Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis: On Hamlet’s « To be or not to be » Soliloquy

by Robert Silhol

August 25, 2005


This paper questions the place in Act III of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. After establishing the importance earlier in the play of the themes of the dead or murdered father, madness and deceit, the paper turns to the soliloquy itself, and in a close reading of its language find the expression of aggressions against the self that reveal the experience of a son in mourning, and the secret guilt of the playwright for having written Hamlet.




Let me start bluntly : as I wish to avoid saying anything too commonplace about Hamlet and his soliloquy on death—and Shakespeare’s own question after all, « to be or not to be », is itself very commonplace--, I shall refrain from mentioning The Bible in my introduction, or the Greeks, or Montaigne, and simply begin with the two questions that have come to my mind while reading and rereading Hamlet.

Here are the two queries : the first is about the place of the soliloquy in the play, and the second is about its semantic content. They may be deemed afterwards to be interesting clues toward a better understanding of Hamlet.



Let us begin with the first question, then : if we analyse the first two acts of the play, if we look at the sequence of events represented up to the apparition of Hamlet’s soliloquy in the text, what is striking, I find, is that it is difficult to understand why the prince’s speech on death is delivered at that particular moment in the play. Indeed, whether we reason in terms of the « psychology » of the characters or of the general economy of Shakespeare’s discourse, there is nothing to justify the place of this discussion on self-murder which occurs shortly after the opening of the third act. Naturally, we all know that « there are no fewer than three substantive texts of Hamlet » (Hibbard, 67), and bear in mind G.R. Hibbard’s excellent summary of scholarly research in his definitive textual introduction to the play (O.U.P., 1987) : of « the text » of Hamlet we can only speak with prudence. However, since the Prince’s soliloquy appears at the same place in the Second Quarto, « generally recognized as the ‘good’ quarto », and in the First Folio of 1623, it can be assumed we can trust the text here. For even in the First (« bad ») Quarto, which alters the sequence of events (the « To be or not to be » soliloquy and the « Nunnery Scene » that follows are placed not in scene one, Act Three, but in scene two, Act Two), the respective places of the soliloquy and the « Nunnery Scene » are identical to those of the other two versions. What will first be discussed here, therefore, is not principally Hamlet’s temptation to kill himself, or the interest of Shakespeare’s dissertation on self-murder, but simply the particular place which was chosen for such a speech.

A close examination of the action during the first two acts will show that this place cannot easily be justified.

Clearly, what predominates over the first act is the « memory » of the dead king, Hamlet’s father. The play opens on the apparition of the dead king’s ghost (scene one), and at court, in the scene which follows, the dead king also occupies the central place :

CLAUDIUS : Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death

                        The memory be green… (I, ii, 1-2)

HORATIO : My Lord I think I saw him yesternight. (I, ii, 189)

Finally, the two scenes, 4 and 5, which close Act One, again give the Ghost one of the leading parts. We have now a son who not only has lost a father he says he cherished, but a son who has just learnt of his father’s murder by his uncle. Quite naturally, mourning such a loss, he explicitly expresses his despair, and his discourse on suicide, at that particular moment in the play, would certainly not have seemed out of place.

HAMLET :                                                             O curséd spite,

                                            That ever I was born to set it right ! (I, v, 187-188)

Earlier on, in the scene at court, when Hamlet, among relatives obviously eager to forget the dead monarch (« Though yet… »), is seen sincerely mourning his father, the word itself was pronounced. This was the Prince’s first soliloquy :

HJMLET :   O, that this too too sallied 1 flesh would melt,

                     Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,

                     Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

                     His canon ‘gainst self-slaugther… (I, ii, 129-132),

but no more, and we shall have to wait until the opening of the third act for a development of some length.

These are obvious examples, but several other passages throughout the play could also have led, quite logically, to a soliloquy on suicide. The long second scene of Act Two offers indeed several opportunities of this kind. See lines 211-212 for instance, when Hamlet answers Polonius who wishes to « take [his] leave » : « You cannot take from me anything that I will more willingly part withall—except my life, except my life, except my life. » A few moments later, to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, he will say he has « lost all mirth » and « forgone all custom of exercise » in a passage which is not unlike a clinical description of a depressive state. Later on, still, in his second soliloquy, after he has met the players, he openly regrets his passivity, guilty it seems of the meekness of his grief—« O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I ! » (II, ii, 516)--, and at this point one may wonder whether this is not going to add to his depression and despair :

HAMLET :                                       What would he [the player] do,

                        Had he the motive and the cue for passion

                        That I have ? He would drown the stage with tears,

                        And cleave the general air with horrid speech,

                        Make mad the guilty, and appal the free, 2

                        Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed

                        The very faculties of eyes and ears.

