Hamlet: "To be or not to be...."

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To be, or not to be: that is the question:

The opening line scans fairly normally, and the stresses help emphasize the comparison of being versus not being. The line is an example of a feminine ending, or a weak extra syllable at the end of the line. Hamlet puts forth his thesis statement at the beginning of his argument, which is generally a good idea. Be here is used in its definition of "exist." Note the colons signifying two caesuras (pauses) in the opening line. The trochee of that is works in two ways here, lending proper emphasis to the line and reinforcing the pause in the middle.

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Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The initial trochee is a typical inversion of Shakespeare's; beginning the line with a stressed syllable varies the rhythm and gives a natural emphasis at the start. The third foot with "in" could also be scanned as a pyrrhic. Hamlet now elaborates on his proposition; the question actually concerns existence when faced with suffering. Nobler here seems most likely to denote "dignified," in the mind translates to "of opinion," and suffer is used in the sense "to bear with patience or constancy." As a whole, a thoroughly less poetic rendering of the line translates to "whether people think that it's more dignified to put up with."

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The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

This is the third feminine ending in a row, and it's hard to overlook as anything but a conscious effort. Some editors have argued that the original word was "stings" rather than "slings," although slings and arrows makes for a better rhetorical construction. Slings and arrows imply missile weapons that can not only strike from a distance but can miss their mark and strike someone unintended. That would fit with the capriciousness suggested by the phrase outrageous fortune. The metaphor also brings up the demoralizing aspect of enduring attacks without being able to respond effectively—whether from archers, snipers, artillery, or even guerrilla tactics. Outrageous in this speech denotes "violent or atrocious." In this usage, fortune denotes "the good or ill that befalls man."

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Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

Here's a changeup: a pyrrhic followed by a spondee that adds a natural emphasis on take arms (denoting in this instance to "make war"). In what follows, we have straight iambic meter with yet another feminine ending. The initial quatrain of four weak endings could be an attempt by Shakespeare to use the verse to convey further Hamlet's uncertainty. Sea of troubles is a fairly simple metaphor in this usage that compares Hamlet's troubles (sufferings) to the vast and seemingly boundless sea. This line essentially translates to "or to fight against the endless suffering." The preceding reference to "outrageous fortune" dictates that Hamlet is primarily referring to the continuous assault of troubles that he perceives life as presenting him. However, the double entendre is whether to take up arms against the external troubles (i.e., Claudius) or against those troubles within himself (thus implying consideration of suicide). Either way, Hamlet seems to be asking if the struggle is even worth the effort.

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And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;

The line would appear to scan as iambic pentameter with an extra unstressed syllable preceding the implied pause after "them?" (a pause, incidentally, that makes it hard to scan "...them? To die" as an anapest foot, since the two unstressed syllables don't run together.) The use of opposing in context continues the metaphor of armed struggle begun by "take arms" in the previous line. There is potential ambiguity in the use of die here; obviously, it means "to lose one's life," but there are possible secondary meanings of "to pine for" and "vanish" as well. Sleep plays upon a double meaning of both "rest" and "being idle or oblivious."

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No more; and by a sleep to say we end

You could scan the first foot as either an iamb or a spondee; I've chosen a spondee because it seems like "No more" is a singular concept that warrants equal weight on the two syllables. There's a natural pause that comes before "and by a sleep...." The line is basically a qualifier of Hamlet's usage of "sleep" in the line before.

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The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

Scansion here reveals a possible anapest at the end of the line (if one doesn't treat the next-to-last word as "nat'ral"). This line serves as poetic elaboration of the "sea of troubles" to which Hamlet refers earlier. Heart-ache is easily enough understood as anguish or sorrow, while thousand signifies "numerous" in this context, and natural shocks translates loosely to "normal conflicts."

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That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation

That flesh is heir to is a poetic way of saying "that afflict us" (literally "that our bodies inherit"). Consummation (Middle English: consummaten from the Latin consummare, "to complete or bring to perfection") is a poetic usage that plays off its traditional meaning to mean "end" or "death."

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Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;

Let it be noted that this repetition of "to die, to sleep" is an intentional rhetorical device. The significance of using the same phrase in a focal position at the end of two lines makes it nearly impossible to speak this speech without emphasizing the death/sleep comparison at work. Here, devoutly denotes a meaning of "earnestness" rather than its more traditional religious association; this speech, unlike Hamlet's first soliloquy, is secular rationalism (especially in contrast with "Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd/His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!").

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To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;

The spondee in the fourth foot helps to punch the change that "perchance to dream" brings into the speech. Metrically, you can hear Hamlet working through the logic based on the stresses. Rub means "obstacle or impediment," and perchance means "perhaps" in context. The point of this line is that Hamlet seeks oblivion, which he has likened to a deep slumber. However, the flaw in this thinking, as Hamlet reasons out, is that dreams come to us during sleep. One can imagine that Hamlet's dreams are reasonably unpleasant, which leads him to extrapolate in the next line....

