Even people who aren’t sure what a soliloquy is know that Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” is the most famous soliloquy in theatre history. There’s just one problem. It’s not actually a soliloquy.

David Tennant played Hamlet with the RSC in 2008.

David Tennant played Hamlet with the RSC in 2008.

 

“To be or not to be…”

Spoken by the title character of Hamlet, the most famous speech in the history of theatre is 34 lines and 271 words long. Apart from providing titles for (or being quoted in) countless other plays, poems, novels, TV shows and movies, it has also appeared on posters, T-shirts, coffee mugs and keyrings. It’s even been translated into Klingon (“taH pagh taHbe”). There are at least 379,000 hits on the internet for the first line alone.

This speech is many, many things. One thing it is not, however, is a soliloquy.

Maxine Peake's Hamlet debuted last year at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre.

Maxine Peake’s Hamlet debuted last year at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.

The image of the ‘lone prince’, so endemic on the stage, duly made the transition to TV and motion pictures. Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version placed Hamlet alone on a windswept tower of Elsinore. Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 version is another lone Hamlet, this time walking along the Danish shore. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film sees Hamlet alone in his father’s sepulchre. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film places Hamlet in a mirrored hall, practically alone but for Ophelia hiding out of sight. Peter Wellington’s 2003 adaptation of the speech for the series Slings & Arrows features a seated, lone Hamlet. Gregory Doran’s 2009 TV adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet has David Tennant’s Hamlet all alone, with Ophelia scurrying off immediately before the speech and tromping back on just as he finishes saying “Soft you now.”

New play 'Women Playing Hamlet' offers a fresh take on "To be or not to be" in 2015.

New play ‘Women Playing Hamlet’ offers a fresh take on “To be or not to be” in 2015.

Despite the entrenchment of the lone Hamlet on our cultural understanding of Hamlet, when we study the six quarto and three folio printings that comprise the original texts, we find the following: one, that the famous speech cannot be a soliloquy; two, that the entering Hamlet should know he is being spied upon; three, that Ophelia’s presence must be addressed; and, fourth and lastly, that Hamlet may be reading as he enters the scene.
My methodology does need some explanation. I believe in the primacy of the text: dramatic texts are the most important factor in creating a production. The words of a text are the skeleton of a play, and basing one’s interpretation on elements not in the text is problematic at best. Now, I’m not trying to say there is only one way of doing any play or moment from a play. I only distinguish between two kinds of performances – those that agree with the text and those that do not.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2007 Hamlet.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2007 Hamlet.

Soliloquies feature lone speakers, but all nine original Hamlet printings agree that Hamlet is not alone, as Ophelia is also onstage throughout the speech. Therefore, the classical understanding of “soliloquy” does not apply.
Further, the “To be or not to be” speech features none of the characteristics of Hamlet’s actual soliloquies. In those speeches, he follows a pattern – he speaks about Claudius, the late King Hamlet, and, usually, Gertrude. Hamlet does discuss his family with some other characters, but when he knows he is accompanied by potential spies, he stays away from the topic of his family. The “What a piece of work is a man” speech, delivered just after Hamlet discovers he cannot trust Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, is an elaborate deception. When Hamlet delivers his speech to appease his friends-turned-spies, he does not mention the circumstances of his father’s murder. He only mentions the King and Queen as the people to whom Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must report.
“I will tell you why, so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and Queen moult no feather.”

Gamut Theatre's 2015 Hamlet.

Gamut Theatre’s 2015 Hamlet.

Since “To be or not to be” takes place with others on stage, and since it deviates from the patterns Shakespeare established in Hamlet’s actual soliloquies, it cannot be a soliloquy. Since the speech is not a soliloquy, it cannot be staged as a soliloquy and still be faithful to the text. Text-based stagings focus on what is written. For instance, Hamlet, entering into the scene, knows he is being observed. The original printings agree that, by this moment in the play, Hamlet has discovered that his schoolmates have been dispatched by the King to spy on him. Further, all but one of the printings agree that Hamlet enters into the scene because he has been sent for by the King. The remaining printing, the First Quarto, does not mention this at all. What happens next is a strange division; all folio printings agree that the King and Polonius hide before Hamlet enters, while all quartos state they exit after Hamlet enters.

Peter O'Toole's legendary 1957 Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic.

Peter O’Toole’s legendary 1957 Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic.

