La Réserve : Livraison septembre 2015

Francis Goyet

A hypothesis on the meaning of ‘To be, or not to be’

First publication : ‘Hamlet, étudiant du XVIe siècle’, Poétique, 113 (1998), 3-15, with the kind authorization of Les éditions du Seuil. Enlarged version, translated by Yvonne Freccero.


In his 1982 edition of Hamlet for the Arden Shakespeare, Harold Jenkins has shown that the word question in ‘That is the question’ refers to the quaestio, and specifically the quaestio infinita. This article goes a step further. It shows that it is techically a quaestio infinita non-‘comparative’ echoing a quaestio comparatiua. From there, a hypothesis is proposed for the meaning of ‘To be, or not to be’. It can be read by reference to the method of Melancthon, who directed the University of Wittenberg. Hamlet, who is coming back from Wittenberg, is portrayed as an excellent student, applying Melancthon’s method : memory (i), judgment (ii), and (iii) the crucial importance of the quaestio infinita. Memory : the ‘Remember me’ is applied by using the ‘commonplace-book’ method. Judgment : the drastic opposition between Melancthon and Erasmus is exemplified by the scene between Hamlet and Osric. Quaestio infinita : the movement upwards from finita to infinita explains ultimately the strange and scholastic formula, which in that light could be read ‘To be x or not be x, that is the way in which the discussion presents itself’. This leads to stress the failure of Hamlet in terms of prudentia.

Texte intégral

1When Hamlet returns to the court of Denmark, he is coming from the university. Not just any university, since his uncle makes it clear that he was a student at Wittenberg (Hamlet, I, 2, v.113). Wittenberg is the university that was created by Luther and directed by Melancthon (1497-1560). We should not underestimate the pedagogic importance of the latter ; he was the true founder of German scholastic studies, witness the name by which he was eventually known, praeceptor Germaniae. His research and teaching methods left their mark on Europe at least until the end of the seventeenth century, Protestant and Catholic Europe equally, since even the Jesuits refer back to Melancthon. The subject matter of this article is therefore simple. Given that the play dates from 1600, it is a matter of identifying in the words spoken by the good student Hamlet, what is typical of Melancthon’s method.

2It can be summarized in two key words : memoria, iudicium, memory and ‘judgment’, meaning critical analysis. These will in turn be the titles of the first two parts of my article. The third section will deal with one of the method’s objectives, i.e. the disputatio or quaestio. This makes possible a hypothesis for that famous verse : ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’ - the quaestio.

1. Memory

3At the beginning of the play, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to him and tells him that he has been poisoned by his own brother, Hamlet’s uncle, who had then acceded to the throne. Dawn comes, and the ghost must disappear. His last words are about memory (I, 5, 91) : ‘Adieu, adieu ! Hamlet, remember me.’ For a follower of Melancthon the question of memory is one and the same as the so-called commonplace method.

4In the sixteenth century the ‘commonplaces’ were an indication for the rubrics, or tituli, under which a reader classified quotations which seemed to him worth noting. In other words it was a sort of card index file or catalogue. In 1585, Tabourot des Accords wrote a very simple description of the process. From the eighth grade, students could be trained to

use commonplaces to make a collection of what they read, from the beginning according to simple morals in alphabetical order, such as : A. Abstinence Abuse Accusation Adultery (...) C. Calumny Celerity City Civility Chastity Charity Change (...) H. Habits Hatred Heresy (...) Humility Hypocrisy (...) T. Temerity Temperance (...) Treason Triumph Turpitude Tyrant (...). And endless others which a child could collect and use to classify all the sentences and stories he would read (...).

5It is obvious that the ‘simple morals’ are very like vices and virtues, and, generally speaking, all the topics which are found in moral science, the simplest of sciences. From Abstinence to the end the list provides in all about three hundred words, which are so many headings under which are gathered noteworthy quotations and passages. Next,

from morals it is an easy progression to natural, political and other such sciences which they would want to pursue in order to become scholars : so that, in place of simple commonplaces, it will serve them as material on which to base their arguments, or even entire books.

  • 1 Tabourot des Accords, Les Bigarrures, IV, 1, Paris : Jean Richer, 1585. For...

6The aim is to provide each student with ‘the rich memory of innumerable arguments which he will later adapt at will1’.

7Thus the method in its most scholarly form finds immediate application in Hamlet. How in fact does Hamlet react to the ‘Remember me’ ? By a word-heading : not Treason but Villainy. In order to remember the murder committed by his uncle, he must first erase the earlier quotations, or records, in order to rewrite new ones (I, 5, 98-109) :

… from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there ;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter : yes, by heaven !
O most pernicious woman !
O villain, villain, smiling damned villain !
My tables, --meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain ;
At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.
So, uncle, there you are.

8Here we have the good student feeding general maxims into his commonplace-book : ‘one may smile, and smile, and be a villain’. The phrase has the paradoxical format usual to such favorite quotations of adages and sayings. Strangely, Hamlet has just been saying that he must wipe out, empty of their contents, all preceding collections of commonplaces. The reality of the world at court is too violent ; it provides him with an accelerated course in moral science, as well as political science. But scarcely emptied of its previous content, the commonplace-book begins to fill up once more, the note-taking reflex returns at a gallop. The wickedness of his uncle who has killed his father is entered in the notebook under the heading Villainy. In order to remember the specific case, he needs only record the general case in his ‘tables’.

