Mind-Wandering (2b Or Not To Be)

To be, or not to be, :
Whether ’tis Nobler in the minde to suffer
The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune,
Or to take Armes against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to dye, to sleepe
No more; and by a sleepe, to say we end
The Heart-ake, and the thousand Naturall shockes
That Flesh is heyre too? ‘Tis a consummation
Deuoutly to be wish’d. To dye to sleepe,
To sleepe, perchance to Dreame; ,
For in that sleepe of death, what may come,
When we haue shufflel’d off this mortall coile,
Must giue vs ; the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would beare the Whips and Scornes of time,
The Oppressors wrong, the poore mans Contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d Loue, the Lawes delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurnes
That patient merit of the vnworthy takes,
When he himselfe might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardles beare
To grunt and sweat vnder a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The vndiscouered Countrey, from whose Borne
No Traueller returnes, Puzels the will,
And makes vs rather beare those illes we haue,
Then flye to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of vs all,
And thus the Natiue hew of Resolution
Is sicklied o’re, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprizes of great pith and moment,
With this regard their turne away,
And loose the name of Action. ,
The faire Ophelia? Nimph, in thy Orizons
Be all my sinnes remembred.


To be, or not to be, I ,
To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, ,
For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an euerlasting Iudge,
From whence no passenger euer retur’nd,
The vndiscouered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damn’d.
But for this, ,
Whol’d beare the scornes and flattery of the world,
Scorned by the right rich, the rich curssed of the poore?
The widow being oppressed, the orphan wrong’d,
The taste of hunger, or a tirants raigne,
And thousand more calamities besides,
To grunt and sweate vnder this weary life,
When that he may his full Quietus make,
With a bare bodkin, who would this indure,
But for a hope of something after death?
Which , and doth confound the sence,
Which makes vs rather beare those euilles we haue,
Than flie to others that we know not of.
I that, O this conscience makes cowardes of vs all,
in thy orizons, be all my sinnes remembred. (Q1)

As in earlier posts about mind-wandering, I’m interested in how, and with what effects, thoughts veer away from the business at hand. In Hamlet’s soliloquy (here in the version from the 1623 First Folio), the business at hand is defined explicitly. He is supposed to be thinking about whether or not to continue living. In the wider context of Hamlet, this could be seen as a wandering from a wandering. The prince is supposed to avenge his father, but less bloody thoughts, despite what he says are his best efforts, keep getting in the way.
A few lines earlier Hamlet has begun to expand on the idea of death in a way that could be seen as mind-wandering. Now, the second time he muses ‘to die, to sleep’, another thought seems to interrupt him. It is not easy to punctuate these lines for modern readers, and each way it is done affects the feeling of the process here. But when he says ‘I [i.e. ‘aye’], there’s the rub’, he seems to recognise that his wandering thought has happened upon a key idea. Sleep is not just a time of passive absence – it has its own version of mind-wandering: dreaming.
The thing Hamlet fears is that the mind will never stop wandering. It is impossible to imagine mental quiet.
Between the word ‘pause’ and the new sentence, there is a space for an actual pause, for a wandering or non-wandering thought. ‘There’s’ points at something: perhaps the insight just articulated, about the fear of what comes after death, but perhaps it points at something to which we have no access, a wandering thought within the wandering thought that isn’t put into words.
This sentence laments the way that human beings are turned away from their grand purposes by fear of the unknown. Hamlet’s voice is always slippery, and I doubt whether we are to take this as the character’s heartfelt thought or something that Shakespeare wants to resonate beyond the soliloquy. Suicide is not necessarily an ‘enterprise of great pith and moment’, endurance of life’s misfortunes not necessarily a ‘sicklied’ alternative. The main thing for the read-through I am doing here is that Hamlet explicitly addresses how the ‘currents’ of thought can get misdirected.
A soliloquy is in some ways a kind of mind-wandering. Its special merging of thought and speech, private and public, entails some disengagement from the perceptual present. Some people think that this whole ‘to be or not to be’ speech is spoken in the knowledge that other characters are listening. I don’t think so: I don’t think it’s overheard, and here Hamlet turns back into the world, saying comforting transitional words perhaps to himself as well as to Ophelia.
Here is the soliloquy in the First Quarto of 1603, sometimes known as the ‘bad quarto’. Theories vary as to why it differs from the more authoritative text; the idea that it has been inconsistently reconstructed from memory has had considerable longevity. Anyway, it seems here that someone’s mind has wandered. This Hamlet also fixes that ‘to be or not to be’ has a claim on the present, but it’s a ‘point’ rather than a ‘question’.
The equivalent of ‘I [aye], there’s the rub’. The Q1 version of the die / sleep / dream musing is compacted, but there is still an equivalent of the moment where Hamlet realises that his musing has hit upon the snag that matters. This version has lost some of the process by which Hamlet’s wandering thought hits on something significant.
Here, and again towards the end of the speech (‘who would this indure / But for a hope of something after death’) the Q1 version finds its way to an orthodox but incongruous thought: that the thing Hamlet must be getting at, after death, is the possibility of divine grace. In the F version it is simply the unknown, and the thought that the mind will keep wandering after death. Perhaps Q1 gets here by mind-wandering, or perhaps by a deliberate reversion to a more faithful position.
The Q1 configuration doesn’t seem so puzzling: Christians are supposed to put up with worldly travails in the hope of heaven. However, the Q1 text retains the puzzlement, the skeleton of the Folio’s wandering mind.
The end here is all the more abrupt: Hamlet offers a pithy conclusion and rejoins his perceptual environment. Hamlet is a play of prodigious mind-wandering. It is interesting how this ‘bad’ version finds its own way of following the paths of distracting thoughts.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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