Claudius appears to care deeply about his tortured nephew but confesses his guilty conscience in an aside. Claudius gradually reveals the depth of his criminality and at the same time engenders sympathy — the paradox of evil — by exposing his human fallibility. He sees his guilt in Polonius' charge that they could sugarcoat the devil. "Oh, 'tis too true," says Claudius. "How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!" Even a whore can look innocent when painted, and so his ugly deed looks honorable when clouded by pretty words. Still he feels the weight of his sin. Claudius presents a formidable foe for Hamlet. Both men have now revealed their cunning and sensitive comprehension of the human condition. They are evenly matched except that Claudius has the advantage of political power — or the moment.
In this scene, Gertrude remains as the Ghost had described her the loving mother caught in Claudius' web. She asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern whether they've tried to amuse her melancholy son, and she tells Ophelia she truly hopes the young woman's virtues can bring Hamlet back to his senses. Ophelia doesn't answer the Queen, and the audience can only surmise that Gertrude has added fuel to the fire of the young girl's consternation.
Hamlet enters, brooding "To be or not to be." In The Story of English, Robert MacNeil writes, "When Hamlet says 'To be or not to be: that is the question,' he has summarized in one sentence all that follows." Many scholars consider this speech to be one of several existential manifestos in Hamlet. (Existentialism professes that the past and future are intangible; the present is all that humans can be sure of. For humans, being — what IS — is the only truth; everything else is nothing.)
In this soliloquy, Hamlet explores the ideas of being and nothingness by asserting a basic premise: We are born, we live, and we die. Because no one has returned from death to report, we remain ignorant of what death portends. Hence, Hamlet's dilemma encapsulates several universal human questions: Do we try to affect our fate? Do we take action in the face of great sorrow, or do we merely wallow in the suffering? Can we end our troubles by opposing them? How do we know? What is the nature of death? Do we sleep in death, or do we cease to sleep, thereby finding no rest at all?
Hamlet hopes that death is nothingness, that death will "end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to," that death will end thinking, knowing, and remembering. But he fears that, in death, he will be haunted interminably by bad dreams of life itself, by dreams heavy with the memory of fear and pain. Ultimately, he says, that's why humans dread death. We fear that our consciences will torment us forever. Thus, human beings choose life, with its torment and burdens, chiefly to avoid death, the great unknown. However, death is, like life, inescapable, and Hamlet curses his luck for having been born at all.
Hamlet's dilemma underlies the entire soliloquy. If he kills Claudius, he will assuredly be killed himself. Hamlet is not sure he is ready for death; life is all he knows, and he fears the unknown. Further, he is not yet ready to take responsiblity for sending another human being into the throes of death. He understands his duty to avenge the murder that is now disclosed, and he accepts responsibility for the Ghost's torment, but he knows that by killing Claudius he could be consigning himself to his father's fate for all eternity. Hamlet ends his revery when he sees Ophelia enter, engrossed in her book. He entreats her to remember him in her prayers. His words startle her, and she responds by inquiring after his health. Immediately, she recovers and launches into her assigned speech:
My lord, I have remembrances of yours
That I have longèd long to redeliver.
I pray you now receive them.
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