Samuel Johnson’s Annotations
on Hamlet 3.2

("To be or not to be")

and General Observations on Hamlet

From The Works of William Shakespeare, ed. Samuel Johnson, 8 vols. (London, 1765). The notes signed “WARB” are by William Warburton.

Ham. To be, or not to be? that is the question. —
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? — To die, — to sleep —
No more; and by a sleep, to say, we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die —— to sleep ——
To sleep? perchance, to dream. Ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of Death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect,
That makes Calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pang of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes;
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardles bear,
To groan and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
That undiscover’d country, from whose bourne
No traveller returns, puzzles the will;
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action —— Soft you, now!

[Seeing Ophelia with a book.

The fair Ophelia? Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembred.

To be, or not to be?] Of this celebrated soliloquy, which bursting from a man distracted with contrariety of desires, and overwhelmed with the magnitude of his own purposes, is connected rather in the speaker’s mind, than on his tongue, I shall endeavour to discover the train, and to shew how one sentiment produces another. Hamlet, knowing himself injured in the most enormous and atrocious degree, and seeing no means of redress, but such as must expose him to the extremity of hazard, meditates on his situation in this manner: Before I can form any rational scheme of action under this pressure of distress, it is necessary to decide, whether, after our present state, we are to be or not to be. That is the question, which, as it shall be answered, will determine, whether ’tis nobler, and more suitable to the dignity of reason, to suffer the outrages of fortune patiently, or to take arms against them, and by opposing end them, though perhaps with the loss of life. If to die, were to sleep, no more, and by a sleep to end the miseries of our nature, such a sleep were devoutly to be wished; but if to sleep in death, be to dream, to retain our powers of sensibility, we must pause to consider, in that sleep of death what dreams may come. This consideration makes calamity so long endured; for who would bear the vexations of life which might be ended by a bare bodkin, but that he is afraid of something in unknown futurity? This fear it is that gives efficacy to conscience, which, by turning the mind upon this regard, chills the ardour of resolution, checks the vigour of enterprise, and makes the current of desire stagnate in inactivity.

We may suppose that he would have applied these general observations to his own case, but that he discovered Ophelia.

Or to take arms against A SEA of troubles,] Without question Shakespear wrote, —— against ASSAIL of troubles. i.e. assault. WARB.

Mr. Pope proposed siege. I know not why there should be so much solicitude about this metaphor. Shakespeare breaks his metaphors often, and in this desultory speech there was less need of preserving them.

—— mortal coil,] i. e. turmoil, bustle. WARB.
—— the whips and scorns OF TIME,] The evils here complained of are not the product of time or duration simply, but of a corrupted age or manners. We may be sure, then, that Shakespear wrote,
—— the whips and scorns OF TH’ TIME.
And the description of the evils of a corrupt age, which follows, confirms this emendation. WARBURTON.

I doubt whether the corruption of this passage is not more than the editor has suspected. Whips and scorns have no great connection with one another, or with time; whips and scorns are evils of very different magnitude, and though at all times scorn may be endured, yet the times that put men ordinarily in danger of whips, are very rare. Falstaff has said, that the courtiers would whip him with their quick wits; but I know not that whip can be used for a scoff or insult, unless its meaning be fixed by the whole expression.

I am afraid lest I should venture too far in correcting this passage. If whips be retained, we may read,

For who would bear the whips and scorns of tyrants.
But I think that quip, a sneer, a sarcasm, a contemptuous jest, is the proper word, as suiting very exactly with scorn. What then must be done with time, it suits no better with the new reading than with the old, and tyrant is an image too bulky and serious. I read, but not confidently,
For who would bear the quips and scorns of title.
It may be remarked, that Hamlet, in his enumeration of miseries, forgets, whether properly or not, that he is a prince, and mentions many evils to which inferior stations only are exposed.
To groan and sweat] All the old copies have, to grunt and sweat. It is undoubtedly the true reading, but can scarcely be born by modern ears.
Nymph, in thy orisons, &c.] This is a touch of nature. Hamlet, at the sight of Ophelia, does not immediately recollect, that he is to personate madness, but makes her an address grave and solemn, such as the foregoing meditation excited in his thoughts.

General Observations on Hamlet

If the dramas of Shakespeare were to be characterised, each by the particular excellence which distinguishes it from the rest, we must allow to the tragedy of Hamlet the praise of variety. The incidents are so numerous, that the argument of the play would make a long tale. The scenes are interchangeably diversified with merriment and solemnity; with merriment that includes judicious and instructive observations, and solemnity, not strained by poetical violence above the natural sentiments of man, New characters appear from time to time in continual succession, exhibiting various forms of life and particular modes of conversation. The pretended madness of Hamlet causes much mirth, the mournful distraction of Ophelia fills the heart with tenderness, and every personage produces the effect intended, from the apparition that in the first act chills the blood with horrour, to the fop in the last, that exposes affectation to just contempt.

The conduct is perhaps not wholly secure against objections. The action is indeed for the most part in continual progression, but there are some scenes which neither forward nor retard it. Of the feigned madness of Hamlet there appears no adequate cause, for he does nothing which he might not have done with the reputation of sanity. He plays the madman most, when he treats Ophelia with so much rudeness, which seems to be useless and wanton cruelty.

Hamlet is, through the whole play, rather an instrument than an agent. After he has, by the stratagem of the play, convicted the King, he makes no attempt to punish him, and his death is at last effected by an incident which Hamlet has no part in producing.

The catastrophe is not very happily produced; the exchange of weapons is rather an expedient of necessity, than a stroke of art. A scheme might easily have been formed, to kill Hamlet with the dagger, and Laertes with the bowl.

The poet is accused of having shewn little regard to poetical justice, and may be charged with equal neglect of poetical probability. The apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose; the revenge which he demands is not obtained but by the death of him that was required to take it; and the gratification which would arise from the destruction of an usurper and a murderer, is abated by the untimely death of Ophelia, the young, the beautiful, the harmless, and the pious.