The internet's cosmic sinkhole of misinformation will never be filled, but it's worth throwing some dirt in when we can, so here's an accurate list of Hamlet's soliloquies, with a short description of where they occur and what they say, along with a few observations.
1In the play's second scene, Hamlet's uncle King Claudius sends a message to the Norwegian king, gives a courtier's son permission to return to France, and tells Hamlet to stop grieving for his father. After the King and his court leave, Hamlet begins the first soliloquy by wishing that he could disintegrate—that his "too, too solid flesh would melt" (1.1.129)—and that God hadn't forbidden suicide. His death wish rises from his revulsion at his mother's marriage to Claudius, which took place less than two months after his father's death: "O most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!" (156-157). He concludes the soliloquy by saying that keeping such thoughts to himself is agony: "break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue" (159).
|Laurence Olivier's Hamlet 1.2.|
2In the first act's last scene, the Ghost describes his murder in gruesome detail and then, after ordering Hamlet to avenge and remember him, disappears. Our frenzied hero begins his second soliloquy by proclaiming his anguish to the universe, to the earth, heaven, and hell (1.5.92-93). He fears that his heart will burst and his body collapse and declares that he will remember the Ghost as long as he can remember anything: "Remember thee? / Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat / In this distracted globe" (95-97).
|Mel Gibson in the|
Franco Zeffirelli Hamlet 1.4.
"Globe" here refers to Hamlet's head but also to the Globe Theatre where the play was originally performed. Shakespeare loved metatheatre and wasn't afraid to remind his audience that they were watching a play at moments when we might think he would want them to remain inside the story. For example, in Julius Caesar one of the assassins, his hands covered in Caesar's blood, wonders how many times the assassination will be acted "In states unborn and accents yet unknown" (3.1.114), a line that reminds the audience that the play is being performed in a country and language that didn't exist at the time of the story. Similarly, in Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen imagines a "squeaking Cleopatra boy" someday playing her part (5.2.216), which would have reminded the original audience that they were watching a boy actor, not a great queen moments before her suicide.
Hamlet refers to the Globe immediately before trying to turn himself into an avenger with a monomaniacal oath. He vows that he will forget everything he's read and experienced:
from the table [tablet] of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain.
(1.5.98-103)Watching this scholarly prince try to turn himself into a single-minded killer is something like watching Jekyll become Hyde. It's as horrifying as it is tragic.
After this vow, Hamlet returns to the theme of his first soliloquy, crying out against his mother—"most pernicious woman!" (105)—and against Claudius: "villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!" (106). He writes down the obvious fact that "one may smile and smile and be a villain" (109) as if he would have trouble remembering it and ends the soliloquy by recalling the Ghost's last words and his own vow of revenge.
3In the second act's second scene, an actor tearfully describes the murder of Hecuba during the fall of Troy. Hamlet asks the actor if he and his company can perform a play called The Murder of Gonzago, inserting a speech that Hamlet will write. After the actor says they can and leaves, Hamlet begins his third soliloquy by chastising himself for not murdering Claudius. He calls himself "an ass" (2.2.560), "a dull and muddy-mettled rascal" (544), and "a rogue and peasant slave" (527).
Remembering how the actor looked pale and wept for someone he didn't know, Hamlet wonders what the actor would do if he had Hamlet's "motive and . . . cue for passion" (258)? With that spur, the actor
would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appall the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.
(539-43)Yet Hamlet has said and done nothing. He must be a coward—if he weren't, he would have fattened birds with Claudius's guts.
After proclaiming his hatred of Claudius—"bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless [unnatural] villain!" (557-58)—and crying out for vengeance, Hamlet calms down, rebukes himself for talking instead of taking revenge, and tells us why he wants the actors to perform The Murder of Gonzago. He has heard that plays can move guilty audience members to proclaim their guilt. By having the actors "[p]lay something like the murder of [his] father" (572), he can confirm the Ghost's tale. If the King "but blench" (574) during the performance, Hamlet will know he's guilty: "The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King" (581-82).
|Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet 2.2.|
4In the next scene, Claudius reveals in an aside that he already feels the lash of conscience. He and the meddlesome courtier Polonius hide to spy on a meeting they've set up between Hamlet and Polonius's daughter Ophelia. Hamlet enters and begins the fourth soliloquy.
Its famous monosyllabic "question"—"To be or not to be" (3.1.58)—can be read as "to take arms or not," "to commit suicide or not," or "to exist or not." In the next two lines, Hamlet draws on the Stoic philosophical tradition as he wonders whether it's nobler to bear bad fortune or fight it, perhaps by killing ourselves. He goes on to say that if death were simply the absence of consciousness, a dreamless sleep, then we would embrace it to end "The heartache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to" (64-65). Unfortunately, we can't know what comes after death, which is "the undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns" (81-82).
|Ethan Hawke in Michael Almereyda's Hamlet 3.1.|
Whether the figure he encountered in the first act was a devil or a ghost, it has raised the possibility that death might not be a dreamless sleep—it might be a nightmare. Hamlet claims (implausibly, I think) that only our fear of such an afterlife, "the dread of something after death" (80), keeps us from killing ourselves to avoid life's setbacks and cruelties. He concludes by reflecting that thoughts like these turn us into cowards and keep us from acting (85-90). (To compare four actors' versions of this speech, click here.)