  • 2 In the 1527 edition, Paris : Rob. Estienne, p. 4 r : that the adolescent ‘i...

9The word used by Hamlet, ‘tables’, indicates very precisely the material object which forms the basis of his record of commonplaces. It is a simple little notebook. Melancthon designates the same object in Latin by the word tabulae. In his Rhetoric of 15252, he notes that it is necessary first ‘to record in the notebooks [‘in tabulas referatur’] every maxim, adage or apothegm found in books ; then these extracts are copied into the real record of commonplaces under their appropriate heading [‘suo loco’]’. The ‘tables’ therefore are a small notebook which can be carried on one’s person, and the record itself is a large volume in size. Our loose-leaf file was unknown in that era. The commonplace-books that have been found are in folios of several hundred pages, many of which are still blank, with the key words at the top of the pages. These came already bound. The pages are not scattered, precisely because the idea was to put together a treasury of quotations. Future treasure is not scattered about : the bound book is like a solid coffer, capable of lasting. From the very beginning, it is untransportable and remains at home. The teacher requests the student to bring it in to show him once a week or every two weeks. Meanwhile, the student has at hand his ‘tables’, the little notebook in which he copies whatever strikes him, before transferring it into his treasury.

10The connection between the little notebook and the large file is, of course, the word heading. Villainy : that is what gives finality to what Hamlet is writing. Thanks to the word heading, the uncle is locked away in the great treasury of the memory. And so we understand the comparison of the brain with a book : it is the big commonplace-book. The brain itself is this file, this ‘table of (...) memory’’ on which to record what has first been put down in the tables. From tables to table. Because the quotation is indexed under the word Villainy the brain can classify and remember it. In other words, the comparison of the brain to a book is analogous to modern comparisons with a computer. Moreover it is no exaggeration to say that the commonplace-book is the sixteenth century’s computer : something that is supposed to classify information and make possible its rapid retrieval, with the same promise and the same commitment to the growth of knowledge.

  • 3 The Cornucopian Text. Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance (Oxford...

11Treasury or computer, we are in the world of the copia. The collection of commonplaces is intended to provide, as we have seen, a ‘rich memory of innumerable arguments’, in other words, a copia, an abundance of words and ideas. But the fertility may be a risk. In itself it is not necessarily a good quality. According to the maxim highlighted by Terence Cave in his Cornucopian Text, ‘ubi uber, ibi tuber’, fertility can be a cancerous proliferation3. That is the point of Hamlet’s reference. By beginning a completely new commonplace-book, he is rejecting the useless mass of everything with which previously he had encumbered his record. In Melancthon’s terms, the problematic is simple. Uselessness derives from a lack of ‘judgment’, i.e. a lack of critical analysis.

2. Judgment or critical analysis

12Melancthon constantly repeats the principle that the practice of commonplaces forms the iudicium. Inuenire, iudicare : accumulation of commonplaces is not successful without selection or analysis. Recopying induces thought. Either the same sentence or anecdote can be classified under various headings, or the heading itself can be made more precise or explicit. For example, Cincinnatus refusing the dictatorship could be classified under the heading Agriculture (the deputies found him working in the fields), or Old Age (the age and experience of Cincinnatus), or even Virtue preferred to Riches. Tabourot adds :

and there are other commonplaces this story could be made to fit ; so that the child will learn and retain from this research much more easily than someone simply enjoying reading the story, and in this way he will also strengthen his judgment.

13The task of recopying, seemingly so rudimentary, is an intellectual exercise. For the word-heading is in fact a concept. By recopying the student refines his concepts ; and, in return, by attaching the quotation to his concept, he will better remember the quotation. One can only remember what has been well conceived. Hence Tabourot’s refusal to accept ‘commonplaces which have been collected and printed by others, as that would eventually make [the student] lazy and stupid.’ In order to be useful, the treasury has to be put together manually. Certainly the book industry in the sixteenth century can furnish numerous ready-made treasuries, gigantic thesauri. But the goal is not to assemble the largest collection. The goal is the interior mastery of this knowledge, to make it one’s own through memory and judgment.

  • 4 Seneca : Epistulae, 84 ; Erasmus : passim.

14A word denotes this ambition. It is to ‘digest’. Technically, the verb indicates the fact of classifying a quotation under such and such a heading : di-gerere, that is to distribute or dispatch elements each to the appropriate pigeon-hole. The usual expression for indicating an arrangement by commonplaces is therefore ‘per locos communes digesta’, everything under its heading. The word ‘digest’ refers to a material order, which is as well an intellectual order. The mind will better retain what it has better ‘digested’. This is the meaning of Seneca’s and Erasmus’ famous image of the bee4. The bee gathers pollen from the flowers : the moment of copying the ‘flowers’ of literature and history into the portable notebooks. Back at the hive, the pollen from the flowers is distributed, each to its own place in the honeycomb : the moment of ‘digestion’, or distribution. This, then, is how the mind makes its honey, and takes in the unfamiliar knowledge.

