“To be or not to be” is the most famous speech in the English language, but what does it really mean?

On the surface, Hamlet ponders life and fear of death, but the subtext veers far beyond that into morality and conscience, reflecting the themes of the play and the broader range of the human condition. Not bad for a speech that seems almost accidentally stuck into the final product, as if Shakespeare wrote it for some other purpose and then decided it was simply too good not to include.

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—”

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

Even those who’ve never read a single word of Shakespeare are familiar with the phrase, “To be or not to be, that is the question.”  The soliloquy opened by those few simple words is by far the most famous in the English language, having spawned the titles for at least three movies, from science fiction to classic war films.  Robin Williams’ What Dreams May Come.  Star Trek’s The Undiscovered Country.  Bogart and Bacall’s To Be or Not to Be.  Other phrases from the speech ring out through the ages as well, taking on a life of their own.  The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  This mortal coil.  There’s the rub.  To sleep perchance to dream.  Conscience makes cowards of us all.  It’s almost difficult to imagine that the equivalent of a few paragraphs of iambic pentameter can contain so many memorable lines, burned into our collective consciousness forever, producing quotes that are infinitely adaptable, applying far beyond the specifics of the play.  You can ponder the “to be or not to be” about almost anything.  Star Trek’s undiscovered country referred to the future, not death.  Conscience makes cowards of us all is practically a universal sentiment.

This strikes me as both accidental and intentional on Shakespeare’s part, a hallmark of the play itself, but also a feature of where it appears in context.  The speech itself seems almost accidentally stuck in the play, as if Shakespeare wrote it for some other purpose and then decided it was simply too good not to include.  He had to put it somewhere, and so Hamlet delivers it in Act 3, Scene 1, what has come to be known as the nunnery scene.  The sequence opens with Hamlet’s adversaries, King Claudius and Polonius, scheming to determine precisely what ails the Danish Prince.  They position his love interest, Ophelia, where they can watch the two interact from an unseen place.  Polonius notes, “I hear him coming. Let’s withdraw, my lord.”  Hamlet enters and without further ado delivers the speech.  After, he engages in a bizarre conversation with Ophelia wherein he claims to have never given her any gifts, says he loved her, then the opposite, and soon commands her to “get thee to a nunnery:”

Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be
a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest,
but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
were better my mother had not borne me: I am
very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses
at my beck than I have thoughts to put them
in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act
them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
between earth and heaven?

Hamlet repeats the nunnery phrase to close the speech and then issues a threat, “It hath made me mad. I say we will have no more marriage. Those that are married already, all but one, shall live. The rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go.”  There is nothing either before or after the soliloquy to prompt it, nor does Hamlet ever refer to it again, as if he never spoke the words at all.  For all we know, no one hears it except for the audience and Hamlet himself.  It could be that he speaks it out loud or it that we are just listening to his thoughts.  In performance, it has been done both ways.  For example in Kenneth Branagh’s masterful full-length film version, the soliloquy serves as part of Hamlet’s threat.  The Danish Prince is aware he’s being watched by Claudius and Polonius, though they are positioned behind a two way mirror and supposedly he cannot see them.  Hamlet speaks directly to the pair anyway, actually pointing his dagger in their faces when he says “When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin?”

At the same time, the play itself doesn’t make clear whether Hamlet knows he’s being watched, or if anyone is supposed to hear it outside the audience.  Therefore, we cannot say for sure precisely why the speech is there, serving no purpose and seeming like a complete non-sequitur.  We can say, however, that this potentially accidental intent is a part of the overall brilliance of the entire play, intrinsic to its ability to captivate audiences and critics over the course of centuries.  If nothing else, Hamlet seems planned primarily to capture the full range of human emotions, complete with all its contradictions and randomness.  Hamlet himself has been described as an actor searching for a role, and he is at times brilliant in his insightfulness, masterful in his choice of language, yet tinged with a hard to define madness.  Supposedly, he feigns this insanity to trick his adversaries, but at times it is impossible to say for sure as he careens between lover and friend, hero and villain, student and scholar, and more.  There is an essential randomness to the mask he wears, keeping the audience off guard, never knowing what to expect.

The same is true of the plot which just as rapidly changes direction twice.  First, when the players arrive, taking the story in an entirely different direction from its previous course, and ultimately leading to Hamlet’s exile and planned execution at the hands of the English.  Second, when Hamlet returns to Denmark a changed man in the fifth act, what some have described as the “overman” that would be popularized by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche almost three hundred years later.  Whatever you call it, he seems to possess a new awareness and composure, an understanding of his and humanity’s place in the world even as events lead to his own demise.  Unlike many other revenge tragedies that lumber to an inexorable conclusion, we cannot predict either Hamlet or the plot, indeed the two seem one at times, spinning into an unknown future, complete with the piling up of regrets and sorrows, as real life itself.  In order to reflect real life, however, Hamlet himself needs to be brimming with the full range of emotion, and hence the play artfully contains almost everything one can experience, in every possible combination.

To its own self true as Polonius tells his son Laertes, but not to anything resembling convention.  This thinking applies equally well to the “To be or not to be” speech itself.  On the surface, it’s about life and death, and why we continue living in the face of untold hardship when it is all too easy to end our suffering once and for all.  Is it really “nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or should we “take arms” against all our troubles, opposing them and ultimately ending them ourselves with a bare dagger?  This question serves as the foundation of the soliloquy, but it remains unclear what precisely Hamlet is referencing with “To be or not to be, that is the question.”  To be, as in to live or not to be, as in to die?  Certainly that makes sense, but there is also the lingering question of whether his father’s ghost can be trusted.  In Shakespeare’s day, ghosts were malign spirits, agents of the devil, set upon us to trick us.  Hamlet has no evidence in the real world that Claudius killed his father.  The ghost could be lying, is that what Hamlet is wondering as well?