                        And yet I,

                        A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,

                        Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,

                        And can say nothing. (II, ii,526-536)

But the soliloquy takes on a sudden turn, and the text shifts from sadness and regret to fortitude : « …it cannot be / But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall » (II,ii,543-544), « About my brains » (555). Hamlet will trap the guilty king : « I’ll have these players / Play something like the murder of my father / Before mine uncle. » (562-563). The decision closes the second act, suicide is no longer on the prince’s mind.

No doubt, all these « missed » opportunities—and the last instance was not even that, a change of mind, rather, which is perhaps even more significant—might simply be considered as good preparations leading to the soliloquy to come. The argument is convincing enough, but we should nevertheless note that it took Shakespeare over 400 lines, almost ten pages, to bring out his famous speech, and we wonder about such a « delay ». One thing seems established at least, « To be or not to be » could have been given well before Act Three.

And now we can turn to the actual place the soliloquy on self-murder occupies in the play. We have just seen it could have been placed before Act Three ; we are now going to see it does appear at a most strange moment, and is even unconvincingly placed.

This is the beginning of Act Three, Hamlet’s « distraction » has just been discussed by most of the characters on stage, and the King, assisted by Polonius, is planning to have Ophelia meet the Prince. He hopes Hamlet will betray himself and let them know what the cause of his « affliction » or « wildness » is.

Let us look at the details of the scene. The first thing we should note is that Hamlet has been sent for 3 :

KING :  Sweet Gertrude, leaves us too,

              For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither,

              That he, as’t were by accident, may here

              Affront Ophelia.

              Her father and myself (lawful espials)

              Will so bestow ourselves that, seeing unseen,

              We may of the encounter frankly judge,

              And gather by him, as he is behaved,

              If’t be th’affliction of his love or no

              That thus he suffers for. (III,i,28-36),

and the second remark we can also make is that the preceding scene showed him ready to act. No doubt, his attitude may have purely rhetorical—«About my brains »--and he may still be unable to carry out the action he is thinking of, but this can still be construed as the attitude of one who is hoping to come out of his depressive state. Indeed, the visit of the players has provided him with an opportunity to make certain of the King’s guilt, and this may thus incite him to act.

HAMLET :  The play’s the thing

                     Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King. (II,ii,571-572)

So here we are, waiting for Hamlet to come and encounter, as if by chance, Ophelia, and all of the sudden, just before she appears on the stage, Shakespeare makes him recite his soliloquy on life and death ! Coming after the line about « the conscience of the King » and just before Hamlet’s harsh treatment of Ophelia, we might rightly be surprised at this passage and ask : but where is the logic here ? Why such a speech at such an unexpected moment ?

The obvious psychoanalytical answer to this question is that since the scene cannot be said to have been the product of any dramatic necessity, another necessity must account for the production of the soliloquy, a necessity which I shall term « unconscious ».



It is clear that I am no longer speaking of Hamlet as if he were a real person, but of Hamlet-as-a-representation (which, in the case of Shakespeare’s character, happens marvellously to coincide with an actual human being), not a person, then, but a representation which cannot be said to account for the production of the soliloquy, the production of the details of the character’s speech, the literary or dramatic illusion notwithstanding. The logic I am looking for, the unconscious logic behind Hamlet’s speech, is therefore not to be found simply in the chracter’s represented behavior but in the whole play read as the discourse of a « subject ».

What is this « subject », unconscious by definition, saying ? Three main themes stand out in the two acts which precede the soliloquy : the theme of the dead father, an interrogation about madness, and a reflexion on the notion of deceit or treachery.

We have already remarked that the dead father—le pčre mort, and this means the ideal father—is obviously at the heart of the first act, whether we consider the ghost mentioned by Horatio and the sentinels on the very first page of the tragedy :

HORATIO : What, has this thing appeared again to-night ? (I,i, 21),

Claudius’s summary of the general situation :

           CLAUDIUS : Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death… (I, ii, 1),

Hamlet’s grief, whom the Queen first addresses with :

                  QUEEN :   Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off,

                                    And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.

                                    Do not for ever with thy vailéd lids

                                    Seek thy noble father in the dust. (I,ii,68-71),

or of course King Hamlet’s ghost in scenes iv and v.

One scene only, the third, in this first act, does not mention the dead king ; but it is a scene between Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia, a scene in fact between father and children, the triangular structure of which we can easily discern. It marks the starting point of that parallel plot which for a while accompanies the main plot and tells the same story in its own way (a father—who will die shortly--, a son, a woman) .

