To Be or Not to Be: Shakespeare and Humor in Popular Culture
The opening line of Hamlet’s soliloquy may be the most famous artifact of the Bard’s work today. This speech from act three, scene one explores Hamlet’s internal struggle.
Hamlet: 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.
Here the Prince of Denmark reflects on the proper path of action: should he seek revenge for his father’s death or or live with the guilt of his father’s murder? In addition to this, it is also a question of staying alive to confront his troubles or committing suicide in order to escape them. For many scholars, Hamlet’s soliloquy also approaches the metaphysical problem of ontology.
Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s macabre inventions, and the soliloquy is its glorious masterpiece. However, popular depictions of this particular scene maintain a humorous note. The line “To be or not to be” is usually employed as a tool to exaggerate and humor to a situation that is normally mundane. In one of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, Calvin’s dinner (which is really a questionable serving of green slop) comes to life and performs the famed soliloquy. A comic strip from Stanford University appropriates the scene to a situation where a student considers whether or not he should pursue a PHD.
The line has found it’s way into cartoons. In this Bugs Bunny cartoon, a character who resembles Shakespeare and a witch from Macbeth are reunited. They argue whether or not their meeting place was apartment 2B.
Patrick Stewart also uses Hamlet to teach children about the letter B in Sesame Street.
A Klingon translation of Hamlet has been published. Many Star Trek fans who love english literature will enjoy this crossover. The following video shows a performance of the soliloquy in Klingon.
Hamlet’s soliloquy finds its way back to the stage in “A Shakespeare Rewrite” made for Comic Relief. The sketch depicts Shakespeare and his editor in the process of shortening a much lengthier version of the soliloquy. Shakespeare is played by Hugh Laurie and the editor is played by Rowan Atkinson.
Monty Python’s take on Hamlet is a commentary on how repetitive the play has become because of its position in the Western canon. Hamlet is portrayed as a jaded prince who goes to visit his shrink.
I believe it is important for me to mention here that Hamlet’s soliloquy is visually misrepresented in various media. The speech is often conflated with the scene where Hamlet holds up the skull of Yorick. These scenes are set far apart in the play and have little to do with each other.
To be or not to be. These six words comprise the most oft-quoted line in English literature. It is true that after numerous (and humorous) depictions or bastardizations in mass media, people have forgotten the context of the soliloquy. But because it has been appropriated by comic wits as a tool for humor, Hamlet (or at least part of it) has reached a much wider audience. Is this a testament to the universal appeal of Shakespeare?
What i find truly interesting: Hamlet is merely one of the products under the brand name of William Shakespeare.
Ateneo de Manila University
Note: The videos in this blog entry have been edited down for your convenience.