  • 5 Quintilian, Institutio oratoria, VII, Prol., 1, ed. H. Butler (Cambridge, 1...

15But without judgment, the enterprise risks becoming a mere compilation. The negative image of digerere, is congerere : to amass for the sake of amassing, to achieve the biggest heap or congeries possible. ‘A plentiful abundance of ideas, however great, will merely form a heap and an accumulation5 [‘cumulum atque congestum’], unless arrangement be employed to reduce it to order [‘in ordinem digestas’]’. It is also the same with the accumulation of judgments and quotations. Abundance without order is of no use, it is even worse than useless. The more one accumulates, the less one thinks and the less one ‘judges’.

16Clearly the risk of pure compilation threatens the entire undertaking of collecting commonplaces. Here Melancthon is seen at his liveliest, in his firm opposition to the method praised by Erasmus. The latter, in his famous De Copia (1512), is already proposing a method for collecting exempla that is none other than that of commonplaces. But De Copia is caught in the temptation and intoxication of overabundance, ubi uber, ibi tuber. The fertile pen and immense reading of Erasmus lead him to accumulate a whole series of maxims under a single heading. He himself remarks that it is a ‘disorganized mass [‘indigesta turba’]’. In order to prevent the creation of anarchy, confusio by such a mass, he suggests ‘dividing the rather too rich headings into a number of sections [‘secare in aliquot partes’]’ :

  • 6 De Copia, ed. Knott (Amsterdam, 1991), 1-6, p. 260, 1. 578-583 (=LB 101).

For example, the heading ‘Liberality’ could be divided into parts [‘partiri’] with the following sub-sections : Gift quickly given, Appropriate Gift, Gift given to someone who is deserving, Blameworthy Gift, Reciprocal Gift. Or other sub-sections deemed fitting, for these are only mentioned to serve as examples6 […].

17The ‘method’ of Erasmus is obviously very empirical. It falls to each person to ‘judge’ according to the examples, and find appropriate sub-sections. But no guidance is given as to the order to be followed. The abundance is checked rather than controlled by an order. Moreover, the order is not particularly important, given the degree to which Erasmus originally tries to develop the taste for maxims and anecdotes.

  • 7 De rhetorica of 1521, Ch. VIII.

18As for Melancthon, he is much more systematic, because he is much more concerned with the formation of judgment. He banishes an alphabetical order that is too disjointed or arbitrary. He prefers a rational order in which everything is arranged according to the ramifications of knowledge. The latter is organized like those trees in the image of the encyclopedia. The main branches are the major disciplines : philosophy, law, history and theology. Each branch bears its own headings or commonplaces, which are not enumerated in bulk, but according to an order of reasons. If for example one of Melancthon’s lists put Temerity and Temperance close together, as in Tabourot’s, it is purely by accident, for his list is : … Fortitudo Constantia Temeritas Temperantia Sobrietas Ebrietas Crapula Libido Castitas7.... What matters here is the ‘natural’ order of the virtues, which are in themselves grouped by opposites. The memorization of numerous examples under such headings implies memorizing the complete list of that branch of knowledge known as ethics or moral science. Finally, if a heading is too rich, its sub-sections obey the same principle of systematic ordering. It will be organized according to the same dialectics, beginning, as always, with the definition, followed by the cause, and then by the species, etc. :

  • 8 De rhetorica of 1519.

Take for example the debate ‘Are ideas the cause of things ?’. It cannot be decided unless one first knows what is an idea. And one cannot know what an idea is, unless the headings have been organized according to the method which begins with the question what is it8 ?

  • 9 Elementa rhetorices, Corpus Reformatorum, XIII, col. 452.

19Thus we arrive at the reverse of Erasmus’ empiricism. Melancthon’s systematic assumes a trained judgment, a strong conceptual capacity : ‘commonplaces cannot be correctly understood unless each of the disciplines from which they originate is itself perfectly understood9.’ The great treasury is possible only if it is organized like an encyclopedia.

  • 10 Topica, ed. H. Hubbell (Cambridge, 1976, ‘Loeb’) - translation slightly al...

20Opposition to Erasmus’ less methodical method finds expression in Melancthon in the opposition of two words : partition or division, partitio, diuisio. According to Cicero’s terms in Topics (28), partition is a definition of the enumeration of ‘what one might call the members’ of the concept to be defined : ‘civil law as composed of statutes, decrees of the Senate, judicial decisions’, etc. Division, however, is a definition by analysis ‘which includes all the species [‘formae’] that come under the genre [‘genus’] which is being defined.’ Clearly Melancthon leans towards the division into species whereas Erasmus, in the text quoted from De copia is only considering the division into partes. One of the proofs of this lies in Melancthon’s definition of commonplaces as ‘formae rerum’, in other words ‘species’ into which ‘things’ can be sorted. In Melancthon’s eyes, the advantage of division is emphasized by Cicero himself. In fact, ‘on the one hand there is a fixed number of species which are included in each genus ; on the other hand a distribution into parts is often almost limitless’ (Topics, 3310). On the one hand is the closed world of knowledge, divided into genres and species ; and on the other the open world of appearances and anecdotes. Melancthon compared to Erasmus is like Aristotle compared to Proteus.