This takes us to the second act (an act which has only two scenes) in which lunacy and deceit occupy a prevalent place. Polonius opens the first scene. He is asking Reynaldo to inform him on Laertes’s behavior abroad and, again, this secondary plot announces the two themes which are going to be developed throughout Act Two. Two words, indeed, or two ideas, recur in Polonius’s speech : « inquire » and « forgeries », and both are repeated several times :

POLONIUS :  You shall do marvell’s wisely, good Reynaldo

                        Before you visit him, to make inquire

                        Of his behavior. (II,i,3-5)

                                                …Look you, sir,

           Enquire me first… (II,i,6-7)


                                     Take you, as’twere some distant knowledge of him ; (II,i,13)

                                                                                …him you would sound, (II,i,42).

So much for this theme : I interpret this wish to be informed as the expression of a more general inquiry. Beyond the question on Laertes’s behavior, an echo in fact of Claudius’s question on Hamlet’s strange demeanour, I find I can hear Shakespeare’s interrogation on the nature of madness, or of depression, as I shall try to show. These lines are a good introduction to Ophelia’s dismay, which is to follow in the same scene.

And because what characterizes madness is the impossibility (today we would say the difficulty) of accounting for it, a word, several words in fact, have been added to what is already a clinical picture to point out this impossibility/difficulty, precisely. Such is the poet’s privilege ; he may express more than he knows—which means we do not even have to speak of a miraculous intuition here--, but his words sometimes readily point out to what, today, can be analysed and understood.

Now to the « words » which conclude this first interrogation on lunacy : to Reynaldo, Polonius says : « And there put on him / What forgeries you please. » (II,i, 19-20), and : « Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth, » (II,i,63) (emphasis added). In the next scene, he will say :

POLONIUS : [Pointing to his head and shoulder.] Take this from this, if this be otherwise.    

                        If circumstances lead me, I will find

                        Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed

                        Within the centre. 4 (II,ii,156-157)

The « centre » then becomes the secret of the unconscious subject, and the allusion to decapitation might be seen to point to the various meanings of the symbolical notion of « castration », an imagined punishment for those who will try to pierce the « secret », and in any case a source of anxiety. Such is the contradictory and paradoxical nature of Freud’s concept, the unconscious : « I would like to find out what my ‘ unconscious ‘ secret is, but at the same time I spend all my energy denying what I am about to discover. I ask questions, sometimes without even knowing it, but I don’t listen to the answers or even do all I can to falsify them. » The « structure » is well known, let me repeat this : on one hand we have this obscure intuition that what is kept secret, silent, matters much more than what is actually said or shown—and we would like to find out what the secret is--, but on the other we prefer to be kept in the dark, so that we content ourselves with questions which in the end are nothing but the expression of our anxieties and fears.5

If we look at the main themes developed in Act Two, it is this dichotomy that we find. Throughout, the emphasis is laid on Hamlet’s transformation, or depression, or lunacy, and on the meaning of the Prince’s behavior, while on the other hand the theme of deceit is introduced (and we shall see that the arrival of the Players at this precise moment, scene two, Act Two, can also be interpreted as somewhat related to the quest for truth with the ambiguities the enterprise implies). The quotations, in any case, are easy to find, for each of the characters mentions Hamlet’s transformation :

OPHELIA : Lord Hamlet with his doublet all unbraced,

                    No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,

                    Ungartered and down-gyvéd to his ankle,

                    Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,

                    And with a look so piteous in purport

                    As if he had been looséd out of hell… (II,i,78-83)

and :                         He raised a sigh so piteous and profound… (II,i,94) ;


            POLONIUS : That hath made him mad. (II,i,110),

and of course the well-known :

                                    Your noble son is mad. (II,ii,92) ;

and also :

                KING :                                     Something have you heard

                                        Of Hamlet’s transformation… (II,ii,4),

            QUEEN :            My too much changed son… (II,ii,36) .

Even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are given the opportunity to comment on the Prince’s lunacy :

ROSENCRANTZ :  He does confess he feels himself distracted,

                                  But from what cause ‘a will by no means speak. (III,i,5-6),


GUILDENSTERN :  Nor do we find him forward to be sounded,

                                   But with a crafty madness keeps aloof

                                  When we would bring him on to some confession

                                   Of his true state. (III,i,6-10)

Finally, Hamlet himself describes what we shall call his mental collapse or his imitation of one :

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all

custom of exercises ; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition, that

this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory… (II,ii,285-


For the attentive spectator, of course, Hamlet’s sudden change is apparently devoid of mystery ; as early as Act One, scene 5, prince Hamlet has given us a ‘realistic » explanation for such a transformatrion :

HAMLET :    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

                        Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

                        But come.

