To Be or Not To Be - Act 3.1.56-88

Jeanna Mathews

The Skull

“Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?” (Act 5.1)

Representative of the dark humour developed within the play. The use of dark humour emphasizes Hamlet’s idea that death equalizes everyone’s societal value. Hamlet is originally content as he reminisces over his memories of Yorick. His use of humorous and playful words, such as "gibes", "songs", and "merriment" creates a more light-hearted tone. Then, Hamlet begins to reveal his thoughts on the futility of life, exchanging his light-hearted tone for a heavier and more lugubrious one. He becomes morbid, sad, and hopeless as he reflects on the reality of death. He realizes that when Yorick was alive he was of great value, however, now that he has died, he has virtually become worthless to Hamlet and instead, equal to everyone else.

Dead Fish

“Hamlet: dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion in th’ earth? Horatio: E’en so. Hamlet: And smelt so? Pah!” (Act 5.1.181-185)

The use of this allusion allows Hamlet and Horatio to refer to an accomplished man in history who conquered many lands, and compare him to a lifeless, worthless, and putrid corpse. Through the use of this understatement, Hamlet and Horatio underrate a powerful historical figure by explaining that following his death he has lost his value. This further supports Hamlet’s belief that one loses their value and identity and becomes equal in the reality of death.

Vanishing Person

“Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,/ Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.” (Act 5.1.196-198)

He uses another allusion to address an important individual, Julius Caesar, to support his opinion that greatness and success becomes irrelevant in the face of death. Shakespeare uses a metaphor comparing Caesar to clay, which is used as a stopper for a hole, to convey the idea that people are destined to turn to dust once they die and their only purpose is to fill the space of their grave, despite their social hierarchy. Evidently, Hamlet shifts from addressing Yorick, representing the lower class to discussing the higher class and more influential individuals, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, in order to suggest that death and the afterlife are an inevitable fate; death simply equalizes even the most powerful of men, since their societal worth will become something so simple and invaluable.


Hamlet continues to emphasize his idea of the futility of life through the use of rhetorical questioning during his soliloquy. Once he discovers the skull belongs to Yorick, he questions where his “gibes”, “gambols”, and “songs” are now. He continues with, “Where be ... your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one to mock your own grinning? Quite chop-fallen?” (v. i. 174-177) Hamlet questions through the use of a synecdoche, if Yorick is upset regarding the fact that following his death, he has lost his value in society as he can no longer contribute to the happiness of others. Rather than for the purpose of obtaining a definitive answer, Hamlet uses rhetorical questions to assert the fact that following his death, Yorick has become worthless in the perspective of society.


As the dialogue progresses, Hamlet’s philosophy regarding the reality of death is challenged by Horatio’s remarks. Hamlet develops a pessimistic point of view, leading him closer to his final state of mind as he is challenged by Laertes to duel. However, Horatio's presence on the stage provides a more balanced perspective to the audience because he shows how disturbed Hamlet has become. Following Hamlet’s soliloquy where he addresses Yorick, the writing style develops into a dialogue, written in colloquial prose, as Hamlet discusses the principle of death with Horatio who is laconic with his replies. First, Horatio agrees with Hamlet’s idea that death is an equalizer which is supported through the comparisons of Yorick, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar. Horatio’s remarks during Hamlet’s soliloquy create a temporary emotional relief and suggest an opposing view on death and the afterlife as compared to Hamlet. He states,“‘Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.” (v. i. 190); Horatio begins to disagree with Hamlet’s idea that everyone is destined to turn to dust regardless of their societal standing by insisting that Hamlet is over thinking the actuality of death. Even though, Horatio does not explicitly mention his beliefs on death, he begins to suggest a contrasting perspective. He objects Hamlet’s philosophy and encourages both him and the audience to consider other realities regarding death and the afterlife. However, Hamlet explains his belief further to represent the circle of life. He confirms that the reality of death is a never ending cycle because everyone is destined to the same fate.