To woe or not to woe⎜The Shakespeare Project

I’ve always had complicated thoughts about Hamlet. If not complex thoughts, then lingering thoughts. The kind of moments that keep you up at night as you try to think through Hamlet’s soliloquies. The kind of thoughts that force you to hold back a sob, as you reach into the night to grasp the words of the bard, nay to clutch, scratch, and pry those words into or out of your mind or soul–body or being. (Please note that this post will discuss suicide in the context of Hamlet. Please do not read if you may find this triggering)


Hamlet is regarded as the play of the non-acting hero. The hero who does not want to act. And, for the longest time, I think that I was meant to view this as something that takes away from Hamlet’s character. Perhaps, at the time, if was meant to detract. However, I’m not entirely sure that’s the case. Why else would Shakespeare spend such woefully beautiful phrases to decry Hamlet as that dullard who will not restore the chain of being and rid Denmark of a fratricidal king.

Hamlet’s genius remains its ability to delve into the mind of the shattered remnants of the crime scene of life. The exhaustion, the self-doubt, the self-hatred, the confusion, and the deep contemplative anxiety that may or may not be your experience or narrative. In Act I, Scene ii, Hamlet explains the chaos and wretchedness of life. He does not want to kill himself, I think, because he desires that he could just disappear or melt away. That his flesh would thaw and resolve into a dew. It is noteworthy that Hamlet focuses on the flesh, body, and corpus in this moment. In this soliloquy, Hamlet focuses on the flesh–that it is sullied or an ‘unweeded garden / That grows to seed Things rank and gross in / nature.’ Indeed, there is a very physical and real-life, as opposed to abstract, example of Hamlet’s wretchedness. He then moves on to discuss God’s rules that prohibit suicide. Keep this thought in your minds, and I will return to this point momentarily.

As Hamlet discusses his want for death in physical terms that implicate the body, nature, and the corruption of both, he also goes on to discuss his mother’s relationship with her brother-in-law (the one who killed the king to usurp his place). Her husband, the king, dies; she does not know that Claudius has killed him. Within a month, she has wed Claudius. Hamlet’s condemnation of his mother is a very physical condemnation–she was weak in the flesh, as women are wont to be. Hamlet says, ‘Frailty, they name is woman!…/She married. O most wicked speed, to post/With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!’ Lust and incest, the crimes of his Queen and mother, reflect the spoilt edenic purity in which Hamlet wallows. Indeed, let us also remember Hamlet’s invocation to God and his prohibition of sins. As we, and Hamlet will learn, forthwith, Claudius has willfully murdered his brother to gain the crown. If God must prohibit suicide, surely he must also prohibit fratricide, located in the First Testament example of Cain and Abel. From the fall from the garden of Eden, Gertrude must also live in the chaos of Cain and Abel, and the wilful self-destruction of her son.


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Indeed, Hamlet’s most famous speech, with the lines ‘To be or not to be’ moves out of the realm of the physical and into metaphysical question of death, consciousness, and the afterlife. These famous words are quickly followed by ‘Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer’. The mind is our medium of expression here; Hamlet’s self-exploration is of the mind in opposition to the fleshly, worldly sins of the flesh. To emphasize this shift, Shakespeare penned, ‘No more; and by a sleep, to say we end / The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks / That flesh is heir to?…’ Flesh is heir, or secondary, to mental anguish experienced by man. To die, to wish for eternal sleep, Hamlet is saying, is not a question of the flesh but one of the mind.

Indeed, that is not quite so simple as it seems. Hamlet continues, ‘to die, to sleep, / To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,/ For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil.’ As Hamlet talks himself through what death might be or not be, he notes that death is not the easy solution it pretends to be. Just as in life, in death, one cannot control what will happen. For instance, Hamlet’s father does not float into heaven–he must suffer his mortal sins in purgatory before he is accepted into the Kingdom of God. Indeed, what of hell, too? The mis-Fortune of the life lived is also the mis-Fortune–‘The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune’–of the afterlife. Indeed,  Hamlet works this out, he realizes that just as the physical metaphor of a sullied garden offers him no solution, neither does his metaphysical exploration of death. It is not an answer with a simple solution. His inaction is a paradox that is, perhaps, as we shall see in my next post, solved by Ophelia.


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Quite extraordinarily, Hamlet finishes by saying, ‘Soft you now, / The fair Ophelia? Nymph, in thy Orisons / Be all my sins remembered.’ This is quite telling because, *spoiler*, Ophelia dies by her own hand as she falls from a tree into the water below. And, this very messy physical act undoes Hamlet’s honeyed words ‘Nymph, in they Orisons.’ Ophelia’s tragic death is seen as her losing her mind as result of the way Hamlet treats her. She is often written off as this tragic damsel, who can’t quite handle Hamlet’s rejection. I think this is wrong. Ophelia is the physical manifestation of the chaos in Denmark. Hamlet teeters between action and in-action; Claudius has upset the great chain of being; and Gertrude is complicit by so quickly bedding Claudius. But, very arguably, Ophelia is not that simple.

Soft you now, dear readers. I will continue this post this week with Ophelia at nor without her orisons!


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