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For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

Notice how the straight iambic rhythm of this line and the one that follows quickens the pace of Hamlet's speech. This is reinforced by a lack of pauses (think about how colons, semicolons, and commas act as linguistic speed bumps in some of the previous lines). Now the rhetorical comparison of sleep and death is driven home, and Hamlet infers that if death is sleep intensified, then the possible dreams in death are likely to be intensified as well.

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When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Again, the uninterrupted iambic pentameter is skipping toward the predicate of Hamlet's discovery (which occurs in the next line). The language here, of course, is Shakespeare's poetic way of saying "when we've died" (shuffled = "gotten rid of" and coil = "turmoil, confusion").

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Must give us pause: there's the respect

Scansion here reveals a trait that Shakespeare sometimes uses in a mid-line caesura: he occasionally eliminates a syllable or an entire foot following the pause. In this case, the line is only eight total syllables. Some scholars point out that at least some of these syllabic irregularities might also be due to corruptions of the text over 400 years. Must give us pause is the predicate of "dreams" from two lines prior. This line is also an example where the language can help the performer; just try to gloss over the word "pause" in this line. It's impossible. The verse, the punctuation, the context, and the word itself all serve to force the speaker to take some form of pause before moving on. Give us pause in context denotes "stop and consider." The usage of respect here denotes "a reason or motive."

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That makes calamity of so long life;

My scansion pattern in this line is based on the sense of the speech. "Makes" is the predicate of this clause and needs a certain amount of stress. Although it might ordinarily seem strange in another context, the ending with three stressed syllables on "so long life" works because the back-to-back stresses draw out the words in an onomatopoetic manner (think about how your own speech might drag if you were describing something that tired you out just thinking about it). The word calamity is used in the sense of "misery."

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For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

This plain iambic line begins a five-line poetic laundry list of examples of all those things that make life such a burden. Keep in mind that this is an extended, slightly rhetorical question Hamlet poses. The subject—those who would bear—begins in this line. The whips and scorns of time refers more to Hamlet's (or a person's) lifetime than to time as a figurative reference of eternity.

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The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,

Fans of subjective scansion should love this line. Is the opening foot a pyrrhic, an anapest, or an iamb formed by pronouncing the beginning almost like "th'oppressor"? Contumely (contemptuous treatment or taunts, from the Middle English contumelie from the Latin contumelia, meaning "abuse, insult") scans in this context as three syllables rather than four. This scansion gives the line an iambic feel (albeit with the flavor of a feminine ending), and the most logical way of viewing the meter seems to be: anapest/iamb/iamb/iamb/pyrrhic. At least that makes the line predominantly iambic pentameter.

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The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay,

This line is more interesting for its rhetorical devices than its metrical pattern. Like the line prior, there is a mid-line caesura that creates an internal parallel structure. Note the play of consonance in juxtaposing disprized love and law's delay, as well as the light "s" sounds that punctuate several points within the line.

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The insolence of office and the spurns

The fourth foot could scan as an iamb rather than a pyrrhic, but that's quibbling. This line produces heavy consonance with the words insolence (rudeness, impudence; from the Latin insolens, meaning "immoderate" or "overbearing") office (public officials), and spurns (insults). Incidentally, this in a nutshell is why Shakespeare still works for us four centuries later: the gripe of the public against those who hold public office is both universal and eternal.

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That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

There are quite a few things going on here. First, scansion reveals as many as four unstressed syllables in a row, which is unusual. The line itself is 11 syllables; as scanned above, the line can be described as iamb/iamb/pyrrhic/anapest/iamb. Scanning "of" as stressed (however slightly) turns that interpretation into iamb/iamb/iamb/anapest/iamb instead. Grammatically, this line is an object-subject-verb inversion with the direct object ("spurns") on the previous line, which makes it all a bit dicier to parse. Patient in this context is defined as "bearing evils with calmness and fortitude," while merit denotes "worthiness" and takes is used as "receives." Literally, the clause would translate to something like "the insults that worthy fortitude receives from the unworthy."

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When he himself might his quietus make

Now that Hamlet is done listing all those "whips and scorns of time," he's getting to the heart of his proposition. Who would suffer all this when there's another choice? Here's a bit of trivia: Shakespeare uses quietus only twice in all his works (the other occurrence is in Sonnet 126) It comes originally from Medieval Latin, meaning "at rest." In Middle English, it took on the denotation "discharge of obligation" and here denotes "release, or settlement of account." It is Shakespeare's poetic license in this speech that produces the contemporary meaning of "a release from life." That being said, it is the older interpretation of "quietus" that leads some scholars to argue that the whole point of this soliloquy is Hamlet talking about "settling his debt" with Claudius. It's the sort of thing that leads to academic "flame wars," so there's something to be said for the entertainment value.

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With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,

Bare bodkin is the salient point (no pun intended) of this line, so it gets the stresses. This creates a pyrrhic/spondee/iamb/iamb/iamb rhythm. Bodkin at the time meant a sharp instrument, much like an awl, used for punching holes in leather. In this context, it suggests a dagger or stiletto (think of the phrase as resembling "bare blade"). The word derives from the Middle English "boidekin." Hamlet is basically asking who wants to suffer life when you could end your troubles with a dagger. After the initial question, Hamlet continues by asking who would bear fardels (pack, burden; from Middle English via Middle French, likely originally from the Arabic fardah).