21Thus Melancthon’s method is completely consistent with the distributive prefix di- of the word ‘digestion’. ‘Di-vision’ precedes the work of classification or distribution. Analysis refines the allocations between related species and sub-species, in order to obtain a ‘di-chotomy’ with many branches. This is visually represented by the famous tables of Ramus, Melancthon’s heir. Classification is followed by the work of ‘dis-position’. The prevailing order in the commonplace book is a prelude to the order which will prevail in the actual thesis, in the finished product. If, on the other hand, Erasmus’ superabundance prevails in the commonplace book, the thesis will also be a catch-all, a heap of maxims and ‘flowers’. The taste for a flowery style will outwin the logical scheme.

22All of which brings us back to Hamlet. For the rancor between the followers of Melancthon and the followers of Erasmus is found again in the opposition between Hamlet and the courtier Osric (Hamlet, V, 2). The latter describes Laertes in an almost incomprehensible stream of flowery terms and expressions. According to Osric, Laertes is a complete gentleman,

he is the card or calendar of gentry, for you shall find in him the continent of what part a gentleman would see.

Hamlet replies in Melancthon terms of definition and division. His derision is perhaps prompted by Osric’s word ‘part’, which might remind him of the opposition partitio/diuisio :

Sir, his definement suffers no perdition in you ; though, I know, to divide him inventorially would dizzy the arithmetic of memory.

To make a true Melancthonian diuisio of Laertes, to define him according to the rules of inuentio (‘inventorially’), and thus assist memorization, judgment or iudicium is needed. Hamlet does not consider Osric has that judgment, that Cartesian ‘bon sens’ or good judgment. In his estimation he is merely a store of expressions : once ‘his purse is empty’, he can no longer say anything because he has spent all his ‘golden words’. In other words the contents of the commonplace-book are already lopsided, because they lack both ‘digestion’ and ‘division’.

23The irony is continued in what immediately follows. It is still a question of definition, and therefore of lack of judgment. Osric praises Laertes’ prowess in fighting. Hamlet asks him ‘What’s his weapon ?’ to which Osric replies : ‘Rapier and dagger’. A fine example of conceptual confusion which Hamlet hastens to underline : ‘That’s two of his weapons, but, well.’ Osric goes on to enumerate, an endless partitio. The king has in fact wagered six Barbary horses against six French rapiers and poniards, with an eager listing of all their accoutrements, including carriages. Hamlet : What call you the carriages ?’ ; Osric : ‘The carriages, sir, are the hangers.’ The list or partitio results in the use of unsuitable words for lack of definition. The carriage (gun-carriage) is in fact either a vehicle used in transportation or the mounting that allows the cannon to be maneuvered. As Hamlet points out, the word would be appropriate ‘if we could carry a cannon by our sides’. Enumeration, carelessness in definition : all of this confirms that Osric, is, even in his style, the incarnation of what Hamlet has learned to detest. It is not only the black student gown that Hamlet brings with him from Wittenberg, but also the severity of mind. Hamlet is the antithesis of the flowery manners of courtiers at the end of the century. They know how to handle this rhetoric which Melancthon, following Socrates theme in the Gorgias (463a), calls ‘a subsection of the art of flattery’.

3. That is the quaestio

24In this game of opposites, Osric is most certainly caricatured as a typical courtier. But Hamlet does not go unscathed. He is typified as a student. His style is no less distinct than his black clothes. It would seem that a spectator in those days who had been taught the commonplace method would find it rather amusing when, on the departure of the ghost, Hamlet takes out his notebook. Even after the shock of the revelation of the murder, the good student remains a good student, conscientiously applying the method he has been taught. Later on, that most famous verse, ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’ (III, 1, 56), is, again, a quite typical utterance, with a strong academic flavour. First I shall analyze the second part of the verse, before presenting my hypothesis for the meaning of ‘to be’.

25In the first place, the word question can only mean the quaestio.There can be no possible doubt about this. It is the quaestio disputata, the dispute of university teaching : a debate of for and against. Sixteenth century humanists would have found its Greek equivalent in Quintilian or Cicero, i.e the ‘thesis’. Whether in debate or dissertation, the thesis is an exercise for advanced students, the equivalent of a final exam. In Hamlet, the text immediately following is enough to indicate the debate. Whether/or is the equivalent of the Latin -ne/an :

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.

Either submit, or else revolt. The debate then bears on the action, on the question of knowing whether one should act or not : ‘action’ is the last word of the tirade.

  • 11 Amsterdam edition, p. 260, 1. 569-571 ( = LB 101).

26In the passage from De Copia quoted above, Erasmus gives several examples expressed in exactly the same format as Hamlet’s. He calls them ‘comparatiua11’ :

‘Is one happier celibate or married ?’, ‘a private life, or not ?’, ‘rather the monarchy than the democracy ?’, ‘the life of the learned or the ignorant ?’ [‘Coelibatusne felicior, an coniugium ?, uita priuata, an secus ?, potior monarchia, an democratia ?, uita studiosorum, an idiotarum ?’]

