To Be or Not to Be: The Hamlet Question

I’ve read Hamlet so many times that I usually have to replace my copy every year because it falls apart. I don’t even know why I bother reading it anymore; I’ve got it memorized (which, believe you me, is very handy if you ever complete a M.A. in English).

Hamlet is possibly Shakespeare’s most well known play, and it has the most recited two lines in all of English literature: To be or not to be, that is the question. 

So what is Hamlet actually asking in this scene?

Well, as a Master of English, I can officially tell you that Hamlet is contemplating suicide. (Don’t believe me? Read the monologue here. Carefully.) “To be or not to be” is not just a question of Hamlet’s vengeful intentions; Hamlet is literally questioning whether or not he should continue to exist.

The role of Hamlet is demanding; few actors can devote the emotional gravity that it requires. Yet, the play is filmed often enough that I can’t help but wonder, do the actors who portray Hamlet understand what he’s saying? Do they understand the ethical and existential torment running through the character’s mind?

In trying to answer my own question, I took a look at Hamlet in the past 65 years:

  • Laurence Olivier, 1948

Olivier, one of the greatest actors of the stage and film, is masterful. Everything about this scene conveys Hamlet’s desperation and solitude as he (quite literally) stares into a “sea of troubles.” Olivier also switches between an internal, voiced-over monologue, and an externalization, which I think reemphasizes the loneliness of the prince of Denmark.

I rate all subsequent Hamlets on a scale of 1 to Olivier.

  • Derek Jacobi, 1980

Derek Jacobi is charming, flamboyant, and flirts with madness in his portrayal of Hamlet. His physical presence and body language give a greater visualization to Hamlet’s insanity, and his monologue is not premeditated. To the audience, it appears that this is Hamlet’s first thought of suicide.

Hamlet rating: 1/2 an Olivier, but mostly because I think that Hamlet had been thinking of suicide for a while.

  • Mel Gibson, 1990

Pros: a creepy crypt is a good mood setting for a monologue about suicide; Gibson’s body language firmly depicts his unhappiness with his current situation.

Cons: No matter what, all I see is Mel Gibson with a beard and tights. Not Hamlet.

Hamlet rating: 1/4 of an Olivier for the creepy crypt.

  • Kenneth Branagh, 1996

I could listen to this man speak all day. His voice has the cadence that illuminates Shakespearean English. I love this version of Hamlet because Branagh really emphasizes that (1) Hamlet unknowingly has an audience for this scene and (2)  Hamlet is struggling with himself. By having Hamlet speak to himself in a mirror, Branagh illustrates the duality of Hamlet’s personality and the inner duel that arises from his “to be or not to be” question. The appearance of the knife only further demonstrates that Hamlet is fighting with himself.

Hamlet rating: Olivier would be proud, methinks.

  • Ethan Hawke, 2000

No. Just…no. Hamlet, in a  Blockbuster video store, wearing a ridiculous knit hat, contemplating suicide.

Choose the “not to be” option and spare us.

Hamlet rating: I won’t dishonor Shakespeare by even putting this one on the scale.

  • David Tennant, 2009

This monologue is slightly truncated, but I don’t care. Tennant, alone in the dark, a nice pathetic fallacy to the internal turmoil of Hamlet, gives a haunted and tortured Hamlet. A Hamlet so disillusioned with his life that he has to use the wall for support as he contemplates suicide. This is Hamlet at his darkest. And to that I say, yes. So much yes.

My Hamlet rating: Move over, Olivier.

-The Collectress