those who think Hamlet was modelled on the Earl of Essex who plotted against Queen Elizabeth and was executed. That still leaves the question: Would the audiences have accepted his delay as simply a characteristic of the melancholic?)
Laertes also mirrors Hamlet in many ways; he too wishes to avenge his father. However, he is more like the conventional hero of the Revenge Tragedy. He doesn’t allow ‘the native hue of resolution’ to be thwarted by too much thinking! When Claudius asks him how ‘to show yourself in deed your father’s son.’ Laertes replies, ‘To cut his throat in th’ church.’ (Act 4,7)
Fortinbras too mirrors Hamlet in that he is avenging his father. But, like Laertes, is hot tempered – of ‘choleric humour.’ (‘Of unimproved mettle, hot and full..’) He is contrasted with the indecisiveness of Hamlet as he ‘Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there/Sharked up a list of lawless resolutes.’ (Act 1,1)
These duplicities underline Shakespeare’s aim of exploring the relationships between thought, intention and action in the context of an increasingly humanistic influence.
The play is peppered with variations on Shakespeare’s ‘all the world’s a stage’ conceit. In the Player’s Play the 1st Player sheds tears for a fictitious Hecuba. Hamlet observes, ‘ Tears in his eyes… A broken voice… And all for nothing!’ (Act 2,2) There is that incredible moment in the film The Truman Show where the eponymous hero sails up against a painted sky and realises for the first time that his whole life has been one long ‘performance’ carefully stage-managed. It is a truly chilling moment and owes something, I think, to the concept of Theatrum Mundi and George Gurdjieff’s idea that we are all automata wound up like clockwork; a kind of psychological determinism. The more subtle differences between appearance and reality are explored in modernism and post-modernism but were already centre stage in Shakespeare. We are all familiar with hypocrisy. Hamlet comments on Claudius thus, ‘That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. . .’ (Act 1, 5) This is an unambiguous example of the disparity between body and mind. Some cynics have said that the distinguishing fact differentiating us from other animals is that we are experts in lying!
W.H. Auden in his Lectures on Shakespeare points out that many of the soliloquies are ‘detachable’ from the play – they can be understood as stand -alone ‘philosophy’ addressed to humanity.
When Hamlet says, ‘Give me that man/That is not passion’s slave,’ he is again speaking for us all.
The scene where Hamlet goads Guildenstern with: ‘You would play upon me, you would seem to/know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from the lowest note…’ (Act 3, 2) brings to mind Eric Berne’s Games People Play. Here is a summary of one of these ‘games’ called, See What You Have Made Me Do:
First-Degree SWYMD: White, feeling unsociable, becomes engrossed in some activity which tends to insulate him against people. Perhaps all he wants at the moment is to be left alone. An intruder, such as his wife or one of his children, comes either for [affection] or to ask him something like, “Where can I find the long-nosed pliers?” This interruption “causes” his chisel, paintbrush, typewriter or soldering iron to slip, whereupon he turns on the intruder in a rage and cries, “See what you made me do.” As this is repeated through the years, his family tends more and more to leave him alone when he is engrossed. Of course it is not the intruder but his own irritation which “causes” the slip, and he is only too happy when it occurs, since it gives him a lever for ejecting the visitor. Unfortunately, this is a game which is only too easily learned by young children, so that it is easily passed on from generation to generation.
What could be more relevant to us today than the relationship between will, thought, emotion, intention, authenticity and moral choice. We overestimate free will in our personal lives and in society. Think, for example, of violence in young men triggered by a surge of testosterone. Think of political figures who are galvanised into action by vested interests such as financial gain or those who act upon the unconscious nudge towards increased status. With the character of Hamlet, Shakespeare was anticipating the latest discoveries in neurology. Books such as Steven Pinker’s, How the Mind Works suggest that we are all – to some extent – puppets, dancing to a synaptic symphony conducted deep within our squishy brains! Now, instead of humours and providence being our masters we have chemical messengers, genes, defence mechanisms and societal conditioning.
The only way to live authentically is by constant vigilance towards the workings of our own minds. The Ancient Greek’s, Know Thyself has come full circle with the various mindfulness practices which are becoming more widespread today. If Hamlet had practised something of this sort he would not have descended into chaos; but then we wouldn’t have the play with its high tragedy, complex psychology and deeply pessimistic message.

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3 comments on “To Be Or Not To Be

  1. trentpmcd says:

    Very interesting. Obviously a subject which holds my interest. I think Hamlet could act on impulse, like jumping on board the pirate ship to save his shipmates and unwittingly save himself from the death sentence at the hands of the English, but he wanted to be very sure before he killed Claudius. The psychology of hamlet is very interesting, though in some ways he’s used by Shakespeare to talk at some depth about humans in general. No doubt about it, that Shakespeare guy was some genius.

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  2. ‘…the disjunction between thought and action…’ Lovely piece about one of Shakespeare’s plays I’m very happy to see over & over again! (Lear, Tempest, As You Like It, Midsummer Night’s Dream [I’ve just changed this from the typo ‘Dram’!]

    The mention of Gurdjieff (one of my heroes) sets me up to pontificating about how he stresses getting a balance in the functioning of what he calls the ‘Centres’. Intellect, Emotion/feeling, Moving (action). Limbic/neocortex/reptile bits of the brain in 1953 parlance – still valid I think in a rough & ready sort of way.

    As you say, Erik, Hamlet wasn’t very good at the balancing act. All intellect & no action – and as for the emotion (‘get thee to a nunnery’…)

    As a recorder player I always warm to the idea of governing ‘the ventages’ – maybe this is a metaphor for getting the mind balance right. Keeping tabs on where you are in terms of Centres. I haven’t thought of that before! Thank you!

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  3. erikleo says:

    Hi Colin
    Glad you liked my article. Reading Colin Wilson when I was 21 put me onto Gurdjieff and after much searching via Krishnamurti, I opted for Zen Buddhism! I’m re-visiting Shakespeare and am finding lots to think about in terms of spiritual teaching in his plays I hadn’t noticed or wasn’t aware of before! I do wonder though, if he had a pessimistic outlook on life as evidenced by his soliloquies: tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day?!

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