27It is the same use of the comparative. In Hamlet, it is what is nobler ; in Erasmus, it is what makes one happier, felicior. This similarity of examples enables us to identify exactly the dissertation with which Hamlet is dealing.

28Technically speaking, it is a practical, comparative thesis, as shown by the following division (a Melancthonian or rather Platonic division) :
quaestio => finita ( = hypothesis) vs. infinita ( = thesis)
infinita ( = thesis) => speculative vs. practical
=> non-comparative vs.comparative

29I will explain first what ‘practical’ and ‘comparative’ mean. Only then will we return to the distinction between thesis and hypothesis.

30As for the ‘practical’ thesis, the distinction between the speculative and the practical theses is in Cicero’s terms scientia vs. actio (Quintilian, III, 5, 6-13). The speculative belong to pure philosophy of the kind ‘Is the world ruled by providence or not ?’. The practical bear on an action to be undertaken or not, such as ‘Should one get married ? Should one participate in public affairs ?’. Even when these practical theses are discussed in the abstract, they clearly result in obvious indications for action. Cato could not have decided that he should marry Marcia, had he not previously decided that a philosopher should marry.

  • 12 II, 4, 24, ed. H. Butler, translation slightly altered. The ‘comparison dr...

31Hamlet’s quaestio therefore is practical, its goal is actio. Again, there are two kinds of practical theses, the comparative and the non-comparative (Quintilian, II, 4, 2412). The former

are concerned with the comparison of one thing with another [‘ex rerum comparatione’], for example, ‘which is preferable, town or country life ?’ or ‘which deserves the greatest praise, the lawyer or the soldier ?’ [‘rusticane uita an urbana potior’, ‘iuris periti an militaris uiri laus maior’]

  • 13 ‘In the universities, (…) the student beyond his second year became a “sop...

32To this first kind of thesis - the comparative one - Quintilian adds a second, the non-comparative, defined only by examples : ‘should one take a woman ? Should one solicit public duties ?’. He states that these non-comparative theses ‘relate almost uniquely to the deliberative genre’, they in fact relate to an action to be undertaken or not. If a person’s name is added to such a non-comparative thesis, it would become a ‘suasoria’ : a speech that incites action. Quintilian does not say explicitly that the comparative thesis itself incites action as well. But the context of this very brief paragraph shows he simply wants to stress that the form ‘Should one do this or that ?’ is more directly related to an action to be taken, whilst the comparative form is as it were more mediatory, hence more speculative. If it results from the discussion that country life is preferable to that of the city, this would indeed imply that the discussion results in a choice of action. This little problem is especially interesting in relation to Hamlet. Ultimately, these two kinds of theses are only different in the way they are presented, ‘to take a woman, or not’ compared with ‘to be celibate or married’. ‘Either submit or revolt’ is a comparative thesis. ‘To submit or not’ is not. Clearly Hamlet superimposes the two formulations, and precedes the comparative with a non-comparative. ‘To be, or not to be’ , a non-comparative thesis, is the same in advance as ‘either submit or revolt’, a comparative thesis13.

  • 14 To be architypical, the question asked of Cato is in fact quite specific. ...

33Whether speculative or practical, comparative or not, before these two divisions we must distinguish between the thesis and ‘the hypothesis’. In other words, the quaestio argued by Hamlet is, primarily, like every thesis, a quaestio infinita. There are actually two kinds of questions, as summarized by Quintilian in III, 5, 5-15. The quaestio finita is a debate centered on a specific case, determined or finitus. The quaestio infinita centers on the case in general. ‘Should Cato marry Marcia, or not ?’ is a quaestio finita or ‘hypothesis’, where the individual is specified14. ‘Should the philosopher marry, or not’ is a quaestio infinita or ‘thesis’. Another example, taken from Cicero in De Oratore (III, 109). The specific question is ‘Should we recover our prisoners from the Carthaginians by giving them back theirs ?’, and the general question : ‘In principle, what should be the decision and thought concerning prisoners of war ?’. This movement of referring the particular back to the general is at the very heart of the great Ciceronian eloquence, as Melancthon saw so clearly. And so it is not accidental if under commonplace headings, it is general formulations, infinitae, which are accumulated, providing material for debates which are themselves general. We have seen it in what Hamlet writes in his tablets. ‘One may smile, and smile, and be a villain,’ being the general case. ‘At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark’ : being the specific case. ‘So, uncle, there you are’ : the uncle is the specific case which makes it possible to arrive at a general truth, which is written under a heading.

  • 15 This point is emphasized in Harold Jenkins’ edition of Hamlet (London and ...

