The Magical Verb To Be: "To Be or Not To Be"
The Magical Verb To Be: "To Be or Not To Be" is one of a pair of infinity ring sculptures inspired by an article by Starr Goode.
A work in progress, "To Be or Not To Be" is shown here in greenware state.
18" x 18" x 4"
"The Magical Verb To Be"
by Starr Goode
The magical verb to be is the most powerful verb in the English language. It is a description of all states of being and the core verb of the language. In its infinitive form, it is used in the most famous soliloquy in English in the middle of Shakespeare’s most famous play Hamlet. The verb is also used in another speech in the last scene of the play. We shall look at how far a verb can go.
“To be, or not to be” begins Hamlet’s soliloquy (III.1.56-89). When we last saw Hamlet at the end of Act II, his spirits were buoyed by a plan - his decision to test the King by the play within the play which will parody Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet. He had earlier condemned himself for his inaction as a “rogue and peasant slave” (II.2.547) and wondered if he was a coward. Act III begins with spies. The King asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern if their spying on Hamlet has revealed “why he puts on this confusion” (III.1.2). It shows the King is suspicious that Hamlet is play-acting, so the King and Polonius arrange to spy (“lawful espials” III.1.33) on the poor Prince themselves, using Ophelia as a prop with a prayer book. In a chilling aside, the King reveals his guilt to the audience (“How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience! ... O, heavy burden!” III.1.49-52). He and Polonius exit. Hamlet arrives and asks himself the famous question.
“To be, or not to be - that is the question”. He does not phrase it - to do or not to do - that would not be Hamlet. Nor does he have an answer. It is fitting that the words are addressed to himself, his interior world which is the natural world of his temperament which shapes the entire play. He then develops the question: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/ Or to take arms against a sea of troubles/ And by opposing end them.” Is it more exalted in character to endure suffering (to be) or to take action (not to be) against troubles in order to end them? Fortune (often mentioned in the play) has been outrageous to Hamlet - it shattered his world: murdered father, incestuous mother, inheritance usurped, visitation by a ghost. No action of his brought these things into being. He describes such a fate as a sea of troubles. No wonder it’s hard to act - who could take on the sea?
Throughout the entire soliloquy, Hamlet’s critical intellect shifts . Shakespeare uses dashes for a rapid progression of thoughts. After thoughts of action comes thoughts of death (“To die”), then a more palatable image of death, “to sleep” then a stark image of finality - “No more”. Now the meaning of to be or not to be deepens: to live or to die. “And by a sleep to say we end/ the heartache and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wished.” Here we have traveled far from the noble endurance of the first lines. It is the natural heritage of humans to suffer, and Hamlet wants out, and he makes it sound like a marriage vow. He does not talk about how death is to come. We know from his very first soliloquy, even before the ghost’s revelation of a “murder most foul” (I.5.27), that Hamlet has had suicide on his mind (“that the Everlasting had not fixed/ His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” I.2130-1).
Hamlet repeats his theme of “To die, to sleep” and adds a new element “to dream” which leads down another corridor (“Ay, there’s the rub”) because the sleep of death may have nightmares. Suddenly, death is not a release, an intensely desired sleep, but a terror of the unknown. It is fearful enough to make us “shuffle” (drag our feet), and “must give us pause” to leave this life - “this mortal coil”. A coil is a spiral, like Hamlet’s mind in this soliloquy, which circles round and round to new thoughts which touch and obliterate previous thoughts. Hamlet must “pause” midline in his contemplation about death or suicide, so naturally his thoughts turn back to life. The next five lines elaborate on “thousand natural shocks” that humans must endure if they are to live the “calamity of so long life”. What follows is a list of injustices, all of which have happened to Hamlet: “Th’oppressor’s wrong” (Claudius, the murderer is King), “the proud man’s contumely” (being told by the King his grief is “unmanly” I.2.6), “The pangs of despised love” (Ophelia’s silent withdrawal), “the law’s delay” (by moral rights, Hamlet should be king), “The insolence of office” (Polonius’ spying), “the spurns/ That make patient merit of th’unworthy takes” (the company of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!). All these injustices are posed as a question, “who would bear the whips and scorns of time ... When he himself might make his quietus make/ With a bare bodkin?”. With a single dagger, one could release oneself from life.
Another question spirals round: why would we suffer the “fardels” of life, “grunt and sweat under a weary life,/ But that the dread of something after death”? Now the sufferings of life are preferable to suicide. Death could be worse than life! The tone shifts in the next line, “The undiscovered country”. This evokes the Age of Discovery that was part of Shakespeare’s epoch; it has a feeling of adventure, of challenge - “from whose bourn/ No traveller returns”. The rest of the line is a description of Hamlet’s personality par excellence: “puzzles the will”.
It’s all down hill from here. There will be no will to act. Thoughts confuse his will. Thoughts poison action. What started out as a meditation on endurance or action turns to thoughts of suicide, returns to thoughts of endurance, but now to endure is not something noble. It is something we do because “conscience does make cowards of us all”. Now it isn’t a question of mind versus action but that “the pale cast of thought” sickens the “native hue of resolution”. Thus “enterprises of great pitch and moment” have “their currents turn awry/ And lose the name of action”. Poor Hamlet, he doesn’t even have action to lose but merely its name. The image is sickening - how the great current of an intended action loses all its force, bogged down by thought. In the beginning of the soliloquy, Hamlet at least allowed some value to the mind, but by the end he seems to worship action, lost to him, above thought. He is disgusted by his greatest gift - his own mind. He judges himself harshly, for what he is not, what he cannot do - kill himself or coldly plan a murder. The speech reveals Hamlet’s internal landscape, cast in a nightmarish situation.
