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To be or not to be – original text, translation, analysis, facts and performances

To be or not to be, that is the question’. Read Hamlet’s famous soliloquy by Shakespeare below, along with a modern translation and explanation of what ‘To be or not to be’ is about. We’ve also pulled together a bunch of facts about the famous soliloquy, and have the 5 most famous film performances of ‘to be or not to be’.

‘To be or not to be’ is the most famous soliloquy in the works of Shakespeare – probably, even, the most famous soliloquy anywhere. That is partly because the opening words are so interesting, memorable and intriguing but also because Shakespeare ranges around several cultures and practices to borrow the language for his images, and because he’s dealing here with profound concepts, putting complex philosophical ideas into the mouth of a character on a stage, communicating with an audience with a wide range of educational levels.

‘To Be Or Not To Be': Original Words Spoken by Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1

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,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the 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 pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.–Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.

‘To Be Or Not To Be': Translation

The below translation of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy is taken from the NoSweatShakespeare Hamlet ebook.

The question for him was whether to continue to exist or not – whether it was more noble to suffer the slings and arrows of an unbearable situation, or to declare war on the sea of troubles that afflict one, and by opposing them, end them. To die. He pondered the prospect. To sleep – as simple as that. And with that sleep we end the heartaches and the thousand natural miseries that human beings have to endure. It’s an end that we would all ardently hope for. To die. To sleep. To sleep. Perhaps to dream. Yes, that was the problem, because in that sleep of death the dreams we might have when we have shed this mortal body must make us pause. That’s the consideration that creates the calamity of such a long life. Because, who would tolerate the whips and scorns of time; the tyrant’s offences against us; the contempt of proud men; the pain of rejected love; the insolence of officious authority; and the advantage that the worst people take of the best, when one could just release oneself with a naked blade? Who would carry this load, sweating and grunting under the burden of a weary life if it weren’t for the dread of the after life – that unexplored country from whose border no traveller returns? That’s the thing that confounds us and makes us put up with those evils that we know rather than hurry to others that we don’t know about. So thinking about it makes cowards of us all, and it follows that the first impulse to end our life is obscured by reflecting on it. And great and important plans are diluted to the point where we don’t do anything.

What do you think of the modern translation of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy above? Let us know in the comments below.

‘To Be Or Not To Be’ Analysis

The first six words establish a balance. There is a direct opposition – to be, or not to be. Hamlet is thinking about life and death and pondering a state of being versus a state of not being – being alive and being dead.

The balance continues with a consideration of the way one deals with life and death. Life is a lack of power: the living are at the mercy of the blows of outrageous fortune. The only action one can take against the things he lists among those blows is to end one’s life. That’s the only way of opposing them. Death is therefore empowering: killing oneself is a way of taking action, taking up arms, opposing and defeating the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Living is a passive state; dying is an active state. But in order to reach the condition of death one has to take action in life – charge fully armed against Fortune – so the whole proposition is circular and hopeless because one does not really have the power of action in life.

Death is something desirable – devoutly  to be wished, a consummation – a perfect closure. It’s nothing more than a sleep. But there’s a catch, which Hamlet calls a rub. A ‘rub’ is a bowls term meaning an obstacle on the bowls lawn that diverts the bowl, so the fear of the life hereafter is the obstacle that makes us pause and perhaps change the direction of our thinking. We don’t control our dreams so what dreams may come in that sleep in which we have shuffled off all the fuss and bother of life? He uses the word ‘coil,’ which is an Elizabethan word for a big fuss, such as there may be in the preparations for a party or a wedding – a lot of things going on and a lot of rushing about. With that thought Hamlet stops to reconsider. What will happen when we have discarded all the hustle and bustle of life? The problem with the proposition is that life after death is unknown and could be worse than life. It’s a very frightening thought. That’s the obstacle on the lawn and it diverts his thoughts to another direction.

And now Hamlet reflects on a final end. A ‘quietus’ is a legal word meaning a final definitive end to an argument. He opposes this Latin word against  the Celtic ‘sweating’ and ‘grunting’ of a living person as an Arab beneath an overwhelmingly heavy load – a fardel, the load carried by a camel. Who would bear that when he could just draw a line under life with something as simple as a knitting needle – a bodkin? It’s quite a big thought and it’s fascinating that this enormous act – drawing a line under life – can be done with something as simple as a knitting needle. And how easy that seems.

Hamlet now lets his imagination wander on the subject of the voyages of discovery and the exploratory expeditions. Dying is like crossing the border between known and unknown geography. One is likely to be lost in that unmapped place, from which one would never return. The implication is that there may be unimagined horrors in that land.

Hamlet now seems to make a decision. He makes the profound judgment that ‘conscience does make cowards of us all,’ This sentence is probably the most important one in the soliloquy. There is a religious dimension to it as it is a sin to take one’s life. So with that added dimension the fear of the unknown after death is intensified.

But there is more to it than that. It is not just about killing himself but also about the mission he is on – to avenge his father’s death by killing his father’s murderer. Throughout the action of the play he makes excuses for not killing him and turns away when he has the chance. ‘Conscience does make cowards of us all.’ Convention demands that he kill Claudius but murder is a sin and that conflict is the core of the play.

