Analyzing Hamlet’s First Soliloquy
Though not as well-known as Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, the play’s first soliloquy, wherein Hamlet agonizes about his father’s death and his mother’s apparent betrayal of his father, delivers the same intense emotion and colorful imagery expected of a soliloquy in a Shakespearean tragedy. A soliloquy is described as “an extended and emotional speech” which is not spoken to any of the other characters like in a “dramatic aside.” It is spoken directly to the audience. (Suite101) The soliloquy begins with Hamlet contemplating the need for suicide, wishing “that the Everlasting had not fix’d his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter (1.2.131-2), which is similar in thought to “To be or not to be,” where he ponders about taking his own life or not.
Before further investigating the said piece, studying its rhyme reveals typical Shakespearean form. It is in the form of blank verse, otherwise known as unrhymed iambic pentameter. Shakespearean sonnets, on the other hand, are in iambic pentameter form, but they make use of rhyming. In the soliloquy in question, every line is new and unique in sound (Columbia University Press). The soliloquy is more interested in the emotion generated by the speech. This will provide rhythm and not words that sound alike. In the Elizabethan era, much importance is given to words. With a theater which does not possess the props and special effects that modern theaters and movies make use of to tell a story, the play depends on the words to tell its story. (PBS)
In a soliloquy, the audience understands the character better as he or she presents his or her feelings, without any of the pretension that he or she may show to others. Hamlet has spoken through a soliloquy several times. However, his first soliloquy, which is to be discussed in this paper, and the famous “To be or not to be” both open with the question of whether to commit suicide or not. The repetitive contemplation of suicide may suggest depression on the part of Hamlet. It seems that if suicide were not a sin, he would have killed himself after his father’s death and his mother’s short-lived mourning. Everything to him appears hopeless:
“How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!” (1.2.133-7)
Hamlet sees that nothing good can come out of his life at that very moment. He compares his life to an “unweeded garden” where the problems pile up and grow into more problems.
Hamlet’s chief complaint in his first soliloquy is his mother’s incestuous relationship with his uncle, but he is also grieving over the loss of two parents; his father has died, and his mother remarries so soon after. Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud’s biographer, has interpreted Hamlet as an “Oedipal drama,” but he is unsure about whether the attachment in question is to the father or to the mother. Jones believes that Hamlet’s mental agony in his first soliloquy has been a result of repressing “ancient desires” (University of Hull). In the soliloquy, Hamlet praises one parent, while professing his strong hatred for the other. He compares Old Hamlet to “Hyperion,” a Titan in Greek mythology, (1.2.140) while disbelieving how his mother can bear to remarry barely two months into the death of his father (1.2.138). The phrase that vividly demonstrates Hamlet’s contrasting feelings about each of his parents is “Hyperion to a satyr.” The comparison is between a god and a lecherous being.
In the next few lines, Hamlet remembers the times when his parents are still happy together:
“That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on; (1.2.141-5)
The above lines show a tender moment in Hamlet’s soliloquy. The tenderness may be more ingrained to the memory itself, but for Hamlet this is just further fuel to his anger. He describes his father’s devotion to his mother, and her dependence on, and desire for, him in return. This adds to his incredulity about his mother’s betrayal. He blames this on a woman’s “frailty.” If Hamlet compares his father to a god, he compares his mother to a mortal woman from Greek mythology whose tears are legendary:
“Like Niobe, all tears:–why she, even she–
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer–married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month.” (1.2.149-54)
Niobe is a mortal woman with many children. However, having mocked Leto’s fertility, she suffers great consequences. Leto gets her revenge by sending her two children, Apollo and Artemis, to kill Niobe’s. Niobe is said to weep continuously after that. (Baldwin) Niobe weeps forever upon losing her children. Hamlet’s mother, on the other hand, weeps for a short period of time for her dead husband. Hamlet believes that even an animal without “reason” will mourn longer. Meanwhile, he considers his uncle as a “nobody” next to his father.
Shakespeare has used the perfect imageries to emphasize the characters of Hamlet’s mother and father, according to how Hamlet sees them at the moment of his rage. The portrayal of the characters of the mother and the father seems to create a tremendous gap between the two of them. The comparison of the mother to an animal is strong. The anger that is coursing inside Hamlet during his first soliloquy is still new, compared to the moment he makes his “To be or not to be” soliloquy. However, his father has not long died and has the deified place in Hamlet’s heart and mind.
Hamlet concludes his soliloquy by crying over his mother’s new marriage. He also appears to wonder about how he can restrain his emotions. He knows that even if he continues hiding his true feelings, it will cause him so much pain.
“She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.” (1.2.156-9)
Hamlet’s first soliloquy delivers strong emotions which result from having lost both his parents to different reasons. It is less familiar than “To be or not to be” which is one of the most well known verses in drama as a whole, but it also expresses intense emotion and imagery through Shakespeare’s solid use of figures of speech.
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