5The fourth soliloquy is followed by a painful scene between Hamlet and Ophelia, by Claudius deciding to send Hamlet to England, and by the Mousetrap performance. Claudius's reaction to the play convinces Hamlet of his guilt, and he begins his fifth soliloquy by saying that this is an ideal moment for revenge: "'Tis now the very witching time of night, / When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out / Contagion to this world" (3.2.358-60). Hamlet fits right in. He has become a monster ready to "drink hot blood / And so such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on" (360-62). In this state of mind, he worries that he won't be able to control himself when he goes to a planned meeting with his mother, so he promises himself that he will "speak daggers" to her "but use none" (366).
6In the following scene, we hear Claudius's first and only soliloquy, a long, tortured, guilt-ridden meditation—"O, my offence is rank!" (3.3.36)—that Abraham Lincoln considered better than Hamlet's fourth soliloquy. As Claudius finishes this speech, he kneels and tries to pray.
|The Tenth Doctor gets ready to snuff |
Professor X (RSC Hamlet 3.3).
Image from flickfilosopher.
Hamlet finishes this soliloquy by saying that postponing the murder is a "physic" that merely prolongs Claudius's "sickly days" (96). He leaves to meet with his mother, and we hear Claudius say that he couldn't pray, so we learn that he wasn't in a state of grace after all.
7Hamlet's meeting with his mother does not go well. He begins speaking daggers to her, she calls for help, and Polonius, who was spying from behind a curtain, cries out. Hamlet stabs him, killing him, an act that gives Claudius a good excuse to act on his plan of sending Hamlet to England.
On his way out of Denmark, Hamlet and his guards encounter the army of the Norwegian prince Fortinbras. When a Norwegian officer tells Hamlet that the army is going to fight for a worthless piece of Polish territory, Hamlet sensibly observes that "the Polack never will defend it" (184.108.40.206).
Au contraire, my young prince, the officer says (not in French), "it is already garrisoned" (14).
|Branagh Hamlet 4.4.|
The officer leaves, Hamlet's guards withdraw, and Hamlet begins his seventh and final soliloquy by exclaiming, "How all occasions do inform against me / And spur my dull revenge!" (22-23). Presumably the "occasion" uppermost in his mind is the impending battle, which makes the opening of this soliloquy like the opening of a John Donne poem, in which we wonder how Donne will make a convincing argument using a strange premise, how, for example, Donne will talk a woman into having sex with him using a flea as his starting point. Hamlet's starting point is an absurd battle. How can such an occasion spur his revenge? Answering this question requires tortuous—and tortured—thinking, which is why the seventh soliloquy is Hamlet's most complex. (In his book on Hamlet, Harold Bloom also says that the seventh soliloquy is the most complex, but he simply quotes it and moves on. I'll try to do a better job, which will take a while.)
After his initial exclamation, Hamlet returns to a theme he introduced in the second act. There, in a conversation with his childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he marveled—momentarily—at humanity's magnificence, describing reason as its crowning attribute: "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, . . . in apprehension how like a god" (2.2.294-96). In the seventh soliloquy he calls reason both "god-like" and a gift from God (220.127.116.11-27). If we squander this gift, Hamlet says, then we're no better than beasts (23-25). Presumably the irrationality of Fortinbras's actions has led Hamlet to consider the importance of reason.
Yet reason won't necessarily get him where he wants to go—to justifying his revenge—so he switches from praising reason to condemning overthinking. He calls overthinking a kind of cowardice (31-33) and then, as he did in the second soliloquy, chastises himself for not avenging his father. He says that his revenge should be easy since he has the "cause and will and strength and means / To do't" (36-37), but only the first of these, the "cause," is indisputably true. Though we can argue about his "will and strength," it's hard to say that Hamlet has the "means" to avenge his father's death since he's being led out of the country under guard.
Having imagined that the situation is what he would like it to be, that he can easily kill Claudius, Hamlet returns to the soliloquy's starting point, the impeding attack on the Poles. He describes this contemptuously: Fortinbras is "a delicate and tender prince" puffed up by ambition (39-40), and the land he's fighting for is nothing but an eggshell (43).
The first half of Hamlet's next sentence—"Rightly to be great / Is not to stir without great argument" (44-45)—also disses the battle since Fortinbras has no great reason to sacrifice his men for worthless land. The sentence's second half—"But greatly to find quarrel in a straw / When honour's at the stake" (46-47)—turns this around. That the land is valueless doesn't matter—honor trumps everything. Hamlet has found the solution to the soliloquy's initial problem. How can an irrational battle spur his revenge? If honor can make a delicate and tender prince wage pointless war, then it should compel Hamlet to commit justified revenge. His father has been murdered, his mother "stained" (47), yet he has done nothing, while Fortinbras, motivated by honor alone, is ready to send his soldiers into a battle that Hamlet now excitedly imagines is even crazier than it is:
to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause.
Earlier Hamlet said that Fortinbras had two thousand men (he had twenty thousand ducats). Assuming that the Poles have a similar number of soldiers, and that every soldier on each side is killed—which is impossible—then Hamlet has quintupled the number of men involved. They won't even fit on the land they're fighting for.
By conjuring up this surreal vision, a mountain of dying soldiers hacking at each other, Hamlet hopes to shame himself into action, but as he does this he undercuts his own argument by denigrating honor. Sounding much like Falstaff—"What is honour? A word. . . . What is that 'honour'? Air." (1 Henry IV 5.1.133-34)—Hamlet describes honor as "a fantasy and trick of fame." If honor is a fantasy, then it can justify neither the impending battle nor Hamlet's revenge.
The battle doesn't spur Hamlet's revenge logically—it spurs it imaginatively, filling his mind with images of bloodshed that lead him to the soliloquy's conclusion—"O, from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" (55-56)—a version of the second soliloquy's monomaniacal vow that he will think of nothing but revenge.