Hamlet Third Soliloquy

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					                                    "Seeming" to Survive:
                   Honesty and the Fear of Death in Hamlet’s Third Soliloquy

       Even in the most cloistered of intellectual pursuits, personal experiences play a principal

role in shaping that person’s conclusions. In Hamlet’s third soliloquy (III, i, 64-97), Hamlet

presents a general thesis that humans endure the pain of life because they are afraid of death.

However, this statement arises out of the conflicting obligations and emotions that Hamlet feels

personally - about the Danish court, death, and revenge for his father’s murder. Hamlet feels like

he is at war with the forces of pretense, yet he fears death and is therefore willing to pretend

himself.

       The martial images of Hamlet’s soliloquy characterize his struggle with the surrounding

mendaciousness as a brutal war. The speech refers to life’s troubles generally as "the slings and

arrows of outrageous fortune" and "the whips and scorns of time." Within Hamlet’s life, his

greatest troubles are in the "seeming" of his family and friends: Gertrude seemed to love

Hamlet’s father deeply, but "ere those shoes were old/With which she followed [his] poor

father’s body" she married another man; Claudius seems to be an honorable king, although he is

in fact guilty of regicide; and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, while seeming to be Hamlet’s best

buddies, are actually spying on him for Claudius (I, ii, 151-2). The secrecy of these offenses

bothers Hamlet more than the crimes themselves. After learning of his father’s murder from the

Ghost, Hamlet’s immediate reaction is to curse Gertrude - not because he thinks she had any

knowledge of the murder, but because she was "seeming-virtuous" but lustful in fact (I, v, 53).
He then curses Claudius not merely as a murderer, but specifically a "smiling, damned, villain"

(I, v, 113). In this counterattack, Hamlet does not immediately consider revenge itself; rather,

Hamlet denounces Claudius and Gertrude for their saccharine playacting after his father’s death

and their marriage. Hamlet feels that he is the only person in the court who values honesty;

disgusted by everyone else, he is at war with their "seeming."

       Taken in the context of the soliloquy’s message, Hamlet’s ironic diction is a sign of his

irrational fear of death. Hamlet frames the ultimate question as "To be, or not to be"; however,

the true question at stake is whether to seem, or not to seem. "To be" is to endure injustice for the

sake of survival—in Hamlet’s case, to never avenge his father’s murder because of the capital

penalty connected to killing King Claudius. "Not to be," on the other hand, is to be genuine in

one’s principles and fight the injustice of Claudius’ murderous usurpation. Although Hamlet’s

challenge is as inevitably fatal as "tak[ing] up arms against a sea," it is through this death that he

can truly "be" instead of merely "seem." The logical message of Hamlet’s speech frowns upon

"seeming", as he says that we behave contrary to our true nature only because thinking about

death has "made cowards of us all." To buck the trend and speak one’s mind honestly would put

one’s wealth, status, or even life at risk. However, Hamlet’s choice of words implies that he has

not accepted this conclusion emotionally. From a metaphysical standpoint, the question may be

to "seem" or not to "seem"; however, because Hamlet still fears death, the question of "be"ing (as

mere physical existence) is much more significant to him.

       The serious tone of Hamlet’s soliloquy emphasizes that Hamlet realizes that out of his

fear of death he himself has "seemed." Hamlet values being true to oneself, but even he "seems"

in order to protect himself. He pretends to be mad for two months so that Claudius would not

think him a threat and dispose of him. Hamlet also uses his acting skills in playing the scorned
lover to Opheliar to determine whether she had betrayed him to her father. Hamlet still speaks

his mind, such as when he calls Polonius a "fishmonger" (pimp) after Polonius plots to use

Ophelia to discover the cause of Hamlet’s madness; however, he hides these honest ideas among

silly, disjointed comments:


       Hamlet: For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing
       carrion—Have you a daughter?
       Polonius: I have, my lord.
       Hamlet: Let her not walk i' th’ sun. Conception is a blessing, but, as your daughter
       may conceive, look to ’t. (II, ii, 197-203)

Hamlet’s tone during the third soliloquy, however, is much different. He speaks more calmly

than even before he began behaving madly, presenting his speech as an intellectual argument

instead of an emotional outburst. Hamlet recognizes that his "native hue of resolution/Is sicklied

o’er with the pale cast of thought" because he promised to avenge his father’s death months ago

but still has not done so. He has also realized the reason for his own delay - his persistent fear of

death and "what dreams may come." For all Hamlet’s recent "seeming," during the soliloquy he

speaks with naked candor. He may be false to his promise and a hypocrite in his valuation of

truthfulness, but Hamlet’s introspective analysis of the situation shows that he is aware of what

he is doing.

       Hamlet’s third soliloquy arises from a very personal dilemma - why has Hamlet failed to

avenge his father’s death? Hamlet realizes that the answer - the fear of death - is applicable to the

human condition broadly, and thus presents it as a general statement. The fact that Hamlet

reached such a conclusion also signifies that he recognizes his own capitulation, his own

"seeming," despite his earlier statements denouncing others’ pretense. Hamlet may be a

hypocrite to his ideals. However, the fact that Hamlet recognizes his own fakery, and can
discover the reason for it, must excuse him from his hypocrisy in part. Hamlet may be acting in

front of others, but he remains honest with himself.

				
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