Analysis of Hamlet’s “To be or not to Be” Soliloquy

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Analysis of Hamlet’s “To be or not to Be” Soliloquy

This essay will explore the depth and meaning of Hamlet’s famous “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy in Shakespeare’s play. It will delve into the themes of life, death, existence, and the human condition that Hamlet contemplates in the speech, and how this soliloquy reflects his inner turmoil and philosophical questioning. Additionally, PapersOwl presents more free essays samples linked to Hamlet.

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A soliloquy is an “act of speaking one’s thoughts aloud when alone or regardless of any hearers, especially in a play.” Shakespeare’s plays feature many soliloquies, some of which are famous and recognizable. Soliloquies give the reader or the audience the ability to see what is going on in the character’s mind.

Hamlet’s Iconic Soliloquy

Perhaps the most familiar and well-known soliloquy is the fourth soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is the all-time classic “to be or not to be” contemplation, where Hamlet balances the pros and cons of killing himself.

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Hamlet is wondering if it is better to suffer from all of the wrongs that have been presented to him or to fight against them and bring them to an end. Overall, the play Hamlet centered around the idea of human helplessness regarding failure and distorted moral principles. Nonetheless, a dramatic piece like Hamlet with several interesting components is going to have several interpretations, especially with cinematic versions.

Interpreting through Film

The specific and unique set of attributes and elements that different films present creates a variety of experiences and outlooks that the audience can have with the story. Though the words of Hamlet’s soliloquy remain the same, actors and directors have different visions and interpretations, allowing them to bring diverse qualities to the soliloquy and overall film. The two films that will be analyzed regarding the fourth soliloquy scene of Hamlet are Laurence Oliver’s 1948 version and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 version. The actual settings of the scenes will be examined, and how those specific elements of each affect the portrayal of the soliloquy.

Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Version

The adaption of Hamlet by Laurence Oliver in 1948 is the first significant rendition of the play in cinema theaters. Sir Laurence Oliver is not only the director but portrays Prince Hamlet as well. The old film is in black and white, which adds to the overall ambiance of the representation, as does the music that is played in the background. These elements create an extremely dramatic effect on the soliloquy. The lack of color, the symbolic scenery, and even the movements of the camera add depth to the lines that are being spoken.

In the scene, Hamlet is sitting at the top of a cliff, peering down at the sea far below with the waves crashing against the side of the castle. The camera zooms in on the crown of Hamlet’s head as if the scenery wants the viewer to see inside his mind and thoughts. The crashing waves and images capture Hamlet’s deep thoughts on whether to live or commit suicide. In this soliloquy, Hamlet says, “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles.” (3.1.59) The setting of the ocean is symbolic in relation to his troubles. The music playing in the background is also an effective element during the soliloquy. While Hamlet is in deep thought, the music mimics that and is subtle. But as the music intensifies, Hamlet snaps out of it and is thrown back into reality. As Hamlet drifts back and forth with his conflicting thoughts, the music helps create this internal feeling being presented on the outside to the audience.

Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 Version

Unlike Oliver’s Hamlet, who was very young and blonde, Hamlet in Franco Zeffirelli’s version of the play did not portray the “traditional” characteristics of a prince or one of high ranking. Hamlet, who was played by Mel Gibson, had scruffy clothes, baggy eyes, wrinkles, and an untended beard. Looks aside, the setting of the fourth soliloquy scene presents self-reflection in an environment of death. Hamlet is placed alone in the catacombs where his father is buried, thereby emphasizing the questioning of death.

The overall setting of the tomb as a simple background allows for total emphasis on Hamlet and isolates the sole importance of the scene to his soliloquy. Simply by the surroundings and the somber space, this Hamlet is quite literally asking the death that surrounds him if life is worth living. The low lighting of the tomb reflects the darkness that Hamlet is feeling inside, and the pacing around the tomb emphasizes his process of self-contemplation. The scene is shot mostly in close-ups, which makes the audience focus on Mel Gibson’s facial expressions to understand the emotions that are being conveyed rather than having to rely solely on the words he is saying. A lot of emotion and drama is added to the performance with the sound of silence and only echoes during the monologue, which again puts direct emphasis on Hamlet and his sorrow.

Diverse Interpretations, Common Themes

Even though these two soliloquy scenes differ from one another visually, both illustrate a man who is confused and overwhelmed with grief. Hamlet does not know how to respond to what has been bestowed upon him and is uncertain about his own feelings. The prince feels mournful and powerless. Oliver’s “to be or not to be” scene showcases more of a mysterious tone in regard to Hamlet’s confusion, while Zeffirelli’s creates a dark, depressed, and lonely tone within his scene. Both directors create tension in the scenes with the use of props, whether it is the dagger Hamlet looks upon or the tomb when referring to, “To die, to sleep.” (3.1.64) The settings of both the ocean and the catacombs create symbolic imagery for the meaning of Hamlet’s soliloquy as the elements of the environments go in unison with the words that are being spoken. Hamlet’s thoughts were swirling around like the sea below him, and death was surrounding his constant thoughts, like the tombs and skeletons that were all around.


From the camera shots and background noise to the overall settings and actors, the dramatic components in Oliver’s and Zeffirelli’s films give the audience insight into how Hamlet views his current life situation and its complexity. These different components give deeper meaning and effect to the soliloquy and a better interpretation. What is lost or misunderstood in the text of a soliloquy can be realized and understood in the setting and the emotions of the acting.


  • Hamlet. Dir. Laurence Olivier. Rank Film Distributors Ltd., 1948. Film.
  • Zeffirelli, F., Gibson, M., & Close, G. (1990). Hamlet. Widescreen. Burbank, CA, Warner Home Video.
  • Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.
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Analysis of Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" Soliloquy. (2023, Jun 18). Retrieved from