                        Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,

                        How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself

                        (As I, perchance, hereafter shall think meet

                        To put an antic disposition on),

                        That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,

                        With arms encumbered thus, or this head-shake,

                        Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,

                        As ‘Well, well, we know’, or ‘We could, an if we would’,

                        Or ‘If we list to speak’, or ‘There be, and if they might’

                        Or such ambiguous giving out, to note

                        That you know aught of me… (I,v,165-178).

There is no doubt, then, that on the realistic « surface » of the drama Hamlet’s transformation is a feigned one. As we are dealing with literature, however, the subtle distinction between a real mental disorder and the imitation of one is of very little importance. In both case, what we are given to see is a representation ; between a person behaving like someone suffering from a severe mental depression and a person described as sick, there is no difference. What we have in both cases is only Shakespeare’s version of madness.

The playwright’s talent of observation notwithstanding, a play upon madness is still a play, the logic of which, as I have already marked, is eventually to be found not in the character but in the « subject » responsible for the creation of such a character. Again, what information about lunacy, madness or depression is to be found in Hamlet will have to be sought in the words that make the play, that is in Skakespeare’s écriture.

And what the words in the play say now is that no one tells the truth. After the theme of the dead, or murdered, father, after the theme of madness, now the theme of deceit.




Obscurely sensing a menace in Hamlet’s transformation, the King and Queen will have him secretly watched. We saw how, at the opening of Act Two, Polonius wished to be informed of his son’s behavior, and how he incited Reynaldo to be deceitful for this purpose. The same strategy will be used by Claudius : deceit, treason, the setting up of traps, those are the means devised to try and discover what the « real » nature of Hamlet’s strange disposition is. And of course, we remember how Hamlet himself was the first to use such stratagems : not only did he pretend to be mad, but he also, at the end of Act Two, set a trap for the king.

I have already alluded to the dichotomy made of our wish to understand and of a secret desire not to know. The theme of « deceit », so prevalent in Hamlet, I find, will help us to analyse this dichotomy further and take us nearer to a fuller understanding of what is at stake in Hamlet’s soliloquy. You remember we had the apparition of the Ghost (which we can liken to a nightmare or, better, to a symptom) and Ophelia’s description of Hamlet’s transformation, and I have just mentioned what happens in Act Two, scene 2 : the King entreats Guildenstern and Rosencrantz to find out « whether aught to [them] unknown afflicts [Hamlet] thus. » (17), and the Queen asks them to visit her « too much changed son » (36). Then comes Polonius who thinks he has the solution and who will find « where truth is hid » (156). He says he will « loose [his] daugther to [Hamlet] » (161), while with the King, hidden behind an « arras », they will secretly listen. But again, the action is delayed and in the scene that follows Shakespeare simply makes him converse with the Prince and no conclusion can be drawn from the encounter : « Words, words, words. » (190) Words also to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz who come on stage next. Hamlet does tell them of his sorrows : « I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth… » (285), but they will not be the wiser for it ; there is much in the Prince’s explanation that remains obscure, that he has had « bad dreams, » for instance, or that « A dream is but a shadow » (250). In the end, their only dramatic function seems to introduce the Players. (303)

The latter, of course, have a specific rôle in the plot ; their presence is necessary, more or less at this place, since they are needed to stage the play within the play. But they are instumental in another way also, and perhaps more central to Hamlet that it may seem at first. For indeed, with them, the theme of deceit, of treason, of deception, takes on a new dimensuion. What concludes the long scene two of this second act is a soliloquy, by Hamlet, on the skill of the actor which I also read as a discourse on truth and appearances :

O, what a rogue and peasant am I !

Is it not monstrous that this player here,

But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,

Could force his soul to his own conceit

That from her working all his visage wanned ;

Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,

A broken voice, and his whole function suiting

With forms to his conceit ? And all for nothing,

For Hecuba !

What’s Hecuba to him or he to her,

That he should weep for her ? What would he do

Had he the motive and cue for passion

That I have ? (II,ii,515-528).

That such an interrogation should have been placed in the play is interesting. It is an interrogation on the « truth » of art, a question directed at the sincerity of the artist, actor or playwright. 6

Sincerity, this calls to mind Hamlet’s entrance scene, in Act One, scene 2, when, at court, the Queen is asking him not to « seek [his] noble father in the dust. » (71)

QUEEN : Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off,

                And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.

                Do not for ever with vailéd lids

                Seek for thy noble father in the dust.

                Thou know’st ‘tis common—all that lives must die,

                Passing through nature to eternity.

          HAMLET : I, madam, it is common.

QUEEN :                                             If it be,

                Why seems it so particular with thee ?

