By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’: perhaps one of the most famous lines in all of English literature, but arguably also one of the most mysterious – and one of the most misread. Hamlet’s soliloquy from William Shakespeare’s play is rightly celebrated for being a meditation on the nature of life and death, but some analyses and interpretations of the soliloquy serve to reduce the lines to a more simplistic meaning. So what does ‘To be or not to be’ really mean?
First, here’s a reminder of Hamlet’s words:
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 undiscover’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 does 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 pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
Virtually everyone knows the line, ‘To be, or not to be: that is the question’. Whether we hear Laurence Olivier reciting them, or erroneously picture some other great Shakespearean actor pronouncing these words while holding a skull (which actually belongs in the later gravedigger scene), ‘To be or not to be’ is one of the most famous six-line phrases from all of English literature.
But interestingly, in the first printing of Hamlet, the lines were quite different (see the image from the Quarto, below right): ‘To be, or not to be: that is the question’ was instead ‘To be, or not to be, I there’s the point’ (this version may have been actors or audience-members misremembering the lines from the play and trying to reconstruct them from memory).
Yet the precise meaning of these words, and the lines that follow, is often analysed in a way that not only reduces the ambiguity of the lines to a simple and straightforward narrative (Hamlet is pondering whether to kill himself or not) but also risks losing sight of the broader context in which they appear, namely the play Hamlet viewed as a whole. For if there is one thing that marks Hamlet (and the character, Hamlet), it is his supposed vacillation, his indecision, his delaying: and his dilatoriness centres on his failure to take revenge on his uncle, Claudius, for the murder of his father, Old Hamlet.
What makes ‘To be or not to be’ such a cryptic utterance is that the lines telegraph, and even actively elide, the full thought which Hamlet is mulling over. Should ‘To be or not to be’ be silently completed by us as ‘To be alive or not to be alive’ (the ‘suicide’ interpretation), or as ‘To be an avenger or not to be an avenger’ (bringing in the revenge plot of the play)?
The problem is that the lines which follow, far from being specifically about the pros and cons of killing oneself, can actually be used to support either interpretation. To ‘suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them’ sounds like somebody wondering whether to carry on living or to end it all, but these lines might just as easily refer to Hamlet’s dilemma over whether to accept the challenge mounted by the Ghost (avenge his murdered father) or to stand by and passively let things play out as ‘fortune’ decrees. The lines that follow:
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
Seem to be more specifically focused on the suicide question, but even here there is some ambiguity. Given that the Ghost of his dead father is firmly on young Hamlet’s mind, he is also meditating here on what happens when we die (not just on what might happen when he dies). The Ghost appears to call into question that ‘to die’ is ‘to sleep’, since Old Hamlet has not been allowed to rest; he is a ‘traveller’ who has returned from that ‘undiscovered country’ beyond the grave.
Hamlet’s delaying tactics are themselves often misinterpreted. Is it fair to say that Hamlet delays? Yes. Is it fair to say that he delays because he is indecisive? That’s less certain. He certainly gives us that impression, and torments himself for being not ‘man’ enough to avenge his father.
But Hamlet’s ‘failure’ to act immediately is actually downright sensible, since he wants to be sure that the Ghost which he spoke to, which assumed the form of his father, actually was his father and spoke truth to him, rather than being some mischievous demon sent to goad him to murder an innocent man. This is why he puts on the ‘play within a play’ (actually called The Murder of Gonzago, but which Hamlet wittily renames The Mousetrap): to try to collect evidence of Claudius’ guilt.
As this is a soliloquy from a Shakespeare play, ‘To be or not to be’ is in iambic pentameter – specifically, unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse. But there are a number of variations. Should we stress ‘that’ or ‘is’ in ‘that is the question’? Although ‘that is the question’ may be more common an interpretation, ‘that is the question’ is viable too.
For our money, the best interpretation of Shakespeare’s lines was by the great actor Paul Scofield; you can hear him reciting ‘To be or not to be’ here. For more about the play, see our analysis of Hamlet and our study of the character of Hamlet. You might also find our analysis of another of Hamlet’s soliloquies, ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt’, of interest.
The role of Hamlet is one of the most intellectually and emotionally demanding for an actor: as Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor mention in their detailed introduction to Hamlet: Revised Edition (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series), the Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis even withdrew from the role in 1989, mid-run, after he allegedly began ‘seeing’ the ghost of his father, the former Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, who had died in 1972.
But despite – or, perhaps, because of – this emotional intensity and complexity, actors down the ages have been keen to put their own stamp on the role, including David Garrick (who had a special wig that made Hamlet’s hair stand on end when the ghost of his father appeared), Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Mel Gibson, Sarah Bernhardt (one of many women to portray the Prince of Denmark: see the image below), Ethan Hawke, Keanu Reeves, Kenneth Branagh, Maxine Peake, and even John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
Hamlet is often characterised as ‘a man who cannot make up his mind’. Indeed, the publicity for Laurence Olivier’s celebrated 1948 film of Hamlet made much of this description of Hamlet’s character. The words that tend to come up when people try to analyse the character or personality of Hamlet are indecisive, delaying, and uncertain, with ‘inaction’ being the key defining feature of what Hamlet actually does during the play. Certainly, the poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought Hamlet’s main fault was his indecision: he detected ‘an almost enormous intellectual activity and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it’ – i.e., Hamlet is better at thinking about doing things than actually doing them.
And yet we might argue that Hamlet doesn’t exactly delay, or at least, he does not delay because he is indecisive, but for sound, practical reasons. Hamlet cannot be sure that the Ghost really is the spirit of his dead father, and not some fiend that’s been sent to cause mischief and goad him to murder. So he needs to find out whether Claudius really is guilty of murdering Hamlet Senior, and thus whether the Ghost can be trusted.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.