The Annotated “To be or not to be”

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150px-shakespeareAs far as this soliloquy goes, there’s a surplus of good online analysis. And if you’re a student or a reader then you probably have a book that already provides first-rate annotation. The only annotation I haven’t found (which is probably deemed unnecessary by most) is an analysis of the blank verse – a scansion – along with a look at its rhetorical structure. So, the post mostly reflects my own interests and observations – and isn’t meant to be a comprehensive analysis. If any of the symbols or terminology are unfamiliar to you check out my posts on the basics of Iambic Pentameter & scansion. Without further ado, here it is. (I’ve numbered the lines for the convenience of referencing.)

text-with-scansion-merged-cropped1

1.) The first line, in a single line, sums up the entirety of the soliloquy – as though Shakespeare were providing crib notes to his own soliloquy. There’s a reason. He wants to cleanly and clearly establish in the playgoers mind the subject of the speech. There will be no working out or self-discovery. Shakespeare is effectively communicating to us some of the reason for Hamlet’s hesitancy.  The speech, in effect, is the reverse of the Shakespearean Sonnet that saves its epigrammatic summing up for the last line. The Shakespearean Sonnet, as Shakespeare writes it, is the working out of a proposition or conflict that finds a kind of solution in the epigrammatic couplet at its close.

Metrically, the first line is possibly one of the most interesting and potentially ambiguous in the entire speech. I chose to scan the line as follows:

  • To be |or not |to be: |that is |the question
  • first-line-iambic

But if you google around, you may find the line more frequently scanned as follows:

  • To be |or not |to be: |that is|the question
  • first-line-trochaic

First to the disclaimer: There is no one way to scan a line but, as with performing music, there are historically informed ways to scan a poem. Shakespeare was writing within a tradition, was a genius, and knew perfectly well when he was or wasn’t varying from the Iambic Pentameter pattern of blank verse. To assume less is to assume that he was mindlessly writing a verse he either didn’t or couldn’t comprehend.

An actor has some latitude in how he or she wants to perform a line, but choosing to ignore the meter is akin to ignoring slurs or other markings composers provide in musical scores. Putting the emphasis on that subtly alters the meaning of the line. It sounds as though Hamlet were looking for the question, the conundrum, and once he has found it he says: Ah ha! That is the question. And this is how most modern readers read the line.

By putting the emphasis on is, in keeping with the Iambic Meter, the meaning of the line takes on a more subtle hue – as if Hamlet knew the question all along. He says: That is the question, isn’t it. The one question, the only question, ultimately, that everyone must answer. There’s a feeling of resignation and, perhaps, self-conscious humor in this metrical reading.

That said, William Baer, in his book Writing Metrical Poetry, typifies arguments in favor of emphasizing writing-metrical-poetrythat. He writes: “After the heavy caesura of the colon, Shakespeare alters the dominant meter of his line by emphasizing the word that over the subsequent word is. ” (Page 14)

How does Baer know Shakespeare’s intentions? How does he know that Shakespeare, in this one instance, means to subvert the iambic meter? He doesn’t tell us.  All he says is that “most readers will substitute a trochee after the first three iambs” – which hardly justifies the reading. Baer’s argument seems to be: Most modern readers will read the foot as a trochee, therefore Shakespeare must have written it as a trochee.

The word anachronistic comes to mind.

If one wants to emphasize that for interpretive reasons, who am I to quarrel? But the closest we have to Shakespeare’s opinion is what he wrote and the meter he wrote in. And that meter tells us that is receives the emphasis, not that.

Note: Baer later mis-attributes the witch’s chant in Macbeth (Page 25) as being by Shakespeare- an addition which most Shakespearean scholars recognize as being by Middleton. Not a big deal, but this stuff interests me.

Anyway, I prefer an iambic reading knowing that not everyone will.