         HAMLET : Seems, madam ? Nat, it is. I know not ‘seems’. (I,ii,68-76) 7

Speaking of his « true » feelings, Hamlet explicitly makes a distinction between what is « true », what « is », and what can be simulated, that is to say counterfeit.

                                …These ideed seem,

For they are actions that a man can play,

But I have that within which passes show—

These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (83-86)

In his grief, then, the son of the dead king is sincere. He is no actor who pretends, there can be no confusion here.

No doubt, we must bear in mind that the first passage quoted above, which mentions Hecuba and Priam’s death, appears in a different context. Hamlet is shown reasoning with himself ; he is trying to make up his mind to act ; such is the apparent psychological necessity of the scene. We have some difficulty, perhaps, in following the argument, but the question, prompted by Shakespeare, is nevertheless quite clear : because the art of the actor consists in imitating any human emotion, to what extreme would he not rise had he Hamlet ‘s « true » motive for passion ? The Prince, of course, is prohibited such demonstration, he must remain silent, he « can say nothing ».

Is this a way of saying that if « he » refrains from showing his grief there is a reason for it ? But if there is a reson—and there is one : to keep secret what the Ghost has revealed to him until he is revenged--, his silence should not distress him so, and he certainly should not feel guilty about it. One must admit Shakespeare’s argument is not really convincing ; which accounts perhaps for the complexity of the reasoning.

Can we, then, using the psychoanalytical method of inquiry, ask why such a sentence was produced ? What does Hamlet’s silence stand for ? What is it he does not say ?

We begin to suspect that these interrogations on the art of the actor are not the product of a particular dramatic context ; both passages are inspired by the same intuition and deal with the same problem, and it is tempting to pursue this idea. It has two dimensions : one that is general, philosophical, say, the other that is personal, or psychological. Shakespeare is here trying to establish a distinction between what can be represented, staged—and this inevitably calls forth the idea of forgery—and what is, what must be genuine and cannot be counterfeit. The assumption, of course, is that there are feelings which are true, and others which are but imitations. We know today that such a distinction is not possible ; the word shall never be the thing ; language, which characterizes us as humans, does bridge the gap between a subject and the world, but does so in imagination only, hallucinatorily .


HAMLET :                                    …This is most brave,

                    That I, the son of a dear father murdered,

                    Prompted to my revenge by heaven and earth,

                    Must like a whore unpack my heart with words,

                    And fall a-cursing like a very drab,

                    A stallion 8 ! Fie upon’t ! Foh ! (II,ii,549-554)


If I wish to express my feelings with words (rather than through actions, or slips of the tongue, say), I must use language and submit to its laws, the first of which being that words, by definition, are never adequate, equal, to what they represent. Because of this, literature always « lies » to us, deceives us, but it is in this « lying » that some truth can found.

What truths do we find in Hamlet, personal truths I mean, the truths of a subject who unconsciously expresses himself through the lines he produces ?

I suggest that what inspired Shakespeare his interrogations about truths and language, about truth and the theatre, was an event which happened in his life and affected him personally, a death perhaps, the loss of someone dear. It is not possible to know with certainty what event may have affected the playwright so strongly, but this is relatively unimportant here as we are not so much interested in the details of the dramatist’s life as in the general, universal, meaning his « case » may represent.

And what characterizes this case, Hamlet’s, or Shakespeare’s, is the insistencce on silence, what earlier on I called the « secret ». We recall the end of Act One :

HAMLET :                                 …let us go in together,

                        And still your fingers on yours lips, I pray. (I,,185-186),

and we have just had : « Yet I…can say nothing ; » (II,ii, 533-536). A possible interpretation of this wish to remain silent could be that it amounts to an unconscious refusal to reveal what the death of a close relation may have meant for one, « wish » being improper, since we are dealing with « repressed material, » something not consciously realized. This is rather vague, I know, but it helps us to read Hamlet’s silences as the best protection—for the playwright, I mean, for the « subject » behind the words—against revealing one’s unconscious desires whatever they may be. This, in any case, is quite congruent with Ernest Jones’s reading of Hamlet. 9

For beyond the fact that the son of the murdered king unconsciously interprets Claudius’s deed as resembling his own oedipal wish, hence his hesitations, I think Shakespeare’s tragedy also represents the relationship a subject has with his or her unconscious desire. Again, Hamlet/Shakespeare may have had specific reasons to feel « unpregnant with [his] cause » (II,ii,535), but we have no difficulty in recognizing in such procrastination the movement of an obssessional soul.

And so we have reached the opening of Act Three and the moment for Hamlet to recite his soliloquy on suicide.

