In Shakespeare's Hamlet, explain how the three functions of a soliloquy are evident in this text (furthering the plot, revealing character, adding...


In Shakespeare's Hamlet, our tragic hero has just come across Fortinbras' army. Fortinbras is in the midst of fighting the Polish for a little piece of land. It is, for the young prince (a foil for Hamlet) a question of honor, and he is willing to risk all to accomplish his task.

In this soliloquy, as Hamlet travels to England, he is met with something of a reflection of himself. Here is a young man who is fighting for a worthless piece of land in Poland. Still he is dedicated to achieve his goal, regardless of the cost. Hamlet compares himself to Fortinbras and is angry at his own lack of direction.

In Act Four, scene four, Hamlet's speech furthers the plot in strengthening Hamlet's resolve to avenge his father's death by comparing himself to Fortinbras. First Hamlet wonders what it is that has removed from him the drive to act on his father's murder: is it forgetfulness? Thinking about something too much? He notes that in over-analyzing the problem, he expects there is only a quarter of wisdom, but in truth, the other three quarters are made of cowardice on his part. He has taken enough time to "think things over."

Now, whether it be

Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple

Of thinking too precisely on the event—

A thought which, quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom

And ever three parts coward—I do not know

Why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do,'

Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means

To do't. (IV.iv.41-48)

And he looks to Fortinbras for his proof.

Witness this army, of such mass and charge,

Led by a delicate and tender prince,

Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd,

Makes mouths at the invisible event,

Exposing what is mortal and unsure

To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,

Even for an eggshell. (49-55)

Fortinbras and his army risk all. They face uncertainty and possible death for a piece of land worth about as much as an eggshell. Without as much reason as Hamlet—simply the belief that he must act—Hamlet notes that Fortinbras does all of this for the sake of honor:

When honour's at the stake. (58)

Hamlet then looks at his own situation. His father has been murdered; his mother ("a mother stained") has married the murderer and sleeps in an "incestuous" bed with the man. How, he wonders, it is possible that he, with more reason than Fortinbras, stands and does nothing. The prince is ready to sacrifice himself and twenty-thousand soldiers for next to nothing, for honor's sake. Hamlet recognizes that they make no big production of it: they are resolved to act, and casually...

...Go to their graves like beds (64)

But Hamlet, whose honor is also at stake (and lies in danger of crumbling), calmly walks about without getting any closer to avenging Old Hamlet's murder.

Besides advancing the plot, we learn about both Hamlet and Fortinbras. Both men have something to fight for. However, where Fortinbras is focused, Hamlet lacks direction and motivation. Hamlet is a good son who wants to do right by his father. He is a ethical man who is unhappy with his mother's incestuous behavior with Claudius. He is willing to work until he has reached his goal: and he can be hard on himself.

In terms of suspense, the soliloquy presents once again the question of what Hamlet will do now. The suspense is not has acute as in other parts of the play, but with new-found determination, some suspense is present as the audience waits for Hamlet to now move forward and hold Claudius accountable.

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