The line closes with a feminine ending in the fifth foot. For this reason, the line  isn’t an Iambic Pentameter line but a variant within the larger Iambic Pentameter pattern. Compare the blank verse of Shakespeare to that of many modern Formalist poets. Shakespeare is frequently far more flexible but, importantly, flexes the pattern without disrupting it. Finding a balance between a  too-strict adherence to a metrical line and too-liberal variation from it is, among modern poets, devoutly to be wished for. But modern poets are hardly unique in this respect, compare this to Middleton’s blank verse (a contemporary who collaborated with Shakespeare.) Middleton stretches blank verse to such a degree that the overall pattern begins to dissolve. He is too liberal with his variants.

2-3.) Both lines close with a feminine ending. They elaborate on the first part of the question- To be. The elegance & genius of Shakespeare’s thought and method of working out ideas is beautifully demonstrated in this speech. The speech as a whole stands as a lovely example of Prolepsis or Propositio - when a speaker or writer makes a general statement, then particularizes it. Interestingly, I was going to provide a link for a definition of Prolepsis but every online source I’ve found (including Wikipedia and Brittanica!) fails to get it completely right. (So much for on-line research.)

OK. Digression. (And this will only appeal to linguists like me.) Here’s a typical definition of Prolepsis as found online:

  • A figure of speech in which a future event is referred to in anticipation.

This isn’t wrong, but it’s not the whole story. Whipping out my trusty Handbook to Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, we find the following:

  • Propositio
  • also known as prolepsis (not to be confused with praesumptio)
  • Susenbrotus ( 28 )
    Scheme. A general statement which preceedes the division of this general proposition into parts.

Praesumptio is the other meaning of Prolepsis, which is what you will find on-line. So, I guess you heard it here, and online, first. Prolepsis has two meanings.

Anyway, Shakespeare takes the general To be, and particularizes it, writing : Is it nobler “to be”, and to suffer the “slings and arrows” of life? The method of argumentation, known as a Topic of Invention, was drilled into Elizabethan school children from day one. All educated men in Shakespeare’s day were also highly trained rhetoricians – even if the vast majority forgot most of it. Shakespeare’s method of writing and thought didn’t come out of the blue. His habit of thought represents the education he and all his fellows received at grammar school.

4-5.) These two lines also close with feminine endings. Shakespeare, unlike earlier Renaissance dramatists, isn’t troubled by four such variants in a row. They elaborate on the second part of the of the question – not to be. Or is it better, Hamlet asks, to take arms and by opposing our troubles, end both them and ourselves? Is it better not to be?

6-9.) Up to this point, there has been a perfect symmetry in Shakespeare’s Prolepsis. He has particularized both to be and not to be. Now, his disquisition takes another turn. Shakespeare particularizes not to be (death) as being possibly both a dreamless sleep (lines 6 through 9) or a dream-filled sleep (lines 10 through 12). So, if I were to make a flowchart, it would look like this:

to-be-tree-updated

In line 7, natural should be elided to read  nat‘ral, otherwise the fifth foot will be an anapest. While some metrists insist that Shakespeare wrote numerous anapests, I don’t buy their arguments. Anapests were generally frowned on. Secondly, such metrists need to explain why anapests, such as those above, are nearly always “loose iambs”, as Frost called them – meaning that elipsis, synaloepha or syncope could easily make the given foot Iambic. Hard-core, incontestable anapests are actually very difficulty to find in Shakespeare’s verse. They are mitigated by elision, syncope or midline pauses (epic caesuras).

10-13.) Shakespeare now particularizes “not to be” (or death) as, perhaps, a dream filled state. This is the counterpart to lines 6-9 in this, so far, exquisitely balanced disquisition. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come – he asks.

14-27.) At this point, Shakespeare could have enumerated some of the fearful dreams attending death – a Dante-esque descent into fearful presentiments. But Shakespeare was ever the pragmatist – his feet firmly planted in the realities of life. He took a different tact. He offers us the penury, suffering and the daily indignities of life. We suffer them, despite their agonies, fearing worse from death. We bear the whips and scorns of time (aging and its indignities), the wrongs of oppressors (life under tyranny), the law’s delay, the spurns of office. Who, he asks, would suffer these indignities when he could end it all with an unsheathed dagger (a bare bodkin) to his heart or throat? – if it weren’t for the fear of what might greet them upon death? Those dreams must be horrible! And he leaves it to us to imagine them – our own private hells – rather than describe that hell himself – Shakespeare’s genius at work.