We have already established that this soliloquy could have been placed before Act Three, established that there were other logical places for it in the play. We can now ask what justifies the actual place it occupies, shortly after the beginning of Act Three. This is of course an interrogation on the « meaning » of the soliloquy, the reason for it being there, a question on its « condition of production. » For it does appear at a most strange moment and, in fact, seems to interrupt the action. Again, let us examine the sequence of (represented) events that lead to it.

Following the monarch’s worried interrogation about Hamlet’s « transformation, » Ophelia’s father declared :

                …I will find

Where truth is hid… (II,ii,155-156)


                                            …I’ll loose my daughter to him. (160)

But it will take Shakespeare 400 lines, that is to say well over 15 minutes, to actually stage the planned encounter between Ophelia and Hamlet. Why such delay ? The answer may come from the examination of the events that take place during these fifteen minutes. For if in this very long scene two the action stands still—procrastination ?--, a lot nevertheless happens which deserves analysis.

Four « sub-scenes » can be distinguished : 1) I have already mentioned Polonius’s own inconclusive meeting with Hamlet—in passing a superb illustration of what we now call parole vide10--, which the Lord Chamberlain can only conclude with a reminder of his stratagem : « I will leave him, and suddenly contrive the means of meeting between him and my daughter. » (208-209) We are back where we started, repetition and nothing else. 2) Then comes Hamlet’s conversation with Rosencrantz and Guidenstern, to whom he gives a detailed account of his melancholy without disclosing anything new, and which is suceeded by the arrival of the Players. 3) This development is more germane to the action, as we saw, but if the Players’s preparatory performance of the Aneid is indeed a representation of the death of a king, it is in fact nothing more than a repetition and does not in the end help the plot to mlove forward. Finally, Hamlet’s second soliloquy closes Act Two and, after some deliberation still, a change seems to take place in the Prince, for he says he is now prepared to act.

And yet, it is in a quite different mood that Hamllet will appear on stage next, when he pronounces his soliloquy on death, precisely shortly after the opening of Act Three. The discrepancy is blatant and emphasizes, I find, the awkward place chosen for Hamlet’s speech, coming as it does just after his decision to go into action. 11

Whatever the reason for such a discrepancy, for such a sudden change of heart, we cannot help noticing the existence of one common element between the four sub-scenes just mentioned. In each case, we discover the wish to hide the truth we have already analysed, a desire to rmain silent. Whether to Polonius or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, never does Hamlet reveal what his intentions are. And the arrival of the Players is curiously introduced by a complex passage on good breeding and sincerity 12 which ends with the word « deceived. »

We already know that secrecy is essential to the success of Hamlet’s plan to trap the King, and also that in pretending to be mad he has more freedom to act. But does this suffice to justify the long debate on appearance and reality ? Could there be another « meaning » behind such a conscious « surface » ? We must find a way to explain satisfactorily Shakespeare/Hamlet’s concern with deceit, and in particular the first part of the Prince’s second soliloquy on actors ; we have already come across the passage : « Is it not monstrous, that this player here,/ But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, Could force his soul to his own conceit ? » (my emphasis) The poet may not speak the truth—whatever that is--, but he certainly thinks his character does : « Now I am alone. » (II,ii,515). Because no one, for once, is spying on him, it is reasonable to think that Hamlet, in this soliloquy, is telling the truth (as far as he knows it). What does he say ? He says he is sorry—if not guilty—not to be able to bring himself to show enough affliction for his loss : « Yet I, / A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak / Like a John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,/ And can say nothing ; » (533-535). Again, the problem of silence, which I « hear » as an echo of what has just been explained about the actor’s performance : He can pretend, he can represent sorrow, pain, and yet feel  « nothing ».

On one hand, then, a silent Hamlet, and on the other the deceitful actor. But the subtle formula, almost an equation indeed, has more to reveal. The contrast is clear : whereas the player has no sorrow but is able to give a good likeness of sorrow, Hamlet, who mourns his father, remains unable to show what he actually feels. So that what is also pointed out here—far beyond the opposition mentioned—is a correspondence : plainly, Hamlet feels but cannot say, while the other can say but does not feel. What we are told is that truth and appearances are antagonistic, as if silence were the condition of truth. Either, like the actor, one « shows » and remains « untrue », or one is true and has to remain silent. The theme of deceit now appears central to the play, and all the more so as the words which set the problem forth are pronounced in a play. I take this to be an interrogation by Shakespeare on his own sincerity : can feelings so easily represented on the stage be genuine ?

If truth cannot be told, what is it that is said on the stage ? This is in one of the questions put to us by Hamlet, and it is a question on the nature of unconscious desire. It takes us one step nearer to the Prince’s soliloquy on death, and to the solution of the problem of its strange place in the play.



