W William Shakespeare

To be, or not to be from Hamlet

“To be, or not to be,” the opening line of Hamlet’s mindful soliloquy, is one of the most thought-provoking quotes of all time. The monologue features the important theme of existential crisis.

The “To be, or not to be” quote is taken from the first line of Hamlet’s soliloquy that appears in Act 3, Scene 1 of the eponymous play by William Shakespeare, “Hamlet”. The full quote, “To be, or not to be, that is the question” is famous for its open-ended meaning that not only encompasses the thoughts raging inside Hamlet’s mind but also features the theme of existential crisis. Digging deeper into the soliloquy reveals a variety of concepts and meanings that apply to all human beings. For this reason, the quote has become a specimen for understanding how Shakespeare thought.

To be, or not to be soliloquy from Hamlet


Context

In Act 3, Scene 1, also known as the “nunnery scene,” of the tragedy, “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, this monologue appears. Hamlet, torn between life and death, utters the words to the audience revealing what is happening inside his mind. It is a soliloquy because Hamlet does not express his thoughts to other characters. Rather he discusses what he thinks in that critical juncture with his inner self.

Before reading this soliloquy, readers have to go through the plots that happened in the play. In the previous plots, Hamlet has lost his father. He is broken to know the fact that his uncle Claudius killed his father treacherously and married his mother, Gertrude. Having a conversation with the ghost of his father, he is torn between perception and reality.

In such a critical situation, Hamlet feels extremely lonely as there are no other persons to console him. Besides, Ophelia is not accepting his love due to the pressure from her family. For all the things happening in his life, he feels it is better to die rather than living and mutely bearing the pangs that life is sending him in a row. Being engrossed with such thoughts, he utters this soliloquy, “To be, or not to be.”

Full Soliloquy

Hamlet speaks in Act 3, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, “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. To die—to sleep,

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;

To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause—there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.—Soft you now,

The fair Ophelia!—Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remembered.

[From the Second Quarto of Hamlet (1604)]


Summary

“To be, or not to be” by William Shakespeare describes how Hamlet is torn between life and death. His mental struggle to end the pangs of his life gets featured in this soliloquy.

Hamlet’s soliloquy begins with the memorable line, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” It means that he cannot decide what is better, ending all the sufferings of life by death, or bearing the mental burdens silently. He is in such a critical juncture that it seems death is more rewarding than all the things happening with him for the turn of fortune.

Death is like sleep, he thinks, that ends this fitful fever of life. But, what dreams are stored for him in the pacifying sleep of death. This thought makes him rethink and reconsider. Somehow, it seems to him that before diving deeper into the regions of unknown and unseen, it is better to wait and see. In this way, his subconscious mind makes him restless and he suffers in inaction.

Structure

The full quotation is regarded as a soliloquy. Though in the plot, Ophelia is on stage pretending to read, Hamlet expresses his thoughts only to himself. He is unaware of the fact that Ophelia is already there. Being engrossed in his self-same musing, he clarifies his thoughts to himself first as he is going to take a tough decision.

Therefore, this quote is a soliloquy that Shakespeare uses as a dramatic device to let Hamlet make his thoughts known to the audience, addressing them indirectly.

In the earliest version of the play, this monologue is 35 lines long. The last two lines are often excluded from the soliloquy as those lines contain the mental transition of the speaker, from thoughts to reality.

The overall soliloquy is in blank verse as the text does not have a rhyming scheme. Most of Shakespeare’s dramas are written in this form. Besides, it is written in iambic pentameter with a few metrical variations.

For example, let’s have a look at the metrically scanned opening line of the soliloquy:

To be,/ or not/ to be,/ that is/ the quest(io)n:

The last syllable of the line contains an elision.

Literary Devices

The first line of the speech, “To be, or not to be, that is the question” contains two literary devices. These are antithesis and aporia. The following lines also contain aporia.

Readers come across a metaphor in, “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” This line also contains a personification. Another device is embedded in the line. After rereading the line, it can be found that there is a repetition of the “r” sound. It’s an alliteration.

There is another metaphor in the phrase, “sea of troubles.” In the next two lines, Shakespeare uses enjambment and internally connects the lines for maintaining the speech’s flow.

Readers can find a use of synecdoche in the line, “That flesh is heir to.” They can find an anadiplosis in the lines, “To die, to sleep;/ To sleep, perchance to dream.” Besides, a circumlocution or hyperbaton can be found in this line, “When we have shuffled off this mortal coil.”

After this line, the speaker presents a series of causes that lead to his suffering. These lines collectively contain a device called the climax. Using this device, Shakespeare presents the most shocking idea at the very end. He uses a rhetorical question, “With a bare bodkin?” at the end to heighten this dramatic effect.

There is an epigram in the line, “Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.” The following lines contain this device as well.

