Today at my local Toastmasters Club I reprised, in part, the role of Prince Hamlet by enacting the famous soliloquy from act 3, scene 1. This fulfilled the requirements for the advanced speech project, “The Monodrama,” taken from the Toastmasters Interpretive Reading manual.
My stage acting skills notwithstanding, preparing and delivering this speech proved to be (yes, “to be”) enormously fulfilling and instructive.
To complete this speech project, I could have selected any literary text of appropriate length. I chose this speech, in part, because I already knew the first line and that seemed like a propitious start.
Beyond that, however, I immediately confronted what seemed, initially, to be quite a daunting task, an “enterprise of great pith and moment” contained in 33 lines (56-88).
To fulfill my task as an interpreter, I first had to do my best to understand the text. This included such rudimentary tasks as understanding the vocabulary (“fardel” was beyond my ken, although the context provides sufficient clues to understand it as a “heavy thing”). I looked it up along with “bodkin” (dagger) and “bourn” (boundary).
I refreshed my understanding of the play as a whole, its plot and themes, and the character of Hamlet. To my great pleasure, I also discovered Shakespeare’s wonderfully harmonious conjoining of meter and meaning as I became familiar with each line’s scansion: iambs, spondees, trochees, and the like.
These and other rather more academic approaches to the text (read this soliloquy in the “Bad Quarto” just for fun) seemed necessary and were helpful, but proved not to be (yes, “not to be”) sufficient. Somehow, I had to get “inside” the text even more than I had to get inside the mind of the character, Hamlet.
I had to find, or make, meaning of the text. ‘Twas “a consummation devoutly to be wished” and necessary if I were to rise above mere rote memorization and recitation.
Naturally, my struggle for meaning began with the opening line: “To be, or not to be: that is the question.” A line so familiar on the surface as to be almost meaningless, and that without even a cursory exploration of its deeper, dichotomous ambiguity.
As I better understood the entire passage, I began to rethink “to be” by substituting “to do” or “to make,” verbs that seemed to have more substance and purchase. Over against “doing” or “not doing,” then, would be death/sleep or, as I recast it, “inaction,” the fear of failure, “the dread of something after death.”
It is the fear of death, in Hamlet’s reasoning, or the fear of failure in mine, “that makes us rather bear those ills we have/than fly to others that we know not of.”
Hamlet seems to come to an understanding: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” Along with Hamlet, I had my own moment of understanding: An over weaning fear of failure and concomitant death, real or metaphorical, will keep us from doing what we might (“to take up arms against a sea of troubles/and by opposing, end them,” for example) and sicklies over “the native hue of resolution” [to do].
Ironically, the “pale cast of [such] thought” is so strong that “enterprises of great pith and moment/with this regard [the fear of death/failure] their currents turn awry/and lose the name of action.”
There it is, in the middle of the last line: “action.” To do. To be.
How amazing is it, the power of thought, so insubstantial, that when misguided it can divert us from the great enterprises of our lives. With such power, is it not also the very stuff of our success?
Alive to this reality, we can guard our thoughts and, in the face of the fear of failure, choose action.
Thus, to be, or not to be, lies within us and “the native hue of [our] resolution” to face our fears, “perchance to dream,” and, through action, bring our dreams to light. The decision is ours.