Monday, May 18, 2015

Diagramming Hamlet: To Be or Not To Be

Analyzing Shakespeare's Hamlet by Diagramming Sentences

When diagramming a sentence, a writer must not only consider the content of the sentence, but the punctuation of that sentence, as well. The punctuation of a sentence can greatly change its meaning. 







Below are two diagrams, both of the first line of Hamlet's famous soliloquy, "To be, or not to be, that is the Question."  Both diagrams take into consideration the content of the line, an independent clause, but one takes into consideration the punctuation of the clause while the other does not.  Can you tell which is which?

Before choosing your answer, take a careful look at this version of the line from the 1623 First Folio, with its original internal punctuation:


To be, or not to be, that is the Question:


"That" As an Appositive    

"To be, or not to be, that is the question:" "That" as an appositive.
In this first analytic diagram, "To be or not to be" is a compound subject: The infinitives "To be" and "to be" are joined by the conjunction "or." The second infinitive in the compound subject is modified by the adverb "not."

"That" is an appositive pronoun that renames the compound subject.  "Is" is the linking verb, and "Question," its importance denoted by capitalization, modified by "the," is the subject complement, a predicate nominative.

In this interpretation of the clause, both the compound subject and the word "that" = "the Question." "To be or not to be" = "the Question," and "that" = "the Question."

This, then, is Hamlet's "Question" with a capital "Q."  Should he "be," or should he end his "be" -ing by suicide?



"That" as a Verbal Complement

"To be, or not to be, that is the question:" "That" as a verbal complement.
In this second diagram, "that" is a verbal complement, completing the compound verbal subject, "To be or not to be."  "That," in this interpretation of the clause answers the question what?  What is it that Hamlet wants to be or not be?  Well, if we diagram this clause with "that" as the verbal complement, what Hamlet is questioning is whether or not he wants to be "that."  

The subject of the clause then becomes "To be or not to be that," and that entire phrase is linked to its subject complement, "the Question," as in "To be or not to be that" = "the Question."  

And as we all know, what "that" is, is alive.  Hamlet, in this soliloquy is asking the grand Question (with a capital "Q"): Should he exist, or should he end his existence by suicide?


So, which analysis of this famous Shakespearean soliloquy is correct?  Is "that" renaming the "Question" about his very "be" -ing, or is "that" what he is "to be" or "not be?"


The Punctuation of the Clause 

When we take into consideration the punctuation of the clause from the First Folio, we must concede that although the second interpretation is clever, the first is more accurate.  The parenthetical comma appears before the word "that," signifying that it is not part of the infinitive phrase, but apart from it.  

We read, "To be (short pause), or not to be (long pause), that (emphasis placed on the word) is the question.  We do not read "To be or not to be that (pause), is the question."


Have any of your own questions?  Feel free to ask in the comments!  


Want to learn more about diagramming sentences?  Try 






Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Contact the author for permission to republish.

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