Detailed Analysis

Line 1

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

The first line of Hamlet’s soliloquy, “To be, or nor to be” is one of the best-known quotes from all the Shakespearean works combined. In the play, “Hamlet” the tragic hero expresses this soliloquy to the audience in Act 3, Scene 1. As the plots reflect, Hamlet is facing an existential crisis after coming across the harsh reality of his father’s death and his mother’s subsequent marriage with his uncle, Claudius, the murderer of King Hamlet. Everything was happening so quickly that it was difficult to digest their effect.

The truth, like arrows bolting directly toward his mind, made him so vulnerable that he was just a step behind madness or death. It is not clear whether Hamlet’s deliriously spoke this soliloquy or he was preparing himself to die. Whatsoever, through this dramatic device, Shakespeare projects how Hamlet’s mind is torn between life and death.

The first line of his soliloquy is open-ended. It is a bit difficult to understand what the question is. “To be, or not be” is an intellectual query that a princely mind is asking the readers. This antithetical idea reveals Hamlet is not sure whether he wants to live or die. If readers strictly adhere to the plot, they can decode this line differently. It seems that the hero is asking whether it is right to be a murderer for the right cause or be merciful for saving his soul from damnation.

Firstly, if he chooses to avenge his father’s death, it will eventually kill the goodness in him. Secondly, if he refuses to submit to his animalistic urges, the pain lying deep in his subconscious mind is going to torture his soul. For this reason, he is going through a mental crisis regarding which path to choose. This question is constantly confusing his mind.

Lines 2–5

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.

From these lines, it becomes clear what questions are troubling the tragic hero, Hamlet. He is asking just a simple question. Readers should not take this question at its surface value. They have to understand what is going on in his mind. He asks whether a noble mind like him has to suffer the metaphorical “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” In this phrase, Shakespeare compares fortune to an archer who releases arrows and hurts Hamlet’s mind.

The speaker talks about the events happening in his life for his misfortune. Those situations not only make his mind bruised but also make him vulnerable to the upcoming arrows. In such a critical mental state, a single blow of fortune can end his life. But, he has not submitted himself to fate yet. He is ready to fight against those troubles and end them all at once.

The phrase, “sea of troubles” contains hyperbole. It also contains a metaphor. The comparison is between the vastness of the sea to the incalculable troubles of the speaker’s life. It is important to mention here that the speaker just wants an answer. He badly wants to end the troubles but he thinks by choosing the safest path of embracing death, he can also finish his mental sufferings.

Lines 5–9

To die—to sleep,

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d.

In this section of the soliloquy, “To be, or not to be” Hamlet’s utterings reflect a sense of longing for death. According to him, dying is like sleeping. Through this sleep that will help him to end the mental sufferings, he can get a final relief. The phrase, “No more” emphasizes how much he longs for this eternal sleep.

This path seems more relieving for Hamlet. Why is it so? Hamlet has to undergo a lot of troubles to be free from the shackles of “outrageous fortune.” While if he dies, there is no need to do anything. Just a moment can end, all of his troubles. It seems easier than said. However, for a speaker like Hamlet who has seen much, the cold arm of death is more soothing than the tough punches of fortune.

For this reason, he wants to take a nap in the bosom of death. In this way, the heartache and shocks will come to an end. The speaker refers to two types of pain. One is natural that troubles every human being. While another pain is inflicted by the wrongs of others. The sufferer cannot put an end to such suffering. However, death can end both of these pains.

There are thousands of natural shocks that the human body is destined to suffer. What are these shocks? It includes the death of a loved one, disease, bodily impairment, and many more. In Hamlet’s case, losing his dear father tragically is a natural shock. But, the cause of the death increases the intensity of the shock. The subsequent events, one by one, add more burdens on Hamlet’s mind.

To end this mental tension, Hamlet devoutly wishes for the “consummation” that will not only relieve him but also end the cycle of events. Here, Shakespeare uses the word “consummation” in its metaphorical sense. The final moment when all the sufferings come to an end is death. So, it’s a consummation that is devoutly wished.

Lines 9–14

To die, to sleep;

To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause—there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

Again, Shakespeare uses the repetition of the phrase, “To die, to sleep.” It is the second instance where Hamlet uses these words. If readers closely analyze the lines, it will be clear that Hamlet uses this phrase to mark a transition in his thoughts. Besides, it also clarifies what the dominant thought of his mind is. Undoubtedly, it is the thoughts of death. Not death, to be specific. He sees death as sleeping. How he thinks about death, reveals the way he thinks about life.

According to him, life means a concoction of troubles and shocks. While death is something that has an embalming effect on his mind. Therefore, he values death over life. When does a person think like that? Just before committing suicide or yielding to death wholeheartedly, such thoughts appear in a person’s mind.