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To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

There is little noteworthy revealed in the scansion; the stresses fall on the words you would expect to hear stressed. Samuel Johnson preferred "groan and sweat" in his 1765 edition of the works, annotating, "All the old copies have, 'to grunt and sweat'. It is undoubtedly the true reading, but can scarcely be borne by modern ears." Weary here means "tiresome."

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But that the dread of something after death,

This plain blank verse clause refers back to the fardel-bearing "who" of two lines prior. Dread (Middle English = dreden, from the Old English adrædan meaning "to advise against") is used in its primary meaning of "fear," although its archaic meaning of "awe or reverence" could be in play as well. Primarily, however, the point is that fear of the unknown is possibly the only thing keeping man from killing himself to end his troubles.

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The undiscover'd country from whose bourn

With regard to meter, the only real question here is whether to stress from, whose, both, or neither. The undiscover'd country is a poetic reference to death; bourn denotes "limit, confine, or boundary." Bourn derives either from the Old English burna meaning "stream or brook" (via Old High German brunno, meaning "spring of water") or, alternately, from the French bourne (via Old French bodne, meaning "boundary or marker"), depending upon which etymologist you want to believe. With England having been prominently invaded by both Germanic and French speakers, either influence (or both) could be at work. 

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No traveller returns, puzzles the will

The rhythm here gets a little disjointed, scanning as spondee/pyrrhic/iamb/trochee/iamb. Puzzles denotes "perplexes or embarrasses," and will (from Middle English via Old English willa, meaning "desire") denotes "intellect or mind." What is most curious to both the casual reader and scholar alike is the statement Hamlet makes that no one returns from death—after he has been visited by his father's ghost. Perhaps Hamlet means no living being returns, or perhaps this thought betrays Hamlet's doubts that the spirit was truly his father. Or—if one interprets Hamlet as making this speech for the benefit of Claudius and Polonius—perhaps Hamlet wants to mislead any eavesdroppers precisely because of the ghost's appearance. There are any number of theories about this, including the hypothesis that the entire monologue or scene has been misplaced in the text. Invent your own explanation—it's fun, and it may earn you a research grant.

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And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Did you know that ill derives from an Old Norse word meaning "bad"? The entire point of this purely iambic line is to set up a comparison between the devil we know...

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Than fly to others that we know not of?

...and the devil we don't. What Hamlet says in effect is that fear of the unknown binds us all (in this case, fear of that unknown beyond death's door). As bad as earthly suffering is, there could be far worse in store for us in death. This is especially true for those who would commit suicide, which was viewed as an abomination by the Church (who saw it as one of the gravest affronts to God) and a guaranteed path to Hell—both by virtue of the sin itself and the Church's refusal to give the offender proper burial rites. Though the speech doesn't directly invoke God, this has to be an undercurrent, no matter how rationally and philosophically Hamlet couches it.

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Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

Thus in this line scans as a stress (making the first foot a spondee rather than an iamb) primarily because of the end-stop of the line above. It also gives emphasis to the slight turn of the speech into its conclusion. Conscience (Middle English via Old French, from Latin conscientia, "to be conscious") here is used primarily in its older sense of "consciousness, inmost thought or private judgment" rather than implying a moral dilemma. The premise is that thoughts can deter action, not unlike the conclusion of Macbeth's dagger soliloquy.

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And thus the native hue of resolution

This line sets up the contrast between resolution and thought using a parallelism (native hue vs. pale cast). Native is used in its sense of "natural"; native hue implies a bold, healthy color symbolizing determination.

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Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,

The antithesis of healthy determination, in this comparison, is the affliction of thought. Sicklied o'er denotes "tainted," and cast denotes "tinge or coloration." Hamlet, in these two lines, hits upon the dramatic problem (and arguably his own tragic flaw) of the play.

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And enterprises of great pith and moment

Enterprises (from the Old French entreprendre, "to undertake") denotes undertakings. Pith derives from the Old English pitha (via Old German pith), which originally denoted the core of a fruit—as in a peach's pit—and evolved into a figurative meaning of spinal cord or bone marrow; here pith demonstrates its evolved denotation of "strength or vigor." Moment, while it might seem to indicate timeliness, actually denotes "consequence, importance" in this context.

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With this regard their currents turn awry,

This is a line in which the unvaried iambic pentameter combined with the consonance of the prevalent "r" sounds propel the speaker toward the conclusion of Hamlet's speech. Regard denotes "consideration" in its usage, while currents is a metaphor based on its meaning "the flowing [steady] motion of water." With turn (change direction) and awry (obliquely, askew), the line loosely translates to "are disrupted by thinking about them."

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And lose the name of action.

The line continues after "action" with Ophelia's appearance, scanning as a full line of iambic pentameter. Compare this conclusion with the end of the dagger soliloquy of Macbeth ("Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives"). Here, Hamlet is making a similar statement, that giving too much thought to the consequences of important actions can paralyze us.

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