Line 15 presents us with a rhetorical figure Hendiadys. Interestingly, it’s in Hamlet that Shakespeare uses this figure the most:

  • For who would bear the whips and scorns of time?

The figure denotes the use of two nouns for a noun and its modifier. It’s a powerfully poetic technique in the right hands, and one that is almost unique to Shakespeare. Few poets were ever, afterward, as rhetorically inventive, adventurous or thorough in their understanding and use of rhetoric. It’s part and parcel of why we consider Shakespeare, not just a dramatic genius, but a poetic genius. He unified the arts of language into an expressive poetry that has never been equaled.

Line 16 presents us with some metrical niceties. I’ve chosen to use synaloepha to read The oppres|sor’s wrong as (Th’op)pres|sor’s wrong. I’m not wedded to that reading. One might also consider it a double onset or anacrusis (as some prefer to call it) – two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable in the first foot. Interestingly, metrists have historically preferred to consider this anapest a special variant and so don’t refer to it as an anapest. As a practical matter (considering how the line is likely to be spoken by an actor) I suspect that the first foot will sound more like an Iamb or a loose Iamb – which is why I scanned it the way I did. Line 16 closes with the word contumely. I think that nearly all modern readers would read this as con-tume-ly. A glance at Webster’s, however, reveals that the word can also be pronounced con-tume-ly. The difference probably reflects changes in pronunciation over time. In this case, it’s the meter that reveals this to us. An incontestable trochee in the final foot is extremely rare in Shakespeare, as with all poets  during that time. If you’re ever tempted to read a final foot as trochaic, go look up the word in a good dictionary.

In line 22 the under, in the third foot (under |a wear|y life), is nicely underscored by being a trochaic variant.

In line 25 the fourth foot echoes line 22 with the trochaic puzzles. This is a nice touch and makes me wonder if the reversal of the iambic foot with under and puzzles wasn’t deliberate – effectively puzzling the meter or, in the former, echoing the toil of a “weary life” and the “reversal” of expectations. But it’s also possible to read too much into these variants.

By my count, there are only 6 Iambic Pentameter lines out 13 or so lines (lines 14-27). The rest of the lines are disrupted by variant feet. That means that less than 50% of Shakespeare’s lines, out of this tiny sampling, are Iambic Pentameter. The Blank Verse of Shakespeare (an ostensibly Iambic Pentameter verse form) is far more flexible and varied than one might, at first, expect.

28-33.) These lines mark the true close of the soliloquy. “The native hue of resolution/Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” Fear of the dreams that may inhabit death makes cowards of us all. Some modern readers might be tempted to read line 28 as follows:

  • Thus con|science does |make co|wards of |us all

But the Iambic Pentameter pattern encourages us (when we can) to read feet as Iambic. In this case it makes more sense to emphasize does rather than make.

  • Thus con|science does |make co|wards of |us all

One thing worth noticing, and it’s my very favorite poetic technique and one that has been all but forgotten by modern poets, is anthimeria – the substitution of one part of speech for another.

arts-of-language-color-correctedThe native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought

Sickly is an adverb that Shakespeare uses as a verb. In Sister Miriam Jospeh’s book, Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, she writes: “More than any other figure of grammar, it gives vitality and power to Shakespeare’s language, through its packed meaning, liveliness and stir. ” She herself goes on to quote another writer, Alfred Hart:

Most Elizabethan and Jacobean authors use nouns freely as verbs, but they are not very venturesome…. The last plays of Shakespeare teem with daringly brilliant metaphors due solely to this use of nouns and adjectives as verbs…. they add vigor, vividness and imagination to the verse… almost every play affords examples of such happy valiancy of phrase.

Finally, notice the imagistic and syntactic parallelism in “the native hue of resolution” and “the pale cast of thought”. It’s a nice poetic touch that adds emphasis to Shakespeare’s closing argument – our fears dissuade us from enterprises “of great pith and moment”.

Interestingly, even as Hamlet’s dithering ends, he never truly decides whether “to be or not to be”.

If this has been helpful, let me know.