From the next lines, there is an interesting transition in Hamlet’s thinking process. Previously, death seems easier than living. But, when he thinks about the dreams he is going to see in his eternal sleep, he becomes aware of the reality. From his thought process, it becomes clear. According to him, when humans die, they are not aware of what dreams will come in their sleep. It makes them stretch out their sufferings for so long.

Lines 15–21

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin?

In this part of the “To be, or not to be” quote, Hamlet’s subconscious mind reminds him about his sufferings. The situations mentioned here have occurred in others’ lives too. Let’s see what Hamlet is saying to the audience.

According to him, none can bear the “whips and scorns” of time. Readers have to take note of the fact that Hamlet is referring to “time” here. Whereas in the first few lines, he talks about “fortune.” So, in one way or another, he is becoming realistic.

The sufferings that time sends are out of one’s control. A person has to bear whatever it sends and react accordingly. There is nothing more he can do to change the course of time as it is against nature. Not only that, Hamlet is quite depressed by the wrongs inflicted upon the innocents by the haughty kings.

The insults of proud men, pangs of unrequited love, delay in judgment, disrespectful behavior of those in power, and last but not least the mistreatment that a “patient merit” receives from the “unworthy” pain him deeply. He is mistreated in all spheres, be it on a personal level such as love, or in public affairs. In all cases, he is the victim. He has gone through all such pangs while he can end his life with a “bare bodkin.” Bodkin is an archaic term for a dagger.

In this way, Hamlet is feeling death is the easiest way to end all the pains and mistreatment he received from others. These lines reveal how the mental tension is reaching its climax.

Lines 21–27

Who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

The first two lines of this section refer to the fact that none choose to “grunt and sweat” through the exhausting life. In the first line, “fardels” mean the burdens of life. According to the narrator, life seems an exhausting journey that has nothing to offer instead of suffering and pain. To think about life in this way makes the speaker’s mind wearier than before.

From the following lines, Hamlet makes clear why he cannot proceed further and die. He is not sure whether life after death is that smooth as he thinks. It is possible that even after his death, he will not be relieved. He knows death is an “undiscovered country.” Only those who have already gone there know how it is. Besides, nobody can return from death’s dominion. A living being cannot know what happens there.

Such thoughts confuse the speaker more. It puzzles his will to do something that can end his mental pain. Therefore, he has to bear the ills of life throughout the journey than flying to the unknown regions of death. In the last line, Shakespeare uses a rhetorical question to make readers think about what the speaker is trying to mean.

At this point of the whole soliloquy, it becomes crystal clear that Hamlet is not ready to embrace death easily. He is just thinking. At one point, he gives the hint that death seems easier than bearing life’s ills. On the other hand, he negates his idea and says it is better to bear the reality rather than finding solace in perception.

Lines 28–35

Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.—Soft you now,

The fair Ophelia!—Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remembered.

The last section of the soliloquy, “To be, or not to be” begins with an epigrammatic idea. Here, the speaker says the “conscience doth make cowards of us all.” It means that the fear of death in one’s awareness makes him a coward. In Hamlet’s case, his aware mind makes him confused regarding the happenings after death. Not knowing a solid answer, he makes a coward of himself.

Alongside that, the natural boldness metaphorically referred to as “the native hue of resolution,” becomes sick for the “pale cast of thought.” In “pale cast of thought,” Shakespeare personifies “thought” and invests it with the idea of casting pale eyes on a person. It means that when Hamlet thinks about death, his natural boldness fades away and he becomes a coward.

In the following lines, he remarks about how he suffers for inaction. According to him, such thoughts stop him from taking great action. It should be taken in a moment. In that place, the currents of action get misdirected and lose the name of action. It means that Hamlet is trying to take the final step but somehow his thoughts are holding him back. For this reason, the action of ending his sufferings loses the name of action.

The last few lines of the soliloquy present how Hamlet stops his musings when he discovers his beloved Ophelia is coming that way. He wishes that she may remember him in her prayers.

Historical Context

The text of “To be, or not to be” is taken from the Second Quarto (Q2) of the play, “Hamlet” which was published in 1604. It is considered the earliest version of the play. William Shakespeare wrote, “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” best-known as only “Hamlet” sometime between 1599 and 1601. It is the longest play of Shakespeare containing 29,551 words.

Shakespeare derived the story of Hamlet from the legend of Amleth. He may also have drawn on the play, “Ur-Hamlet,” an earlier Elizabethan play. Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote this play and later revised it.

Before the 18th century, there was not any concrete idea regarding how the character of Hamlet is. After reading his soliloquies such as “To be, or not to be,” it became more confusing for the scholars to understand what category this Shakespearean hero falls in. Later, the 19th-century scholars valued the character for his internal struggles and tensions.

