A Consummation Devoutly To Be Wish’d -The Speech of Hamlet, The Desire of Ending

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. 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;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

Perhaps the most iconic piece of the Shakespearean canon, “to be or not to be” has become the subject of jokes, parodies, essays, and exegesis aplenty. This will certainly be no exception. Yet, despite its noteworthy status as a popular Bardic quote, the
line has become simultaneously associated with the perceived boringness of Hamlet. For the critic, the famous question of why Hamlet hesitates drives the psychological study of the character. For the average audience, the question often becomes a pretentious centerpiece for the production: the play becomes a quest in justification for itself. But, that justification is also hidden. The plot, the character, of Hamlet is driven by justification, in justifying itself, in explaining. Instead, we masquerade with some kind of explanation in the forefront, an explanation that cannot function. It is not our place to interpret Hamlet.

When I was a senior in highschool, still thinking I’d be a drama major, I traveled a bit visiting college. While visiting Whitman College we saw the school’s production of Hamlet, which was pretty good for a college show, and afterward my mother said “I would like to see a version of Hamlet where he’s just sad. Why does he need a reason to be depressed?” I’ve realized in that time that I too have come to long for acknowledgment of the undefined sadness inherent in some characters and shows. But I’ve also realized that depression, even when it is acknowledged as its own force in art, is poorly represented and understood. What is depression? What does it mean to experience it?

“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.”

I have always been struck by the ambiguity of this line.  Particularly the beginning: “To die – to sleep, no more…” How should it be spoken? Is it a reflection on death as sleeping? With the thought interrupted: “no more…”? Yet, there is more. Is it that to die is to sleep no more? But again, “by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache…”. To die is to sleep, and in sleeping, to no longer sleep. Death is an end to death. To die: to die no more. It is both. An interruption, a “no more,” that is inevitably followed by more.

In Hamlet I see, I read, I hear, a kind of depression that is the longing for endings. But a unique kind of ending. In other Shakespearean tragedies that feature the supernatural (Macbeth, Julius Caesar) there is the continuous presence of prophecy. Macbeth is told by the witches of his rise and fall. Caesar is told to beware the ides of march, and Brutus is warned by the ghost of Caesar of his demise. But in Hamlet, when the deceased king, Hamlet’s father, haunts the battlements and reveals the truth of his murder, his demands for justice have no prophecy nor fate tied to them. All he does is demand without the promise of an ending or determination. Hamlet is confronted with the modern ending: no longer is there a divine judgement or prophecy; the demands of the past speak without the promise of an ending in the future. All endings, it seems, are arbitrary. In the play the bloody finale is brought about through human agency without the grandiosity of Macbeth’s last confrontation or Brutus’s final battle (an affirmative, “honorable,” suicide if there ever was one. Brutus’s death has no place in modernity).

Modern writing has become aware of its arbitrary nature. Hence the fragmentation of its form: the breakdown through Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake through to Burroughs, Pynchon, Wallace. The greatest literature of the modern age may be that which was left unfinished: The Arcades Project, The Book of Disquiet, Faust, The Unfinished Man. These texts have the most honest endings.

Here, a brief leap to somewhere else:

“I asked for very little from life, and even this little was denied me. A nearby field, a ray of sunlight, a little bit of calm along with a bit of bread, not to feel oppressed by the knowledge that I exist, not to demand anything from others, and not to have others demand anything from me – this was denied me, like the spare change we might deny a beggar not because we’re mean-hearted but because we don’t feel like unbuttoning our coat.” [Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, 16]

It is not truly a denial on the part of life which causes such suffering. The denial does not come from a “no,” but presents itself as a shrug. It is the absence of any recognition, an ignorance of need, the charade that there is nothing to be offered. How much better, it might seem, that there was no feigned acknowledgement at all. And yet, the hesitation remains.

“To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.”

The great fear of death is that, despite all appearances, there is no ending. Nietzsche attempted to transform this fear into an empowerment. Camus took up the task to give Sisyphus a smile in the face of his eternal tragedy. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide,” but what answer he seems to provide is lacking. An ending is precisely what Sisyphus lacks. His position, his torment, is that suicide is an impossibility. Hell is the impossibility of death after the torment of life.

The ultimate wish of the suicide is for there to be no more. I am struck by how hard this is for so many to grasp. When we speak of preventing suicide we speak of the effects that will come after. We speak of the pain of others, and the consequences. But what does this mean to someone who is already shouldering the guilt of the endless consequences of life? How can one wag a finger, say “how dare you?” to someone who just doesn’t want to be someone? We say, “death doesn’t absolve you of the consequences,” but that is only for the living. For the dead, there is nothing. They are not absolved or guilty. They are not there at all. Or, rather, they are not there for themselves. They are only there in remembrance.

The suicide is a ghost more dreadful, more haunting, than any actual ghost. The suicide demands justice, demands an absolution of everything, but is not manifest. They are gone. They will never appear, never speak their demands. We, the living, can only put words into the place of absence we present for them.

Hamlet, in this moment of the play, speaks as the living to the absent. He is surrounded by those he does not perceive: Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia, and the audience. A soliloquy for those he does not know will hear him. It is a speech that will go unnoticed, unacknowledged, throughout. Only the audience, in the aftermath of what unfolds, give any consideration or derive any meaning.

Depression, then, is the desire, the need, to be heard like a ghost among the living. To have one’s innermost needs heard urgently, fearfully, and to be spoken for by others with respect, awe, and without pretense. It is a need for honesty, for communication, for the realization of an ending of what is the now.

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