The quarto texts allow Hamlet to see the King and his crony hide; Hamlet would clearly know he is being spied upon. In all three folio printings, the King and Polonius exit before Hamlet enters the scene. Even if a director chooses the folio option, it is still reasonable that Hamlet knows he is being spied upon. Hamlet already suspects Claudius on some level before the action of the play, as evidenced by his response to the Ghost’s news that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father: “O my prophetic soul! / Mine uncle?”
The King has just sent for Hamlet. If, as in the folios, Hamlet enters not seeing the King and Polonius, he still has another reason to be suspicious: the King is absent, but Ophelia is directly in his path.
Brooke Hamlet Scarf
Let’s talk about Ophelia and the issue of the silent actor. In order to stage the scene, we must have a better understanding of Ophelia and her relationship with Hamlet. She has only appeared twice before, in scenes revolving around her relationship with Hamlet. Ophelia speaks on this subject with her father, Polonius, saying her relationship with Hamlet is an honorable and affectionate one that has included every promise, save that of matrimony. Polonius dismisses this as Hamlet merely wanting to master her chaste treasure and commands her to never see Hamlet again.
When Ophelia is placed in Hamlet’s way, she is being used to provoke her boyfriend into showing why he is behaving so strangely. This is part of Polonius’ plan to discover if Hamlet is mad for his daughter’s love. Claudius accedes to the plan and, immediately before Hamlet’s entrance, describes his plan to Gertrude, that Hamlet should “affront” Ophelia.
The meaning of the word “affront” is crucial: “to put oneself in the way of so as to meet; to accost, address.” By strategically placing Ophelia onstage, Polonius and Claudius mean for her to come face to face with Hamlet so they can hear what follows between them. As a result, Ophelia could be Hamlet’s audience, either in part or in whole.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2001 Hamlet.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2001 Hamlet.

Before this passionate meeting, there is one more discovery to address: what Hamlet is doing as he enters the scene. The First Quarto offers a fascinating option. In it, before Hamlet enters for “To be or not to be”, the King says, “see where he comes poring upon a book.” This is similar to Gertrude’s statement in an earlier scene, “But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading,” which appears in all other printings of the story. It may be the First Quarto misplaces Hamlet’s entrance, but this anomaly bears study. Hamlet does have a book in other scenes, so a Hamlet who enters reading can be textually valid. In fact, the book he reads may still exist.
Douce in 1839 and Hunter in 1845 noted that Girolamo Cardano’s 1576 book Comfort includes passages very similar to a portion of Hamlet’s speech:
“…saying, that [death] did not only remove sickness and all other griefs but… what should we accompt of death to be resembled to anything better then sleep… and to die is said to sleep.”
Compare all this talk of death, the easing of griefs, and sleeping to this famous portion of Hamlet’s speech:
“To die – to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep…”

Gamut Theatre's 2011 Hamlet.

Gamut Theatre’s 2011 Hamlet.

A reading Hamlet opens up a new possibility to the speech. If Hamlet is reading about death, his speech might refer to the book. Shakespeare gives us a similar situation in Henry IV, Part One, where, examining a letter from a confederate, Hotspur reads a phrase and then makes a scathing response. If this formula were applied to Hamlet’s speech, “the question” may refer to ideas raised in the book itself. A staging using this reading can allow the prop to help explain why Hamlet is in this frame of mind.
Studying the original texts with a respect for their primacy reveals that the cherished long-established vision of Hamlet simply does not agree with the text. The options revealed by the text and its established circumstances are many and must be explored in a production. After studying the evidence, I staged the scene two different ways. In the first, Hamlet entered reading, responded to the book like Hotspur in Henry IV, and discussed the contents with Ophelia. In the second staging, I took Hamlet’s book away, allowed him to see Claudius and Polonius exit, and had him confess his dark thoughts to Ophelia.
The first staging was greatly intellectual. Hamlet mused about the ideas of death, sharing them on that level with Ophelia. This Hamlet is the consummate philosopher, matching wits with Ophelia and even referring to the book she is carrying. The concepts of death and release are explored with great cerebral impact, so much so that, in directing a full production, I can easily see Hamlet reading voraciously through the early stages of the play.

Haunting poster image for the upcoming Barbican Hamlet which will star Benedict Cumberbatch.

Haunting poster image for the upcoming Barbican Hamlet which will star Benedict Cumberbatch.

The second staging focused upon the circumstances of the characters. Hamlet, knowing he is spied upon, takes refuge in the arms of his forbidden love but is unable to tell her the whole truth of his problems. Ophelia, torn by duty to her father, her King, and her love, must react to Hamlet’s considering death and suicide. This staging speaks to the troubles as written by Shakespeare and had great emotional and visceral impact. Similar to the first staging, I can see a full production of this sort of Hamlet.
These are two very different interpretations of the “To be or not to be” speech, but it is vital to remember they are both based on Shakespeare’s texts.
“So what?” you may be thinking. “Why is this important?” Well, for hundreds of years the theatre world has embraced a version of Hamlet that does not agree with the words Shakespeare wrote. Elsewhere in Hamlet, Shakespeare commands “suit the action to the word”, charging us to base our versions of his work on the words he left behind. He did the job of a playwright well, creating the skeleton of his plays. It falls to us to give that skeleton a heart, a soul, and scars.

This article originally appeared in Shakespeare Magazine Issue 6. Go here to see the original version.