So, for fun, here’s some mapping of Hamlet from three of his soliloquies.
We meet Hamlet for the first time in Act 1, Scene 2. At this point, Hamlet has not spoken to the ghost who walks the ramparts. But while Hamlet doesn’t yet consider his uncle to be guilty of fratricide, it’s clear there is little love lost between the two men – a little more than kin, and less than kind.
Thus, Hamlet’s first soliloquy, O, that this too too solid flesh would melt – or, as it’s more colloquially known, the frailty thy name is woman speech – serves as an introduction to the points of tension in the play. Or, as mapped:
The first act ends with Hamlet speaking to the ghost, who reveals itself to be none other than Hamlet’s deceased father. Not only dead, but murdered by his uncle. The serpent that did sting thy father’s life/Now wears his crown.
His father’s ghost urges him to act:
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not;
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
Hamlet isn’t sure what to do. He has a duty to his father, but he has a duty to the crown, and to the uncle who now wears it.
By Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet is at a mental and emotional loss for how to handle the situation, delivering his famous To be, or not to be speech:
Simplicity is part of the beauty of this speech. Its essence is truly encapsulated by that first line – to be, or not to be.
At other times in the play, Hamlet rambles from one idea to another – the turmoil and confusion he feels expressed in the wandering of his words. But here we see him struggle with the same idea over and over. To be, or not to be.
That is, indeed, the question.
This is an important turning point in the play. While Hamlet finishes this soliloquy unresolved and convinced that Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, he also realizes that he will not act on his suicidal thoughts.
He spends the next two acts debating what to do, but at its core – the moment he decides not to die, the moment he decides to be, is the moment he decides to act on his father’s wishes – to act on life if not on death.
In Act 4, Hamlet becomes thoroughly resolved to avenge his father. He has determined his uncle’s guilt and, while he still struggles with the reality of what he feels he must do, Hamlet is convinced of the path he must take. In Act 4, Scene 4, Hamlet gives his How all occasions do inform against me speech. He reflects on the evidence, examines his own morals, and comes to the inescapable conclusion: He has a moral obligation to seek revenge.
All this mapping is, of course, quite subjective. I used my own judgement to pull out themes from the three soliloquies and my own judgement to estimate what ideas Hamlet was linking together.
But, I believe, there is value in this activity. Consider for a moment the above maps merged into one:
This could certainly be helpful from a literary view – the network seems to capture many of the play’s key themes and shows Hamlet’s inner turmoil. But could this be helpful from a civic point of view?
What would happen if Hamlet met someone convinced that one’s only duty is to the living? Or someone convinced that existence beyond this mortal coil wasn’t something to be afraid of? How would Hamlet interact with that person? Would he be taken with their arguments?
The specific questions are beyond the point. The real question, of course, is this – how do your personal questions, beliefs, ideas, struggles and experience define who you are, and how does that shape your interactions with others?
For example, when you meet someone new, are you quietly thinking in the back of your mind: Like me, or not like me?
That is the question.