What Can We Steal From William Shakespeare’s “To Be, Or Not To Be” soliloquy from Hamlet?

Title of Work and its Form:  The “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, poem
Author: William Shakespeare
Date of Work: 1600-ish
Where the Work Can Be Found: Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet.  Remember, kids: we love public domain.  You can find a full text of one of the versions of the play at Project Gutenberg.  http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1524/pg1524.html  You may find the soliloquy itself and some variations between quarto and folio versions at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_be,_or_not_to_be.  Go ahead, watch Kenneth Branagh deliver the soliloquy in his excellent film version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JD6gOrARk4

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone

Discussion:
At this point in the play, Hamlet is not doing very well.  He knows that his father was killed by his uncle, the same man who married his mom.  He’s having problems with his girlfriend (granted, he’s the cause of a lot of the problems).  That darn Fortinbras is always out there, ready to attack at any time.  But Hamlet has a plan.  An acting company is coming to give a performance at court and Hamlet decides that the play is the thing wherein he’ll catch the conscience of the king.  And once Claudius feels guilty…he’ll apologize?  I don’t know.  I don’t think Hamlet knew, either.

During this soliloquy, Hamlet is indeed weighing the value of his life and whether or not his struggles are worthwhile.  One of the eight zillion things we can steal from the Bard is the way he really uses the iambic pentameter.  In a lot of poetry (especially mine), the meter can be an obstacle.  The effort to maintain meter and rhyme can lead a writer to make choices that are not motivated by artistic intention.  Instead, we’re trying to figure out how to find a rhyme for “equanimity.”  Adhering to meter often leads poets like me to rearrange lines to get a word into the line that is otherwise unnecessary. 

Shakespeare, of course, wields the iambic pentameter with more skill than Laertes handles his sword.  One way that you can tell is the length of his sentences.  While there’s lots of great blank verse that consists of one-sentence lines, it can be difficult to express complicated thoughts in abbreviated sentences.  I suppose you could argue with the punctuation chosen by Shakespeare and his numerous editors (such mechanics are far different now than they were then), but the longer sentences lend themselves well to an instance in which a complicated character is having complicated thoughts. 

When we talk about Shakespeare, we can’t escape the awesome phrases he comes up with.  We can literally steal these for use as titles.  Look at just a few of the works that have gotten their titles just from this soliloquy:

  • To Be or Not To Be – lots of movies, including the Mel Brooks film
  • Slings and Arrows – A British sitcom about a theater company
  • Outrageous Fortune – The Bette Midler movie from the 1980s
  • Perchance to Dream – A Twilight Zone episode
  • There’s the Rub – A Gilmore Girls episode
  • What Dreams May Come – The Robin Williams movie
  • The Insolence of Office – A Star Trek novel (actually, lots of Star Trek novels are named for Hamlet)
  • Quietus – The name for the suicide drug in the film Children of Men (it’s not the title of the film, but I think it still counts)
  • The Undiscovered Country – The subtitle of the sixth Star Trek film
  • All My Sins Remembered – An episode of Andromeda

You get the idea.  There are advantages when we steal a title from a great work.  People who recognize the reference will take some of their understanding of the original work and apply it to yours.  Unfortunately, this can also work against you.  What would have happened if Tom Wolfe had written The Right Stuff in 1989?  Thousands of teenage girls would have bought it and been disappointed because the book has nothing to do with New Kids on the Block or their hit song “(You Got It) The Right Stuff.”

What Should We Steal?:

  • Ensure that the restrictions of a genre don’t force us into too many bad choices.  Just because you’re writing in iambic pentameter doesn’t mean that you should be restricted to short sentences that happen to fit the formula.
  • Titles are fair game and can lend additional weight to whatever you’re writing.  Titles are often hard to come up with and pinching one from writing you admire can be a good solution, even if it’s a temporary one. 

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