34‘That is the question’ : with this Hamlet launches a general debate, a quaestio infinita. At no point in the tirade that follows does one actually find any other formulation that the indeterminate : the argument is about15 ‘us’ not ‘me’. Hamlet is reasoning in general, generaliter, on the level of principles, in order to know what to do in this specific case. This, once again, reveals him as a typical student. Instead of acting he discusses action. The more he disputat, the less he decides. Such a typical attitude is in fact a cliché. For a spectator of those days it refers to the typical vice of the melancholy temperament. The sanguine is the man of action, the great captain, the Prince. The melancholic is the intellectual, ‘the man of genius’ according to Aristotle, the Philosopher. Hamlet is melancholic, and a prince as well. The more philosopher he becomes, the less he is a prince. If then he is a typical student, if there is a – slight - touch of comedy, then there is also tragedy. It is the tragedy of a world where the Platonic ideal of the philosopher-prince is doomed to failure. Of what use is the University ?

35The extremely important opposition between the specific and the general case enables us to conclude by suggesting an alternative interpretation of the words ‘to be, or not to be’. Implicitly ‘to be’ is usually understood to mean to live, and ‘not to be’, not exist, i.e. to die. The sentence that immediately follows would seem to confirm it, ‘To die : to sleep’ which would seem to be a repetition of ‘not to be’. But dying in this case immediately follows the idea of revolt. Death is considered in relation to the fact of taking up arms against the new king, or rather of not doing so. Hamlet, certainly, is arguing in general about death, about the fact that it ‘puzzles the will’, and makes us bear the ills we have : the idea of death kills that of revolt. But in my opinion he does not think of suicide, at least at the beginning of the soliloquy. Such an idea stems from the assumption that ‘not to be’ means ‘to die’.

36‘Not to be’ : such an expression sounds - if I dare say so - like pidgin English. It is academic jargon. In other words, this bizarre sentence seems to refer back to the strangeness that characterizes Hamlet : to his situation as a student. Once we accept that the ‘question’ in the text is the quaestio, we then become aware of the importance of the ‘or’ and of the opposition. It is clearly parallel to the motion ‘whether/or’ in the following sentence. Whether to submit, or not submit ; or else marry or not marry. Or indeed be or not be. If we now think about the distinction that was then evident between quaestio finita and quaestio infinita, I believe we find the key. For the basic principle is always to go from the specific to the general. From the uncle of Denmark to the smiling villain. From the prisoners of Carthage to a debate of the principle concerning the attitude to be taken in such a case. Melancthon has remembered Cicero’s teaching. To give eloquence its lustre, this is the way in which one should philosophize :

  • 16 De Oratore, III, 120, ed. H. Rackham (Cambridge, 1960, ‘Loeb’).

The most ornate speeches are those which (...) turn aside from the particular matter in dispute to engage in an explanation of the meaning of the general issue, so as to enable the audience to base their verdict in regard to the particular parties and charges and actions in question on a knowledge of the nature and character of the matter as a whole16.

37This, in the final analysis, is the source of interest in the commonplaces : to be able to speak generaliter. One goes from the particular to the general, or, as we say today, one ‘elevates’ the debate by discussing a question of principle, beyond specific circumstances.

  • 17 Cf. the parodic use of the famous verse, e.g. ‘to be drunk, or not to be d...

38In oscillating between ‘to be’ and ‘not to be’, it seems to me that Hamlet pushes to the limit this movement of elevation from the concrete to the abstract. The first abstraction goes from ‘should I submit’ to ‘should one submit’, by abstraction from the specific self. From this general case, Hamlet will move back to an even more general formulation, by passing over the element that can still be removed, that is to say the predicate ‘submissive’. To be, or not to be submissive ; to be, or not to be in rebellion, according to the way every sentence is analyzed by medieval logic, where to walk becomes to be walking and to live, to be living. One more step and ‘to be, or not be submitted’ becomes ‘to be, or not to be’. The strangeness of the sentence results from its radically abstract quality. The process of abstraction has been pushed to its limit. To give it full emphasis, one could translate the famous verse in terms of modern and not scholastic logical abstraction : ‘To be x or not be x, that is the way in which the discussion presents itself’. Or : ‘The debate fundamentally takes an either/or form17’. Hamlet launches his general reflection by framing it in an abstract format which he knows and finds reassuring, in order to clarify a concrete situation which eludes and troubles him. The good student is thus exceptionally gifted in abstraction, he has understood from within the movement that supports the commonplace method.

39If ‘not to be’ does not mean to die, the very idea of suicide becomes problematic. Yet the critics are probably right when they unanimously feel that Hamlet in this tirade is in a suicidal mood. I will argue that the idea of suicide is not and cannot be explicit, and certainly not at the very beginning of the tirade. It comes insidiously, as a drowning, or more justly as a sleep. The more Hamlet tries to clarify the situation by reasoning, the more he sinks.

40In other words, according to my presentation, Hamlet’s anguish comes directly from his balancing between two opposite actions, or rather between action and inaction, revolt against the new king or submission to his new order. Hamlet is anguished because he wants to decide, and altogether cannot decide. And it is this very impossibility to decide that gives to the whole tirade its suicidal tone. When he equates to die and to sleep, he plays more or less consciously with an idea like the glorious death of the rebel : taking up arms against his uncle would be a classic role, Brutus against tyranny. His explicit reasoning is : since to die is to sleep, why should I be afraid of taking up arms ? But the curious result of the discussion or quaestio is that eventually Hamlet is unable to decide, to make up his mind. Therefore the equation ‘to die : to sleep’ sounds quite differently. The very idea of death as sleep is like a way to anticipate the absence of decision, such an absence being itself the sleep of reason. The more Hamlet discusses explicitly with himself, the more he sinks, implicitly, into indecision, as one sinks into sleep. He does not even decide to choose inaction (submission) : inaction merely comes from his indecision. Such a description is indeed the description of a suicide to come. Suicide is around the corner, but not in an explicit way, and certainly not at the beginning of the soliloquy. Hamlet is very far from being some stoic hero, facing and discussing the idea of committing suicide.

