Antithesis is a rhetorical device in which two contrasting words or concepts are juxtaposed within a parallel grammatical structure (literarydevices.com). In this case, the repeated use of this literary convention and the balanced structure it employs is meant to highlight the irony of the fact that Hamlet himself can’t seem to find a healthy balance: between anger and depression, reason and emotion, thought and action. Therefore, the use of antithesis in his fourth soliloquy serves to illustrate the uncertainty and dissymmetry that are defining aspects of his character. In the case of this soliloquy one of the most prominent effects of using antithesis is to accentuate the instability of Hamlet’s mindset.
Throughout the play, Hamlet proves himself unable to think evenly. He either idealizes a person or concept, or demonizes them; he sees no grey area, no in-between. A perfect example of this is how Hamlet vilifies his mother for marrying Claudius, partly because has a completely romanticized idea of what marriage should be. Hamlet’s inability to find balance is exemplified in the very beginning of the soliloquy. Hamlet, elaborating on his earlier query of “to be or not to be”, poses another 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?” (3.1.65-68) Hamlet is a man of extremes, and this is one of the key reasons why he cannot seem to find any semblance of inner peace. In his mind, there are only two options: live a life dogged by misery and ill luck, or rebel against cruel fate by committing suicide. He does not stop to consider that not everyone’s life abounds in suffering, or that perhaps killing oneself is not the only way to find peace. This is why he is so keen to use antithesis in this example, for such a literary device only allows for the presentation of two courses of action. It also helps to convey his warped view of what it means to take action.
By using the word “suffer” when speaking of life, he implies that humans are helpless beings at the mercy of fate. Yet he describes the act of suicide as taking up “arms”, as if killing oneself is actually an act of fighting back, even though it is usually seen as an act of cowardice. The irrationality of Hamlet is so prevalent throughout the play, that he himself is a walking paradox; he exemplifies the concept of antithesis itself. One reason Hamlet is not able to bring himself to act is because he is caught between righteous anger, crippling devastation, and cerebral thought. Using this parallel grammatical structure, he heaps the possible consequences that come with choosing either life or death like a merchant heaping weights upon a balancing scale, and yet still finds himself unable to come to any sort of conclusion. Hamlet gives voice to this concern when he says, “And thus the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” (3.1.92-93). By going back and forth between whether it is better “to be or not to be” he is arguing himself into the ground.
Hamlet is, by nature, a man who adheres to reason. Gentry-born and well-educated, he has been taught to think logically and rationally. Therefore, he is not comfortable letting himself be guided purely by emotion. Whenever he seems to experience powerful feelings, whether due to anger, depression, or disgust, he reasons himself out of passion, and talks himself down from taking action. This self-entrapment is thrown into stark relief by the use of antithesis. What is interesting about this particular speech is that even though Hamlet is ostensibly contemplating suicide, he never actually uses the words “I” or “me” throughout the passage. He talks about death in an impersonal, general sense, and airs his thoughts on the merits of self-murder as if speaking on the behalf of all humanity, as shown by his repeated use of the words “we” and “us”. One can see this especially in lines 86-90: “But that the dread of something after death …puzzles the will And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of?” (3.1.86,88-90) This conveys in a way, a sense of arrogance, as he assumes that everyone would commit suicide to escape their troubles were it not for fear of the unknown. However, it also suggests that he knows that the question he posed in the first line of the soliloquy is one that he cannot answer. It is easier to accept this lack of closure if he pretends that he is only presenting the issue as a matter of abstract philosophical debate, because he cannot accept the fact that there is no easy solution to his problems. This is an established tendency of Hamlet: he thinks himself into circles, posing metaphysical quandaries that he knows he cannot solve. He cannot even bring himself to answer the inquiry that he himself asked, proven by the fact that he ends line 90 with a question mark.
Considering the purpose of antithesis is to emphasize the differences between opposite ideas, using this device to weigh his options should make the question of “to be or not to be” easier to answer. However, it does just the opposite. Hamlet is getting nowhere by following this train of thought, except reasoning himself into paralysis. Shakespeare adeptly wields antithesis in order to depict the disequilibrium that is Hamlet’s troubled psyche and convey the extent of his confusion.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. ED.
Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print. Folger Shakespeare Library.
“Antithesis Examples and Definition – Literary Devices.” Literary Devices. N.p., 31 Dec. 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2016.
“Hamlet”To Be or Not to Be….”” Shakespeare Resource Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.