The Meaning and Origin of ‘To Sleep, Perchance to Dream’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘To sleep, perchance to dream’ is a famous line in probably the most famous section of Hamlet. Shakespeare’s play is chock-full of famous lines – as the old quip has it, it’s a great play but has too many quotations in it – but this particular moment in this long tragedy offers an especially high density of well-known quotations per page.

In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark and the son of the murdered King Hamlet and the Queen, Gertrude. The conversation with the gravedigger suggests that Hamlet is 30 years old, although he is still a student, at the University of Wittenberg. So we don’t know exactly how old Hamlet is meant to be, but we know he is a student and that he is of an introspective and academic cast of mind.

As he demonstrates in his numerous soliloquies in the play (and Hamlet has a lot of words: it’s the second most demanding Shakespeare role for an actor to learn, with the most lines after Richard III, though the latter’s lines are spread across two plays), Hamlet is a man who likes to chew things over and think about them before he acts.

Because Hamlet likes to talk a great deal before he actually does anything, he is often characterised as ‘a man who cannot make up his mind’. 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 ‘To sleep, perchance to dream’ and the surrounding speech are a good case in point. The moment in question – in which we find the line ‘To sleep, perchance to dream’ – is found in Act 3 Scene 1 in the most celebrated soliloquy in Hamlet, the title character’s speech which begins ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’.

Hamlet’s soliloquy from William Shakespeare’s play is rightly praised for being a searching and complex meditation on the nature of life and death, but some interpretations of the soliloquy serve to reduce the lines to a more simplistic meaning. It begins:

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—

‘To sleep, perchance to dream’: in other words, if death is but a sleep, and dying is just like falling asleep, then perhaps (‘perchance’) we will dream after death. Perhaps the afterlife will be full of dreams.

But that’s where the problem lies for Hamlet, who, of all of Shakespeare’s characters, is the one most prone to over-thinking. For as he goes on to say, in that ‘sleep of death’ we do not know what kind of dreams might befall us: they may, after all, be more like nightmares than dreams. Of course, Hamlet doesn’t say ‘but that’s the problem’, but ‘ay, there’s the rub’: a ‘rub’ being an impediment or obstacle. The word comes from the game of bowls: a rub was the name given to an obstacle which causes the bowled ball to veer off course.

The line ‘To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub’ typifies Hamlet’s speech as a whole, which operates on this dialectic, whereby Hamlet presents himself with a proposition to which he then offers the counterargument: ‘to be … or not to be’; ‘to dream … ay, there’s the rub’.

For this reason, some critics have drawn parallels between Shakespeare’s soliloquies and the essays of Michel de Montaigne, who was pioneering the modern essay form at around this time, in the late sixteenth century. Montaigne’s essays deliberate a particular issue, considering the different aspects, much as Shakespeare’s characters – Hamlet especially – engage in a sort of dialogue with themselves when in soliloquy mode.

‘To sleep, perchance to dream’, then, warns against the dangers of longing for the ultimate sleep – the ‘sleep of death’ – because the living can little comprehend what happens after we die, and what ‘dreams’ may lie in store for us then. It is in keeping with some of the other classic quotations from Hamlet, such as ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio’ and ‘the undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns’.

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