Susana Torres Prieto. Associate Professor of Humanities, IE University
“To be or not to be” is, indisputably, the metaphysical doubt most often repeated in Western Culture. And probably one of those phrases commonly used out of context, at least out of the context Shakespeare had written it for. About Hamlet, probably the only theatre play that has been uninterruptedly on stage since its first version was acclaimed in 1602, have written extensively Goethe, Coleridge, Mallarmé, Freud or Lampedusa, just to mention a few.
“To be or not to be” is not only the doubt expressed by a young and cultivated prince between the anguish of being, and the liberation that suicide would bring, after the cruel disappointment of witnessing the shameful behaviour of his parents (we have all been through that in adolescence), but also the elucidation of a rather more thorny issue. If we remain in this world, Hamlet states, despite the many unsavoury moments we have to get through, is only because we fear the unknown, whatever might come after death, and such fear is greater than our repugnance for the present. And it is what paralyses us, depriving us of the required courage to take our lives and put an end to present sufferings. Indeed, for Hamlet, who is unable of closing his eyes to the heartbreaking evidence described by his father’s ghost –how his own brother poisoned him in order to obtain both crown and wife at one blow– his moral duty poses him a problem to be resolved only with the weapons at his disposal, which, in this case, is a theatre company with whom he plans the public revealing of the crime. Because for Hamlet being in this world without obeying one’s own conscience and, in this case, responding to his father’s request, is a possibility he does not even contemplate. And if all this was not enough, a public incrimination would imply not only accusing his own stepfather, whom his capricious mother has chosen as husband, but, more importantly, accusing the current king of regicide, and this, for Shakespeare’s time, was going a little bit too far. It was believed that the health and well-being of all the subjects of a given kingdom depended on the health and fortune of their king. John of Salisbury had already discussed the relevance of the head in the “body politic”, and the author himself leaves no doubt when he puts in Laertes’ mouth the words “His greatness weigh’d, his will is not his own, for he himself is subject to his birth: he may not, as unvalued persons do, carve for himself, for on his choice depends the safety and health of this whole state”. Moral doubt and political doubt are, therefore, mingled in this everlasting phrase from this Shakespearean tragedy in which, as in many others, almost all characters die (Hamlet, Claudius, the King, Gertrude, the Queen, Laertes, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), leaving behind only poor Horatio to tell the story. What a role to play!
Shakespeare, who analysed as few others either before or after him the consequences of the use and abuse of power (unfortunately better known of late for his Romeo and Juliet, a romance which lasted three days and killed six people, let’s not forget that), wrote about the misfortunes of the young dutiful prince overcome with grief at the peak of his career, when his pen has already been sharpened in a few Henrys and some Richards, and having coined other memorable phrases such as the famous “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” in Richard III. To that list, we could certainly add, beyond “To be or not to be”, the also often-quoted “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, that so little justice has done to such a generous people, so much so that H.C. Andersen himself used the beginning of Hamlet’s monologue to entitle one of his serious novels, which, by the way, in the lips of Hamlet, in Danish, would have sounded something similar to At være eller ikke være.