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Substantial, conspicuous, and varied pieces of evidence demonstrate that Shakespeare designed the 'To be, or not to be' speech to be perceived by experienced playgoers of his time as a feigned soliloquy. Plentiful evidence within the play implies that Hamlet pretends to speak to himself but actually intends the speech itself or an account of it to reach the ears of Claudius in order to mislead his enemy about his state of mind. External evidence demonstrates that experienced playgoers of the period did indeed make the inference intended by Shakespeare. I pointed out much of this evidence in a 1981 article and further evidence in subsequent articles and in a 2003 book. The present essay will add numerous important confirming pieces of evidence. This accumulation of evidence refutes the post-Renaissance conventional assumption that the speech is meant to represent a sincere expression of Hamlet’s thoughts. Post-Renaissance editors and commentators have ignored or dismissed this evidence and have projected post-Renaissance attitudes onto Shakespeare. The orthodox assumption leads to misunderstandings about the 'To be' speech, about the character of Hamlet, about other features of the play, about Shakespeare’s artistic goals and techniques, about Renaissance dramatic practices, and about the history of subjectivity.


This article was originally published in the journal Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England. Copyright © 2010 Fairleigh Dickinson University.

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