Such is the logic « behind » the words that a common theme seems to run through all the characters’ speeches. We have just witnessed Hamlet’s decision to act, and Act Three opens on a scene where everybody is ready to go into action. Claudius again presses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to obtain more information from the Prince (III,i,26-27) and rejoices at the opportunity offered by the coming performance—such an event might relieve the tension felt at court up to then—and we are told there was a « kind of joy » in Hamlet at the idea.

In more ways than one, and very ironically so, all the traps have been laid. Hamlet will find out the truth about his father's murder, and Claudius himself is about to overhear the conversation between Ophelia and his nephew. 13

The maiden is on her way—« Ophelia, Polonius says, walk you here » (III,i,43)--, and Hamlet is making his entry—« I hear him coming. Let’s withdraw, My Lord. »(55) .

And yet they do not meet, not for the moment, and we have the soliloquy on self-murder instead. The action has been suspended, Ophelia will have to wait in the wings for a while. She will only come on stage at the end of the soliloquy:

HAMLET: Soft you now !

                    The fair Ophelia ! (88-89)

Can we explain this interruption of the action ? And can we explain why, just after having shown Hamlet so ready to act, Shakespeare describes him full of hesitation again ?

I would like to suggest that it is the planned meeting with Ophelia, its symbolical dimension, which causes the delay. Shakespeare seems to have needed some respite. I read Hamlet’s encounter with Ophelia as a rehearsal of the violent scene which takes place between Hamlet and the Queen three scenes later, Act Three, scene v, when the son tries with great passion to convince his mother to stay away from Claudius.

            QUEEN : O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.

        HAMLET : O, throw away the worser part of it,

                            And live the purer with the other half.

                            Good night-- but go not to my uncle’s bed. (III,iv,160-163)

It is because such oedipal violence was so difficult to express directly, to assume also, that it took Shakespeare no less than two scenes to stage it, the first foreshadowing the second in a less obvious oedipal fashion. This is in any case the only way I have of understanding the terrible scene between Hamlet and Ophelia : « Get thee to a nunnery. […] Go thy ways to a nunnery. Where’s your father ? […] If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for a dowry : by thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow […] Get thee to a nunnery, farewell. Or if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool […] To a nunnery, go, and quickly too. Farewell. » (III,i, 119-137) 14

Two distinct scenes, then, to unleash oedipal jalousy and anger , and before staging the first one an interruption to gather one’s breath. And this all the more so as the scene with Ophelia has a triangular structure : Hamlet’s encounter with her—who was once his love object—being watched by two fathers..

No doubt, the soliloquy may have been consciously devised to emphasize Hamlet’s procrastination—to go into action or not--, but besides this first function I think we can consider it as a parenthesis in the progression of the oedipal tragedy.

This may account for the conventional nature of the soliloquy. Can we at this point suppose that Shakespeare/Hamlet did not have anything new to say about suicide : a question on being, first, which is the only worth while question, but this is far from original, then the obvious analogy with sleep, and the commonplace interrogation about nightmares, followed by the insistencce on our « dread of something after death ,»  and finally, with more originality this time, the allusion to our absence of knowledge about this « undiscovered country, from whose bourn/ No traveller returrns » ?

So much for the parenthesis, the screen as it were ; for we are going to see that such « empty speech » almost, when considered from another angle nevertheless holds some meaning of its own. I think Hamlet’s soliloquy expresses something other than the Prince’s hesitation in front of suicide, the « surface » of his speech protecting and revealing at the same time another « truth » of the unconscious subject. Beyond the conventionality we have noticed, some original meaning can yet be heard. For more than a discourse on self-murder, Shakespeare’s soliloquy reveals a son in mourning.

A brief semantic analysis will easily show this : once we leave the general (to live, to die, to dream…all this pointing to the impossibility of a solution) and look for the particular, the personal, we notice an accumulation of features which have a narcissistic ring to them. Except for the first alternative—to suffer or oppose--, which by the way is swiftly swept aside in a movement that implies one will go on suffering in silence, « heartache », « flesh », already—and perhaps even « coil », although scholars do not agree on this—have something physical, while « the whips and scorns », « the oppressor’s wrong », « the proud man’s contumely » (humiliating speech or behavior), « the pangs of despised love », « the laws delays », « the insolence of office » and « the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes » all describe aggressions on the self (the latter term taken in its general sense). Such a concatenation of narcissistic wounds prompts the interpretation that Hamlet reflects, among other things, Shakespeare's own feelings in front of a personal loss, Prince Hamlet being the accurate portrait of a a bereaved son. 15

And since part of mourning—besides the narcissistic pain—is often an interrogation on the sincerity of one’s filial feelings, this might help us to understand the emphasis on deceit in the play. A first interpretation is correct which sees in the theme of deceit a reference to treason, a reproach which, in Hamlet, is directed towards the mother of the oedipal son, and also secretly addressed to the person who has left us, here, the father. But a complementary interpretation is possible and concerns the playwright’s secret guilt at having written a play on the death of his father (or son ?). Thus all the passages on the sincerity of actors take on an added meaning. All this, in any case, being part of the « work of mourning », Trauerarbeit.


