Scene analysis Act 3, Scene 1

Scene exposition 

The first scene of the third act of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” became famous because of Hamlet’s to-be-or-not-to-be monologue. However, it is by no means the only special feature of the scene. Hamlet and Ophelia are presented to the audience for the first time in direct interaction, Ophelia delivers her first and only soliloquy, and Claudius, at the end of the scene, fears that Hamlet might suffer from a greater burden than unrequited love. He no longer wants to allow Hamlet to remain at the Danish court.

The opening of the scene is its most inconspicuous component, as it ties directly into the action of the second act. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must confess to the royal couple that they have been unable to get from Hamlet the cause of his strange behavior, but that they have at least inspired him to put on an acting performance. Claudius is also invited to the performance, thus setting the course for further events in the drama. 

In the second part of the scene opening, the plot then comes to a noticeable head. Polonius and the king hide to overhear a conversation between Ophelia and Hamlet. Even before Hamlet enters the stage, Claudius is engaged in a brief soliloquy that already provides an indication that he regrets his brother's murder: "O heavy burthen!" (3.1.62).

The “To-be-or-not-to-be” monologue 

Hamlet's most famous soliloquy is not kept in secret, but overheard by Claudius, Polonius, and Ophelia. They all thus learn that he is entangled in thoughts that go far beyond his personal destiny and deal with the fundamental questions of life: Life after death and the question of whether it is preferable to earthly life.

In the way Hamlet talks about death, it is not unlikely that he is playing with the idea of suicide. Even at the beginning of the drama, he seems to have largely finished with earthly life and sincerely regrets being bound by Christian commandments that condemn suicide as ungodly: "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt Thaw and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!" (1.2.132-135). The monologue in the third act takes up this theme again in a modified form.

Hamlet is now no longer concerned with Christian commandments, but with the question that gave his soliloquy its title:...

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