41There is no such a thing as a clear decision to commit suicide, precisely because during the tirade Hamlet comes to understand that he cannot reach any decision. Suicide is not the official topic of the discussion. On the contrary, my point is that the academic form of the quaestio is a desperate attempt to escape suicide - an attempt that fails.

  • 18 The case Hamlet is facing is a case in courage, and his lack of judgment o...

42An other way to put it would be to refer again to the concept of judgment. Hamlet’s continuing indecision shows that he lacks iudicium. This is the height of failure for a follower of Melancthon. Ideally, Hamlet should use his iudicium at two levels : first by deciding the question from an abstract point of view (in general, should one revolt or not), and then dett-ermining the concrete correct balance in the case at hand. For this lack of judgment is also a failure in the world of Aristotelian ethics. In this world, determining the exact balance in every concrete case is the meson, the golden mean between two extremes. It is virtue at its peak, not mediocrity. And since it is excruciatingly difficult, it is the monopoly of great princes or politicians : of the ‘prudent’ men. For someone who, like Hamlet, is intelligent and a prince, it is a double failure, as a Melancthonian student and as an Aristotelian prince. The possibility of such a failure is a sufficient cause for a major anguish. With his indecision, Hamlet finally rejects the ethical Aristotelian scheme, as he rejects the revenge scheme of the ghost. He does not fit in the schemes the world would want him to adopt18. This, I am afraid, is again an old cliché on students, describing their way of rejecting clichés and conformism.


43To conclude, Hamlet’s powerful intelligence is both his greatness and his weakness. He has more talent for abstraction than for action. Similarly he has a greater gift for defining and analyzing, whereas Osric is gifted at enfolding everything in flowery words. Finally, Hamlet knows how to memorize, but not to the point that he can avenge his father, which is what was demanded by the ‘Remember me’. His logic and that of the world are incompatible. As a black-robed student of the sixteenth century, his style is outmoded, or at least his manners are out of place. If what he has learned at the university is of no use to him in ruling the court, is because he has after all been taught a worthless method. He is a model student and thus demonstrates the limits of the model he is following. And I believe this is why his features are recognizable to his contemporary audience. He can be seen as almost as typical a character as Osric. His values as a student of Melancthon are not necessarily acceptable to the public.

  • 19 For a critique of the Cartesian method as it relates to the complexity of ...

44If we step back a little from the character, we gain a point of view similar to the radical critique of the ‘commonplace’ method in seventeenth-century France. Descartes will make a clean sweep of the notebooks and the Cornucopiae. Arnauld and Nicole will explicitly deny that commonplaces can form judgment, in other words Cartesian ‘common sense’. But, conversely, what is lost with Descartes is the sharp sense of tragic - and comic - complexity of human situations. Not tabula rasa, not tabula plena. Shakespeare is working with a table that is still piled astonishingly high with the maxims and anecdotes supplied by his political experience. Hamlet’s abstraction, from this point of view, is not a mathematical or logical abstraction. It is an attempt to control rather than suppress the political complexity. Such an attempt fully deserved an appropriate method19.


1 Tabourot des Accords, Les Bigarrures, IV, 1, Paris : Jean Richer, 1585. For a more extensive discussion of the commonplace method, see Ann Blair, The Theater of Nature. Jean Bodin and Renaissance Science (Princeton, 1997) ; Marie-Dominique Couzinet, Histoire et méthode à la Renaissance. Une lecture de la Methodus de Jean Bodin (Paris, 1996) ; Francis Goyet, Le sublime du ‘lieu commun’. L’invention rhétorique dans l’Antiquité et à la Renaissance (Paris, 1996) ; Ann Moss, Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought (Oxford, 1996).

2 In the 1527 edition, Paris : Rob. Estienne, p. 4 r : that the adolescent ‘in hic locos communes, uitiorum, uirtutum, fortunae, mortis, diuitiarum, literarum, & similes exerceat. (...) Ad hoc plurimum conducet, formas locorum communium diligenter notatas in manibus habere, ut si quam sententiam, si quod adagium, si quod apophthegma dignum, quod in tabulas referatur, exceperis, suo recondas loco.’

3 The Cornucopian Text. Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance (Oxford, 1979).

4 Seneca : Epistulae, 84 ; Erasmus : passim.

5 Quintilian, Institutio oratoria, VII, Prol., 1, ed. H. Butler (Cambridge, 1986, ‘Loeb’) - translation slightly altered.