Works Cited

1  Some editions have « solid ».

2  This is precisely what he refrains from doing himself.

3  He has been sent for, that is, the context does not prepare us for a scene of self- interrogation.

4  The « centre » can obviously be read as an allusion to what is deeply buried—this is the theme of the secret--, but I find it interesting to note that the lines which precedes the passage above mention the head.

5  The last tines of Act One already introduced this theme of secrecy : « You’ll be secret » Hamlet says to his companions after they have seen the Ghost, and we remember that he went as far as asking them to swear : « Never make known what you have seen to-night. » (I,v,144), and also :

Never speak of this you have seen,

Swear by my sword. (152-153)


Swear by my sword

Never to speak of this that you have heard. (159)


6  And it can be read as an interrogation on the nature of representation, that is to say language, but this is another debate.

7  And :

        ‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,

        Nor customary suits of solemn black,

        Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,

        No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,

        Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,

        Together with all the forms, moods, shapes of grief,

        That can denote me. These indeed seem,

        For they are actions that a man might play,

        But I have that within which passeth show—

        These but the trappings and suits of woe. (I,ii,77-86)

8  A stallion : a prostitute.

9  Hamlet and Oedipus, New York, Norton, 1949.

10  Empty speech on the surface, no doubt, but not devoid of meaning if we care to listen with the ear of the psychoanalyst to what may have been signified in the scene. The reference to the « sun ,» often a symbol of the father’s power, and to conception, can be interpreted as unconscious productions of an oedipal desire well in keeping with the general atmosphere of Hamlet. To Polonius, who is a father, Hamlet says he is a « fishmonger », and the meaning of « go-between, », « seller of women, » has been noted by many critics, but it is probable we are not entirely on unconscious ground here.

About empty speech, we can only marvel at Shakespeare’s extraordinary insight : « How pregnant sometimes his replies are ! a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of. » (II,ii,205-208) The commentary he prompts to Polonius is indeed very « freudian » : a delirious mind still tells the truth, in its own way, as does the slip of the tongue, for instance. We can also note the interesting « be delivered of. »

11  On can always argue, of course, that to kill oneself is a manner of action, but one has to admit that the prevailing mood of Hamlet’s soliloquy is rather one of hesitation.

12  « Gentlemen, you are welcome to Elsinore. Your hands. Come then, th’appurtenance of welcome is fashion and ceremony. Let me comply with you in this garb, lest my extent to the players (which, I tell you, must show fairly outwards) should more appear like entertainment than yours. You are welcome. But my uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived. » (II,i,349-354)

13  We may of their encounter frankly judge,

            And gather by him, as he is behaved,

            If’t be th’affliction of his love or no

            That thus he suffers for. (III,i,3437)

14  It is true Hamlet may suspect he is being secretly watched by Claudius, which partly could explain his anger, genuine or put on, but it seems more can be heard beyond this first psychological « layer » and the reference to marriages is interesting. Note also the repetition of « no more », once for Ophelia, a second time for the Queen .

15  Which cannot make us forget the ambiguity of the oedipal child’s feelings, an ambiguity also present in the divided image of the father figure in the tragegy, where we find a portrait of the ideal (but dead) father together with one of the real father (Claudius).

This ambiguity can be analysed in the scene where Hamlet admonishes the Queen and treats her as he has treated Ophelia earlier on. The scene superbly paints the son’s jealous anger and oedipal violence, but what we have next is the figure of the (dead) father :

HAMLET : (to the Ghost) What would your gracious figure ?


    GHOST : Do not forget. This visitation

                     Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose. (III,iv, 106-113)

This points to the oedipal structure of the play, but it also reveals the presence of the « Other » « in » the Prince. The first act has shown how the son’s destiny was shaped by an Other’s desire, and here again the Ghost reminds the Prince of his « duty », which I read as desire of the Other.

About mourning and suicide, we can also say that mourning entails a depressive state and not unfrequently thoughts of self-murder.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Robert Silhol "Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis: On Hamlet’s « To be or not to be » Soliloquy". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available May 24, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2005, Published: August 25, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Robert Silhol