#23 – Shakespeare’s Hamlet Pt. 2: What Is The Question, Exactly?

Scott and Producer Trent wrap up their discussion of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, close-reading Hamlet’s soliloquies and dissecting the structure of Shakespeare’s verse. They reflect on Shakespeare’s impact on modern literature, the curiously secular perspective of the play in a highly religious time period, and whether Shakespeare sought to moralize or draw conclusions (spoiler: we don’t think he does).


You can’t read Hamlet and not talk about the most famous of his soliloquies, the “To Be or Not to Be?” speech at the heart of the play, both literally and figuratively. A surface level reading suggests that Hamlet is contemplating suicide at this moment of the play, having come to no certain conclusions about the best way to resolve his dilemma — his father murdered, his mother’s loyalty in doubt, and many of his friends suspect. It’s an understandable position, but perhaps Hamlet is also touching on something deeper, a question of existence; whether humans would be better off having never existed, rather than face the “whips and scorns of time.” It’s an existential reflection, which Hamlet sums up beautifully elsewhere in the play: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

In this soliloquy and the ones that follow, Hamlet arrives at an unpleasant truth: that we are all dealt different hands in life, yet we all must play them (or not be living at all). Sometimes the optimal play for that hand predicts no good outcomes, yet play we must. The notion of a “good life,” therefore, rests on the mannerin which one plays their hand, rather than the outcomeor influencetheir play has on their circumstances. Even if the optimal play is a poor one, “nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

In one sense, Shakespeare draws a rather modern conclusion — an existential conclusion — about life, centuries before existentialism would be formally developed. He also cleverly avoids moralizing, leaving any sense of justice, revenge, or morality ambiguous. In the end, nearly every major character dies. The inevitability of death, and the way the it annuls the virtue (or vice) of ostensibly good and evil characters, is the only firm conclusion the play seems to make: “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”