His private thoughts are interrupted by the sight of Ophelia and the soliloquy ends poignantly with Hamlet silently asking her to pray for him, sinner that he is (in thy orisons/ Be all my sins remembered”). It’s all he can do.
With Fate at odds with personal desires, the two lovers talk. Hamlet realizes he is being spied upon and utters the brash “all but one shall live” (III.1.149). The King gets the message and “in quick determination” (III.1.169) decides to send Hamlet to England. Hamlet is gone for most of Act IV and returns to Denmark in Act V. We first see him in the graveyard scene commenting on the dusty fate of all that is mortal then leaping into Ophelia’s grave to fight with Laertes. The King calms Laertes by reminding him of their plot to murder Hamlet in a sword duel disguised as entertainment for the court.
The last scene of the play is long but the speech I want to focus on is short and important (V.2.213-18). It is Hamlet’s last intimate exchange with Horatio, dear Horatio, the only person who has never betrayed him. It is fitting that Hamlet reveals his final state of mind to Horatio before he enters the public world of the court. Osrick, a courtier has just left, informing Hamlet of a wager the King has made with Laertes: six Barbary horses against six rapiers that “in a dozen passes between yourself and him he shall not exceed you three hits” (V.2.162-3). The two friends are then alone for the last time. Hamlet agrees to the duel but has a foreboding, “But thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart” (V.2.206). Horatio responds, “If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will say ... you are not fit” (V.2.211-2).
Hamlet then begins his last private speech, rhyming Horatio’s “fit” with “Not a Whit”. Not a particle, not the least bit, don't change anything. This is a different Hamlet; he is resolved to act even though he has doubts - “We defy augury”. We defy the omens. Has he at last become Hercules? Not a whit. It is a calmness, a new faith that has steadied him. He does not shred all the possibilities apart in his mind. “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow”. There is meaning and order in even the tiniest event. There is a divine force that guides all life. This is a beautiful, spiritually sustaining image.
What has happened to Hamlet since he returned to Denmark? For one thing, he did return, alive, something the King didn’t plan for. His world view has been altered by an extraordinary series of coincidences. In Act V Hamlet tells Horatio his miraculous tale of escape from death. His intuition, “a kind of fighting” (V.2.4) in his heart make him half dressed and in the dark, steal the King’s letters from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, unseal them and discover their malefic contents - “My head should be struck off” (V.2.26). While this is not soothing news, it does give Hamlet the concrete proof of the King’s evil he has longed for throughout the play. No more incorporeal ghosts or fleeting facial expressions; at last he has physical evidence in hand. This clarifies the situation for him. To kill Claudius would be justice and “not to be damned” (V.2.68). Coincidence then follows coincidence. Hamlet just happens to be able to write like a statist so he can write a new letter to save himself; he just happens to have the old king’s signet ring in his purse which just happens not to have been changed in the new regime. His ship just happens to be attacked by pirates and he, of course is the only one to board their ship. They just happen to be “thieves of mercy” (IV.6.20) and bring him back to Denmark. Hamlet has faced death and misadventure and returns a different man. He says it precisely; “When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us/ There’s a divinity that shapes our ends” (V.2.8-9). All his plots failed, his inconsistencies left him in a state of inner agony. In the last act of the play, he comes to a new understanding of life and reconciles his puzzled will.
The next three sentences of Hamlet’s speech form a unified thought: “If it be now, ‘tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come.”. If these are the conditions of life or death, why plan? Who can predict what to do? Notice the use of the verb to be throughout. This is a major change from the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Hamlet’s mind is not on the hamster wheel paralyzing him with ever subtler thoughts. He has abandoned plans as well as self-accusations. What will be will be. As there is no predicting life, there is no predicting death. He seems oddly at peace. What could be more calming than to come to terms with what earlier had been his greatest fear (“the dread of something after death ... makes cowards of us all”)?
This brings us to the next line: “The readiness is all”. He is in a state of receptivity and the potential of action. Earlier in the scene he says “mine is ready, now or whensoever, provided I be so able as now” (V.2.196-7). He is ready to fight the duel; he is ready for life and death. To be ready is to be everything. It’s all a man can be.
The penultimate sentence in Hamlet’s personal thoughts, refine what has gone before, “Since no man knows of aught he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?”. No one knows when they will die, so what if one leaves life early? Sadly we sense that Hamlet knows he is doomed. In his new state of being, he states what all humans know - death is a mystery but states it with a peace that few achieve. This is a matured attitude.
Finally there is his last intimate thought, a summing up of his philosophy from a mind that has explored much - “Let be”. Before facing his death, before the King appears and he goes out to fulfill his heavy purpose, Hamlet has revealed an acceptance of himself, of life, and a faith in divine providence. Hamlet has answered his own question, “To be or not to be” with a different conjugation of the verb - “Let be”.