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21 responses

  1. I’m new to your site and enthralled by all of it. I’m a non-player as to poetry credentials; just an old-timer who loves poetry.

    I have a muti-part question of personal long standing which your post on scanning Hamlet’s soliloquy brought again to mind.

    Question:
    Does scansion ever undertake to compare how audio-available readings of a poem differ among acclaimed renditions? I’m not here referring to the traditional comparisons of feet and accents and forms, nor to the poet’s directions about such items as indicated by his/her punctuation marks.

    My question revolves around how one aural reading differs from another by such things as, idiosyncratic pauses, and timing between words or syllables, and breathing intervals, and elevation or diminution of speech or tone, and as to many other etceteras.

    I want to both hear and have explicated–by a linguist such as yourself–a comparison between Olivier’s “poetic notational” approach to the soliloquy as opposed to some other renowned actor.

    Any reply from you would be most appreciated.

    -Many thanks for your service to fellow travelers.

    • Does scansion ever undertake to compare how audio-available readings of a poem differ among acclaimed renditions?

      Here’s the short answer. I don’t know. It may have been attempted and I just don’t know about it.

      The long answer is that I’ve never seen such an example in terms of comparing poetry readings or dramatic performances but there are examples when anthropologists collect folktales direct from storytellers. Absent a tape recorder, I’ve seen some fairly elaborate markings to indicate speed, volume, pitch, etc… (I like to read American Indian myths and folktales to my daughters). The Red Swan includes an example. The story is called “The Boy and the Deer” p. 73. Here is how the story is introduced:

      Departing from the usual method of translating narrative as straight prose, Dennis Tedlock, who collected the story, has attempted to convey some of the subtler aspects of the original performance. The (/) indicates a pause, often imperceptible, of a half second or more, depending on the whim of the narrator. A new paragraph implies a pause of at least two seconds. Vowels followed by dashes are to be held for about two seconds. Use a hushed voice for italicized words, aloud voice for words printed in capitals. Passages with words underlined or overlined are to be chanted: chant overlined words about three half tones higher than normal, and underlined words about thee half tones lower. Special directions appear in paranthesis, e.g. “(sharply).” Audience responses are labeled “(audience).”

      And so it goes. There isn’t an audio available of this reading, but this indicates the sort of thing scansion would have to convey (I think); and it sounds like these are the sort of markings you are referring to. The story is a very limited attempt to convey some of these qualities. But I can’t imagine, even with all these markings, that anyone could meaningfully recreate the original teller’s inflections, hesitations, etc… A gross approximation? Possibly.

      It would be a devilishly difficult task to capture inflection (in every sense of the word) solely through text.

      Scansion only indicates relative stress. In other words, in pronouncing a word like gen|e|ra|tion, scansion can tell you that, in the English language, the first and third syllable will always normally receive greater stress than the second and fourth syllables. But scansion normally doesn’t attempt to notate the degree to which these syllables are stressed, for how long, etc…

      Really, the only thing scansion is good for is in making visible very general observations about the metrical proclivities of poets and stylistic conventions.

      However (and there’s always an however) this hasn’t stopped some metrists from trying to more “accurately” notate stresses. Alan Holder is one such metrist. Holder would hold every single one of my posts in abject contempt. You can find a response to Holder here, by Annie Finch. And another here, from Richard T. Wright. Unfortunately, the online article of Wright’s commentary doesn’t or poorly reproduces some of the metrical markings which he discusses. If you are really interested in the subject, then you can find Wright’s essay in “Hearing the Measures: Shakespearean and Other Inflections“. Wright discusses the pitfalls of generative metrics and the pitfalls of too dogmatically trying to notate anything more than traditional notations permit.

      So, maybe that partly answers your first question?

      I want to both hear and have explicated–by a linguist such as yourself–a comparison between Olivier’s “poetic notational” approach to the soliloquy as opposed to some other renowned actor.