At the end of the soliloquy he pulls himself out of this reflective mode by deciding that too much thinking about it is the thing that will prevent the action he has to rise to.

This is not entirely a moment of possible suicide. It’s not that he’s contemplating suicide as much as reflecting on life, and we find that theme all through the text. In this soliloquy life is burdensome and devoid of power. In another it’s ‘weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,’ like a garden overrun with weeds. In this soliloquy Hamlet gives a list of all the things that annoy him about life: the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes. But there’s a sense of agonised frustration in this soliloquy that however bad life is we’re prevented from doing anything about it by fear of the unknown.

Facts About ‘To Be Or Not To Be’

1. The first performance of Hamlet was by the King’s Men at the Globe theatre between 1600 and 1601.

2. The first actor to perform the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy was Richard Burbage (1567-1619), the famous Elizabethan tragic actor, for whom Shakespeare wrote most of his tragic roles.

3. The first American performance of ‘to be or not to be’ was by Lewis Hallam, who played Hamlet in The American Company’s production of the play in Philadelphia in 1759.

4. The ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy is 33 lines long, and consists of 262 words. Hamlet, the play in which ‘to be or not to be’ occurs is Shakespeare’s longest play with 4,042 lines.

5. It takes four hours to perform Hamlet on the stage, with the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy taking anywhere from 2 to 4 minutes.

6. There is evidence that William Shakespeare played the ghost of Hamlet’s father in the play.

7. Hamlet is the most frequently performed play around the world.  It has been calculated that a performance begins somewhere in the world every minute of every day.

8. Edwin Booth, the older brother of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, performed ‘to be or not to be’ for one hundred nights in his role of Hamlet at the Winter Garden Theatre, New York, in the 1864/65 season.

9. The castle, Elsinor, where ‘to be or not to be’ is spoken, really exists. It is called Kronborg Castle and is in the Danish port of Helsingør. It was built in 1423 by the Danish king, Eric of Pomerania.

10. The opening line of the soliloquy, ‘to be or not to be, that is the question,’ is the most searched for Shakespeare quote on the internet.

11. More than 200 women have performed ‘to be or not to be’ in the role of Hamlet on the professional stage.

12. The first woman to have performed ‘to be or not to be’ on the stage was Sarah Siddons, the toast of Dury Lane, and famous in her time for her Lady Macbeth. She first played Hamlet in 1776.

13. The ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy has appeared in over 50 film adaptations of Hamlet since 1900.

14. The storyline of Disney film The Lion King is based on Hamlet.

15. Tom Stoppard’s  acclaimed play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, features two minor characters in Hamlet.

16. At least two films have been named after quotes from the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy – 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (line 24, “The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn“) and 1998’s What Dreams May Come (line 11 “For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come“)

17. In a 1963 debate in Oxford, Malcolm X quoted the first few lines of the ‘to be or not to be’ to make a point about “extremism in defence of liberty.”

Any ‘to be or not to be’ facts we’re missing? Let us know in the comments below.

Classic Film Performances of ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ Soliloquy

As per the above facts, there have been over 50 film adaptations of Hamlet, featuring some of the world’s finest actors. Below in no particular order) we’ve picked out five of the top performances of Shakespeare’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy from the silver screen:

Lawrence Olivier (1948)

Kenneth Brannagh (1996)

David Tennant (2009)

Mel Gibson (1990)

Ben Crystal – in original pronunciation

Richard Burton (1964)

John Gilegud (1948)

Ethan Hawke (2000)

Arnold Schwarzenneger (1993)

Patrick Stewart

What do you think of these soliloquy interpretations? Anyone else who should have made the top five?

90 replies
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  1. Nathan
    Nathan says:

    I can see that this is an attempt at a sense-for-sense translation, rather than a more direct one where the outdated words are simply replaced with more contemporary understandings and where the grammar is tweaked a bit to make it easier to read. Overall, it’s decent and better to understand, however, it seems that even the attempt at sense-for-sense is still rather academic and could be more simple. I would still have liked to see it broken down into the vernacular a wee bit more; this is more for the benefit of today’s youth who’s vocabulary is suffering greatly. For instance, I wonder how many youth can define/understand words like: insolence, afflict, slings and arrows, scorns, tyrant or contempt. Phrases like: “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of an unbearable situation…” could be reworded as: “Whether we think it is more courageous and respectable to accept the pains and hurts dealt by fate and fortune…” My point is simply this: if we are going to be translating into the contemporary language, then we need to either stay as close to the original construction of the language as possible so as not to lose intended emphasis, or go all the way in the reworking to make the language as simple and clear as possible so that everyone (especially our young students) may benefit.

    Reply
  2. andrew
    andrew says:

    I learned this in grade six for speech arts…I did this as a performance for my speech arts competition… I was dressed as a king in all the royal clothes. I am now graduated from university and i still remember this play like it was yesterday..as well i use it at times to impress the females..great learning experience

    Reply
  3. Erin Elizabeth
    Erin Elizabeth says:

    It is not by chance that several hundred years after this piece was written we are still entertained by the wealth of it’s content.

