By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘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 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?
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
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), Ethan Hawke, Keanu Reeves, Kenneth Branagh, Maxine Peake, and even John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
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.