6 De Copia, ed. Knott (Amsterdam, 1991), 1-6, p. 260, 1. 578-583 (=LB 101).

7 De rhetorica of 1521, Ch. VIII.

8 De rhetorica of 1519.

9 Elementa rhetorices, Corpus Reformatorum, XIII, col. 452.

10 Topica, ed. H. Hubbell (Cambridge, 1976, ‘Loeb’) - translation slightly altered.

11 Amsterdam edition, p. 260, 1. 569-571 ( = LB 101).

12 II, 4, 24, ed. H. Butler, translation slightly altered. The ‘comparison drawn from things’ is compared in Quintilian to a ‘comparison’ that is familiar to us, the comparatio or parallel between famous men, comparatio uirorum et non rerum (II, 4, 21). The Greek orator Aphthonios isolates this exercise under the title of synkrisis or comparatio and gives as example the parallel Achilles-Hector. His Progymnasmata in Latin are one of the basic manuals of literary studies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, all over Europe.

13 ‘In the universities, (…) the student beyond his second year became a “sophister” and was required to take part in a state number of disputations, both in college and in public (…). Undergraduates in their third or fourth year and for their baccalaureate degrees often treated philosophical questions. For the MA the questions could become timely : “whether a college education will get you ahead in politics, (…) whether women should have a liberal education, (…) [whether] the power of the sword is the prince’s alone, (…) [whether] All change in the commonwealth is dangerous” [typical non-comparative theses, quoted from Craig R. Thompson, Universities in Tudor England (Washington D.C., 1959, p. 27)]. When Elizabeth I visited Cambridge in 1564, she heard public disputations on propositions that were topical, current, indeed quite close to Elizabeth herself : whether the authority of Scripture is better than the authority of the Church [ = comparative thesis], and whether the Civil Magistrate has authority in matters ecclesiastical [ = non-comparative thesis]. (…) It is a reminder that disputation was a prominent educational activity in that year of Shakespeare’s birth - and remained so, at least through the age of Milton.’ (Thomas O. Sloane, ‘Rhetorical Education and Two-Sided Argument’, Renaissance-Rhetorik, Renaissance Rhetoric, ed. Heinrich F. Plett, New York and Berlin, 1993, 163-178, here p. 170 ; Sloane shows that Erasmus’ Encomium matrimonii is giving the pros and cons of the question ‘should one marry’).

14 To be architypical, the question asked of Cato is in fact quite specific. The great orator Hortensius ‘not being able to marry Porcia, Cato’s daughter, demands of that same Cato that he divorces his wife Marcia ; Cato agrees to it with his father-in-law’s approval, and Marcia lived with Hortensius from the year 56 to 50, at which date, since Hortensius was dead, the virtuous Cato took her back with the fortune left to her by the great orator’ (Jean Cousin, a note in his edition of Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria, Paris, 1977, p. 267).

15 This point is emphasized in Harold Jenkins’ edition of Hamlet (London and New York, ‘The Arden Shakespeare’, 1982), ad loc., p. 486.

16 De Oratore, III, 120, ed. H. Rackham (Cambridge, 1960, ‘Loeb’).

17 Cf. the parodic use of the famous verse, e.g. ‘to be drunk, or not to be drunk’, ‘to be elected, or not to be elected’, etc. : any predicate can be used, the verse is like an empty container indefinitely reusable.

18 The case Hamlet is facing is a case in courage, and his lack of judgment or prudence means that he is lacking the virtue of courage. Jenkins (p. 490) notes accurately that Hamlet cannot seriously consider ending the ‘sea of troubles’ by opposing them with weapons. In this case, it would unquestionably be more noble to take up arms than to do nothing, so there would be no reason for debate, for quaestio. I would add two remarks. (1) The word ‘troubles’ in sixteenth century vocabulary usually refers to the totality of a political situation, e.g. the ‘religious troubles’. It is not a question, as Jenkins says, of ‘his troubles’, of Hamlet’s personal troubles, but rather of the general confusion which seems to him to have taken over the kingdom. (2) To claim to conquer a ‘sea’, according to Aristotle, is not really courageous : the Celts struggling against the waves for him is an example of the lack of courage due to the lack of fear (Eth.Nic., III, 7, 1115b25 ; Eth.Eud., III, 1, 1229b28). What Hamlet has to decide is the due mean, i.e the precise attitude to maintain between this lack of fear and the lack of courage, which would be needed to put up with such a situation, i.e. oppression by his uncle’s tyranny (‘Th’oppressor’s wrong’, v.71). True virtue, in this case the virtue of courage, rests only in the precise balance between these two extremes

19 For a critique of the Cartesian method as it relates to the complexity of state affairs, one would do well to read the De nostri temporis studiorum ratione oratio (1708) by Giambattista Vico. Vico criticizes the Cartesians precisely for having undone the link between ‘topic’ and ‘analysis’, between inuentio and iudicium, and totally favoring the latter.

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Francis Goyet, «A hypothesis on the meaning of ‘To be, or not to be’», La Réserve [En ligne], La Réserve, Livraison septembre 2015, mis à jour le : 23/11/2015, URL :

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Université Grenoble Alpes / U.M.R. Litt&Arts – RARE Rhétorique de l’Antiquité à la Révolution

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