Through this soliloquy, readers can know a lot about Hamlet’s overall character. Firstly, he is consciously protestant in his thoughts. On the other hand, he is a philosophical character. His monologue, “To be, or not to be, that is the question” expounds the ideas of relativism, existentialism, and skepticism.

Notable Usage

The quote, “To be, or not to be” is the most widely known line and overall Hamlet’s soliloquy has been referenced in several works of theatre, literature, and music. Let’s have a look at some of the works where the opening line of Hamlet’s soliloquy is mentioned.

  • The plot of the comedy, “To Be or Not to Be” by Ernst Lubitsch, is focused on Hamlet’s soliloquy.
  • Charlie Chaplin recites this monologue in the comedy film A King in New York (1957).
  • The line, “To be or not to be” inspired the title of the short story, “2 B R 0 2 B” by Kurt Vonnegut.
  • Black liberation leader Malcolm X quoted the first lines of the soliloquy in a debate in Oxford in 1963 to make a point about “extremism in defense of liberty”.
  • The sixth movie of Star Trek, “Undiscovered Country” was named after the line, “The undiscover’d country, from whose borne…” from the soliloquy.

Let’s watch two of the notable actors portraying the character of Hamlet.

Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch performed Hamlet at the Barbican Centre in London in 2015. Let’s see how our on-screen “Sherlock” performs Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” onstage.


Andrew Scott

At the Almeida, Andrew Scott played Hamlet under the direction of Robert Icke in 2016. It’s interesting to know how “Moriarty” delves deeper into the character through this soliloquy.


FAQs

Who said, “To be, or not to be”?

In William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet,” the titular character, Hamlet says this soliloquy.

What does “To be, or not to be” mean?

“To be, or not be” means Hamlet’s mind is torn between two things, “being” and “not being.” “Being” means life and action. While “not being” refers to death and inaction.

Who wrote, “To be, or not to be”?

The greatest English writer of all time, William Shakespeare wrote: “To be, or not be.” This quote appears in his tragedy Hamlet written sometime between 1599 and 1601.

Why does Hamlet say “To be, or not to be”?

In Act 3, Scene 1 of the play, Hamlet seems to be puzzled by the question of whether to live or die. He is standing in such a critical situation that life seems painful to bear and death appears to be an escape route from all the sufferings. In this existential crisis, Hamlet utters the soliloquy, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.”

Which Shakespeare play asks, “To be, or not to be”?

In Shakespeare’s tragedy “Hamlet,” the central figure asks this question to himself. It is the first line of Hamlet’s widely known soliloquy.

What is the “To be, or not to be” speech about?

This soliloquy is all about a speaker’s existential crisis. In the play, Hamlet is going through a tough phase. He is torn between life and death, action and inaction. On both the way, he is aware of the fact that he is destined to suffer.

When Hamlet says, “To be, or not to be”?

In Act 3 Scene 1 of “Hamlet,” Polonius forces Ophelia to return the love letters of Hamlet. In the meanwhile, he and Claudius watch from afar to understand Hamlet’s reaction. They wait for Ophelia to enter the scene. At that time, Hamlet is seen walking alone in the hall asking whether “to be or not to be.”

Why is “To be, or not to be” so famous?

The opening line of Hamlet’s soliloquy, “To be, or not to be” is one of the most-quoted lines in English. The lines are famous for their simplicity. At the same time, the lines explore some of the deeper concepts such as action and inaction, life and death. Besides, the repetition of the phrase, “to be” makes this line easy to remember.

Who is Hamlet talking to in “To be, or not to be”?

In Act 3 Scene 1, Hamlet is seen walking in the hall and musing whether “To be, or not be” to himself. It is a soliloquy that Hamlet speaks directly to the audience to make his thoughts and intentions known to them.

How long is “To be, or not to be”?

This soliloquy is 33 lines long and contains 262 words. It takes up to 4 minutes to perform.


Similar Quotes

Here is a list of some thought-provoking Shakespearean quotes that are similar to Hamlet’s soliloquy, ‘To be, or not to be”. Explore the greatest Shakespearean poetry and more works of William Shakespeare.

  • All the World’s A Stage from As You Like It – In this monologue, the speaker considers the nature of the world, the roles men and women play, and how one turns old.
  • Is This A Dagger Which I See Before Me from Macbeth – This famous soliloquy of Macbeth describes how he is taken over by guilt and insanity. His imagination brings forth a dagger that symbolizes the impending murder of Duncan.
  • The quality of mercy is not strained from The Merchant of Venice – In this monologue of Ophelia, Shakespeare describes how mercy, an attribute of God, can save a person’s soul and elevate him to the degree of God.
  • Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow from Macbeth – In this soliloquy, the speaker sees life as a meaningless one that leads people to their inevitable death.

You can also read these heartfelt poems about depression and incredible poems about death.

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A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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