      While it’s flattering to be called a linguist. I am not. : )

      I’m a poet with a deep interest in language, the language of poetry and how poets accomplish what they do (and three little girls). I think one pitfall in attempting an analysis, like the one you propose, is in agreeing on the effect of differing idiosyncratic inflections. One is no longer considering relative stress but is attempting to quantify and analyze very specific effects in a way that is mutually meaningful. Comparing musical performances offer similar hurdles. Consider how difficult it is for reviewers to describe different performances such that readers can arrive at a common understanding! How would I describe the difference between Glenn Gould and Horowitz? The very effects I love in Glenn Gould disappoint the next listener. To a certain degree, there’s something ineffable about different performances. (Beethoven described Mozart’s playing, dismissively, but it doesn’t help us recreate Mozart’s playing in any meaningful way.)

      First one has to agree on a system of notation, then one has to agree on what those notations mean to the listener.

      That’s a tall order, Lenny.

  2. I need some clarification. I just posted a comment to “The Annotated ‘To be or not to be’ ” post.

    The website returned this page to me–with my post printed–with the statement, “Your comment is awaiting moderation.” What does that mean? Is my post “immoderate” in some way or does the statement mean that my post is being reviewed before it is allowed to appear as a comment?
    -Thank you.

    • //What does that mean? Is my post “immoderate” in some way or does the statement mean that my post is being reviewed before it is allowed to appear as a comment?//

      Hi Lenny! Thought I would answer this first. There’s nothing immoderate about your post! You wouldn’t believe how much unrelated advertising gets sent to blogs. This is just a way to weed them out. Here’s how it works: On many, if not most WordPress blogs, bloggers choose to hold comments from first time posters until they can read them. We can make sure it’s not flame mail or advertising. However, once you’re “approved”, any future messages won’t be held. As soon as I wake up the kids I can think about your other comment and questions.

    • Hi Banan,

      One possible scansion of “The Poison Tree” would be as follows:

      I | was an|gry with |my friend:
      I told| my wrath,| my wrath |did end.
      I |was an|gry with| my foe:
      I told |it not, |my wrath| did grow.

      And |I wa|tered it |in fears
      Night |and mor|ning with |my tears,
      And |I sun|ned it |with smiles
      And |with soft |deceit|ful wiles.

      And |it grew| both day| and night,
      Till |it bore| an ap|ple bright,
      And |my foe| beheld |it shine,
      And |he knew| that it| was mine

      And |into| my gar|den stole
      When |the night| had veiled| the pole;
      In |the mor|ning, glad, |I see
      My foe| outstretched |beneath| the tree.

      I’ve scanned it as Iambic Tetrameter. Not all the lines are comprised of eight syllables however. I’ve scanned the seven syllable lines as being headless lines. In other words, the first unstressed syllable of each line is absent. The technique is sometimes referred to as Anacrusis. I’ve also scanned the word “sunned” as disyllabic. I could be wrong. However, if the word is read as monosyllabic, the metrical pattern collapses. I don’t find that typical of Blake’s other poems. Reading the word as disyllabic is easier to believe.

  3. I never get tired of Hamlet, even after many years of teaching and reading it. Your scansion of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy shed yet another light on it for me, especially your mention of the anthimeria. It helped me figure out why I have difficulty explaining the phrase “sicklied o’er” but feel as if I faintly understand it. How can “the pale cast of thought” sickle over “resolution? It can’t because it’s not a verb, it’s an adverb turned verb; but I feel I can grasp its meaning. Am I way off in my thinking? I am probably not making sense. There’s so much to learn about poetic techniques used in English literature going back to Chaucer. I am quite jealous of those Elizabethan grammar school children. Did you ever hear a podcast on NPR called “Words”? http://www.radiolab.org/2010/aug/09/. James Sharpiro from Columbia talks about Shakespeare’s use of language.

    • It helped me figure out why I have difficulty explaining the phrase “sicklied o’er” but feel as if I faintly understand it.

      Yes, Anthimeria is poetry’s most elegant and creative “rhetorical figure”. There’s nothing more powerful or refreshing than this one poetic technique. It remakes language in the most beautiful way. If you enjoy rhetoric and, specifically, if you want to get a better grasp of anthimeria, pick up Sister Miriam Joseph’s book: Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language. It’s been reprinted. Unlike other scholarly books on Shakespeare, you can pick up this book very inexpensively. If you enjoy this subject, there’s absolutely no excuse not to buy it.