Regardless, his father is dead in the physical world.  Whether at the hands of his uncle or by some tragic accident, he has ended “The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to” and achieved the “consummation Devoutly to be wish’d.”  At the same time, Hamlet and others including Horatio have seen his father return to the world with their own eyes.  They have every reason to fear “what dreams may come” in that sleep of death.  The ghost tells Hamlet specifically that “My hour is almost come When I to sulf’rous and tormenting flames Must render up myself.”  His father’s spirit is “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night And for the day confined to fast in fires Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature Are burnt and purged away.”  In this sense, Hamlet’s questions about life after death are clearly answered, and the after life as far as he knows, certainly isn’t something one would wish for.  There is also a subtle shift in the first and second half of the speech.  At first, Hamlet insists this lack of knowledge about the world of the dead “must give us pause,” saying “there’s the respect that makes calamity” of so long life.”  By the end, however, he gives a different reason, “Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.”

These two positions are not equivalent.  Conscience hasn’t entered into any other part of the speech, but Hamlet transitions from being driven by fear of the unknown, which can be read as both death and also his inability to know the truth about his father, to the idea that something else is holding him back.  Conscience leads to guilt, and guilt forms the basis of a proto-morality.  We avoid doing things that make us feel guilty unless we have to, but why would that hold Hamlet or anyone back from killing themselves when presumably they would feel nothing afterwards, or at least nothing the mortal body would be aware of?  Some have said the play contains a Christian undercurrent and thus Hamlet is referencing the strict proscription against suicide.  This is likely true when Ophelia is denied sacred ground after it is determined she intentionally drowned herself, but it also seems like something more.  Hamlet’s father’s ghost has asked him to kill his uncle.  If there’s a proscription against suicide, there is also one against murder.   The soliloquy therefore seems to slide between purely speculative philosophy and the specifics of the play itself.  This continues when Hamlet declares that too much thinking leads to not enough action in the very next line, as “the native hue of resolution” becomes “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”  Once again, however, it is difficult to believe he is speaking only about suicide when the example he provides is “enterprises of great pith and moment.”  That’s a phrase you might use to describe killing a king and ascending to the throne, not killing yourself.

Also interesting is how Hamlet chooses to define life itself in the speech.  Generally speaking, a well-adjusted person would likely argue against suicide in two ways.  First, they would focus on the loves and joys in life, family, friends, special moments, those times you just feel good for whatever reason.  These are the things that make life worth living.  Hamlet, however, mentions nothing of the sort.  To him, fortune is “outrageous” and life is a litany of suffering and abuse.  Time itself is full of “whips and scorns.”   We are variously oppressed, the unloved victims of proud men.  The law is too slow.  The government is filled with insolent assholes that mock us at every turn.  We must bear it all patiently, and even greater burdens, as we “grunt and sweat under a weary life.”  These things are all true, both back then and today, and to various extents, everyone deals with such trials and tribulations.  Hamlet, however, is a prince and heir to a throne.  He is the proud officeholder, applying the law or even the oppressor, not merely a victim of it, and yet this is how he characterizes day to day existence.  Further, bringing us to the second argument the well-adjusted would make against suicide, not once does Hamlet mention the pain one would leave behind.  The distraught loved ones, spending the rest of their lives questioning whether they could have done anything to prevent it.

In Hamlet’s description of life, at least in this speech, loved ones simply do not exist, or if they do their feelings don’t matter.  Rather, choosing to live is simply a cold calculation.  On the one hand, you have all of the horrors you know.  On the other, you have those that you don’t.  Therefore, one chooses to live instead of flying to ills “that we know not of,” except this isn’t true of Hamlet either.  As we noted earlier, he knows the horrors on other side from the ghost and surely he is aware enough that “tormenting flames” are far worse than “the proud man’s contumely.”  Why give the speech at all in that case?  Perhaps this is the reason he ultimately changes the argument to a moral one towards the end.  It’s morality that makes us cowards that fear killing ourselves, and taking revenge against those who have wronged them.  Even that still seems unsatisfactory, however, at least if you believe morality and conscience is a force for good in the world, not merely a necessary check on our desires.  Here, Hamlet seems to be reducing both to pure, almost psychopathic self-interest. We fail to take what we want, when we want only out of fear of consequences.

Ultimately, these questions cannot be answered, either by Hamlet, within the play, or by anyone who isn’t taking something exclusively on faith.  The moral person believes his virtues are absolute, either coming from God directly or some other enlightenment.  There are those among us, Hamlet included, that feign morality for their own purposes, when in actuality they are operating simply out of cold calculation.  Here we arrive at the real crux of the speech and the play.  In my opinion, it serves as a fulcrum for all of the events, an answer to why Hamlet should act or not act.  First, he doesn’t know for sure whether what the ghost says is true, to be or not to be.  Second, he calculates all the horrors he or we might face, and concludes death might be worse, but he does so because he already knows from his father’s ghost.  Third, he moves from that cold calculation to the root of conscience and morality, both for suicide and murder and every other human activity, imagining everyone, at heart, is restrained only by fear.  This is a bleak view of the world, but it is undoubtedly true for a significant portion of humanity, at least at times, as it is for Hamlet himself.

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 traveler 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.

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