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To be, or not to be

To be, or not to be

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"To be, or not to be" is the opening phrase of a soliloquy
Soliloquy
A soliloquy is a device often used in drama whereby a character relates his or her thoughts and feelings to him/herself and to the audience without addressing any of the other characters, and is delivered often when they are alone or think they are alone. Soliloquy is distinct from monologue and...

 from William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

's play Hamlet
Hamlet
The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or more simply Hamlet, is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1599 and 1601...

(written about 1600), Act III, Scene 1. It is the best-known quotation from the play and probably the most famous in world literature
World literature
World literature refers to literature from all over the world, including African literature, American literature, Arabic literature, Asian literature, Australasian literature, Caribbean Literature, English literature, European literature, Indian literature, Latin American literature, Persian...

 but there is disagreement on its meaning, as there is of the whole speech.

Text


This is the First Folio text http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/image?img=1998.04.0773 with spelling updated but capitals and punctuation untouched as possible clues to original delivery. Three emendations (italic) are incorporated from the other authoritative original edition, the second Quarto.
Hamlet speaks this on his entry to Act 3 scene 1 (known as the 'nunnery scene' because of the dialogue after the speech) which is when Polonius and Claudius put into effect their plan, hatched in Act 2 scene 2, to watch Hamlet with Ophelia to determine whether, as Polonius thinks, his 'madness' springs from "neglected love". They have 'planted' her where it is his habit to walk and think. Claudius and Polonius are hidden and Ophelia is pretending to read a book but until he sees her at the end of the speech Hamlet thinks himself alone.

Interpretation


The main points of disagreement about this speech are
  1. whether it is about suicide or merely the condition of being dead
  2. whether - if it is about suicide - Hamlet is suicidal or merely philosophising about it
  3. what the apparent theme of endurance vs. action has to do with being and nonbeing
  4. what the conclusion means and how it follows from the preceding parts of the speech.


1. It is hard to interpret ‘making one’s own quietus’ as anything other than suicide but it is odd that having dismissed suicide earlier as a closed option on religious grounds Hamlet should return to the subject apparently without those qualms.

2. Since he last expressed suicidal thoughts (in the 'Too too solid flesh' soliloquy) the situation has worsened in that he is now convinced his father’s death was murder and he must take revenge on his uncle, who is also his stepfather and king. On the other hand while the other soliloquies are intensely subjective and agonised, ‘To be’ is almost studiously abstract, not containing a single ‘I’ or ‘me’ nor much obvious passion.

3. 'Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer … Or to take arms’ seems obviously to mean 'is it better to be Stoically passive to life's troubles or heroically active against them?' The trouble is how this relates to ‘To be or not to be’. Some regard it as a clearly different question, dismissing the problem by claiming Hamlet's thoughts have already moved on, while others perceive a logical relationship; of these, some think that ‘to be’ is ‘to suffer’, others that ‘to be’ is ‘to take arms’.

4. On its own, ‘Conscience makes us cowards’ seems straightforwardly to condemn moral consciousness for preventing action. One problem is the likelihood that a moral hero would condemn morality, the other is again logical: the word 'Thus' suggests Hamlet has deduced it but since morality has not figured in the speech it is to many critics a nonsequitur. They suggest an alternative and allegedly older meaning of ‘Conscience’ such that the fault lies with our thinking about death, or with thinking per se.
These are fundamental uncertainties that make even a generally acceptable statement of the speech's meaning impossible, but despite this, or perhaps because of it, the speech is regarded as Hamlet's most significant, capturing his intense and searching intelligence.
In the First Quarto, Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" speech appears as follows:


To be, or not to be, aye there's the point,

To Die, to sleepe, is that all? Aye all:

No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes,

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, the ioyfull hope of 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 something after death?

Which pusles the braine, 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,

Lady in thy orizons, be all my sins remembred.

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