      Am I way off in my thinking?

      No, you’re not. You’ve got it exactly right. :-)

      I’ll listen to the NPR broadcast soon as I can – usually when I’m working (not writing). I look forward to it.

  4. I will definitely read Shakespeare’s Use of Language. I am also interested in any information on how argumentation was taught in English grammar schools. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to include a unit in argumentation traditional style? If I could get a good grasp of the methods. I can just imagine teaching my 12th graders the method of Topics of Invention. I think it would really help them understand the “To be or not to be soliloquy,” not to mention improve their understanding of British literature and critical thinking skills.

    • I am also interested in any information on how argumentation was taught in English grammar schools.

      There are loads of book on rhetoric and my familiarity with the subject is fairly focused – it’s use in poetry. Joseph’s book is my favorite because she draws her examples, primarily, from Shakespeare, who was the great master of the English language. He made use of nearly every rhetorical figure then known and his examples are beautiful. If you read her book, you *will* get some sense for how rhetoric was taught (she devotes a third of her book to the subject of argumentation). There are probably other books that are more specifically about how rhetoric was taught, but I would start with Joseph’s book. You will find the subject endlessly involving. One subject will lead into two avenues of exploration, those into four, and those into eight.

      I used to tutor High School students in Shakespeare and, in my experience, it’s an exceptionally rare student whose eyes don’t glaze over.

      They have a hard enough time grasping figurative language, let alone a free verse poem on pretty yellow flowers and pretty blue skies. I might start there, actually. What is “figurative language”? What is a rhetorical figure? That’s the first key to all great poetry. Introduce them to the concept of figurative language and go from there. If they can wrap their heads around that, then they might be able to grasp how that applied to the inventive development of ideas.

      I just stumbled across this book, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. I don’t have it and haven’t read it, but it gets high marks. Might be just the thing you’re looking for (in addition to Joseph’s book)?

      One more book: A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. I have this reference and it’s endlessly useful.

      Lastly, if you’re really interested, pick up this book: Handbook to 16th Century Rhetoric. This a relatively unknown gem (I own a copy). It’s primarily useful because it lists both the Greek and Latin terms of rhetorical figures and gives examples from scholars of the sixteenth century. It’s basically another reference, like the Handlist above, but fills in the gaps.

  5. When you say that he’s suffering through life by “taking up arms,” I think that’s incorrect. Isn’t the “take up arms” part about suicide? Suffering slings and arrows is about living, taking up arms is suicide.

  6. Let me begin by saying how much I really loved this article. I’ve been studying Shakespeare for years and this is really a beautiful analysis of what can become an overplayed soliloquy.

    I continue to have issues parsing the phrase “…the spurns/ That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,”

    I understand that spurns means to kick or insult here and the rough interpretation I take from it is that one must suffer insult and injury patiently from unworthy hands. I feel like I understand the idea of the phrase but I can’t seem to break it down to where I feel comfortable saying I understand the component parts.

    Can you help with this? Is that an accurate interpretation or am I off the mark?

    Thank you again for such a wonderful article!

    • Hi Margaux, glad you found the post helpful. As to your reading of the line, you’re almost there. What Shakespeare means is this: Who would, with “patient merit” (meritorious patience), prefer the spurns (the insults and degradation) of the “unworthy” (the rude and the petty) unless they feared the “dread of something after death”. It’s the fear of death, Shakespeare is saying, that makes life, no matter how demeaning, somehow tolerable.

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    • Hi Quora, I think it’s very astute that you make that observation; and I think George Bernard Shaw also made the same complaint. I wish I could remember the quote. In fact, much the same can be said for most of Shakespeare’s “great” speeches. Once you get the genius of his poetry out of the way, the sentiments are really quite mundane. The same could be said for many other poets as well. The thing that makes Hamlet’s speech “great” is the rhetoric and the poetry — the way he can spin out a very simple statement or idea with the most beautifully structured arguments, imagery and associations.

  8. Pingback: On Robert Frost’s After Apple-Picking « PoemShape

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