    How many of us truly understand Shakespeare? could it be simply understood by reading, watching his plays, or reading reviews/comments of others or does it somehow go deeper than that?

    could it be he touched our souls so deeply, he understood us better then we did ourselves?

    When he says, “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?” He is professing to be a marter, and to continue on to the bitter end of end the bitterness.

    Who among us has ever felt the outrageous fortune? true, not a minor set-back of events but the kind of life altering ones which we cannot stand alone, yet must?

    Reply
  4. Kiyoshi Wada
    Kiyoshi Wada says:

    Thank you for your comment of October 5. I regret to say, however, that I can’t change my textually based interpretation of the meaning of the whether clause. I still believe, for the same reason I gave in my comment, that the equivalence is between ‘ to be ’ and ‘ to suffer ~ , or to take arms ~ ’, and between ‘ not to be ’ and ‘ To die ’.
    Judging by the actual words uttered by Hamlet , ‘ to take arms ~ ’ obviously implies life and resolute action, even though it will assuredly result in death. The infinitive does not mean ‘ to die ’. On the other hand ‘ not to be ’ in the opening phrase, which alludes to ‘ death and inaction ’ and does not equal ‘ to take arms ~ ’ , would be better paraphrased by using some wording like, for instance, ‘ his quietus make with a bare bodkin ’.
    As to ‘ nobler in the mind ’, I don’t think either ‘ nobler ’ or ‘ in the mind ’ implies anything special . The phrase ‘ in the mind ’ seems to me to have little or no meaning here, except that it possibly makes the line sound more rhythmical.

    Reply
  5. Miss H.
    Miss H. says:

    Hamlet was in despair. That is what Shakespeare was expressing through this well renowned soliloquy. The main problem with Hamlet’s reasoning is that the question should not be “to be or not to be”; it should be how to be. The person who faces whatever he must despite the great turmoil as often recurs in Shakespearean literature is not made a coward; he is the true brave one.

    Reply
  6. Mona
    Mona says:

    ” to be or not to be……beautiful soliloquy of WilliamShakespeare ‘s play Hamlet .Its a life long quesion coming very often in every bodys life .Facing problems & to come out from those problems with great sucess is a true test of ones life This gives insipiration ,faith confidence in life .To End Die Or Sleep these type of words having no place & should be irredicated in one’s life

    Reply
  7. clarence
    clarence says:

    “The question for him”? Surely the most obvious thing about the speech unlike all his others is the fact that doesn’t refer to himself at all.

    Reply
  8. Claude
    Claude says:

    This means a lot more to me than fear of death. Its also about the fear of changes in life. Loss of a job, going back to school, divorce(s), the death of loved ones and going on alone. I hate change. It makes you get off your comfortable seat and do something. Whenever I have to face a major change I read this to give me strength and resolution to make something positive out of it. Thank you Shakespeare, my life is better for your wisdom and the fear of death is somewhat lessened. And i will never give up on pursuing the follies of true love.

    Reply
  9. Kiyoshi Wada
    Kiyoshi Wada says:

    The modern translation is quite clear and lucid, and is very useful in understanding the original text. However, if the whether clause (ll.2-4), which is probably an amplification, means much the same thing as ‘Which is more noble, to suffer ~ , or to declare ~?’, I do not agree. Because in that case ‘To be, or not to be: that is the question.’ and ‘Whether ’tis nobler ~to suffer ~ , or to take ~?’ are two different questions that have different meanings. 
    My interpretation of the meaning of the whether clause is as follows. The pronoun ‘it’ indicates to suffer ~ and to take arms ~ , but the whole clause doesn’t mean ‘Which is more noble , to suffer ~ , or to declare ~ ?’ It means ‘Is to be – i.e. to suffer ~ or to declare ~ ( no matter which ) –( really ) nobler ( than not to be )?’ Because to suffer ~ and to declare ~ are both ways of life-courses of action open for Hamlet in his present difficult situation, though noticeably different from each other, stoically passive vs. heroically active. And if the answer to the question (i.e. Is to be nobler? ) is affirmative,
    Hamlet should continue to exist, needless to say.
    I think this is a more consistent elaboration on the question of whether to continue to exist or not, and that “Shakespearean grammar” will permit this explanation.

    Reply
    • clarence
      clarence says:

      Brilliant identification of the problem and half-way right on the solution (To be=to suffer and not to be=to take arms etc) but they are not ways of life because to take arms is to die therefore the choice is between living, which means suffering, and taking action to end suffering that will assuredly result in death, which can only mean suicide. The word everyone trips up on is ‘nobler’, making us think the speech is about what he SHOULD DO, but phrase is ‘nobler IN THE MIND’. He’s saying ‘What does Thought, or Reason, suggest we do: suffer or kill ourselves?’. ‘Nobler’ is ironic because, as the speech proves, ‘the mind’ decides it’s better to suffer than to act: ‘conscience makes us cowards’. He’s not contemplating suicide – we already know he won’t – he’s making a point about human intellect which he makes again in ‘How all occasions’, that it’s not necessarily working in our favour.

      Reply

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