Hamlet’s ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ Soliloquy:
Full quote of speech with a summary analysis, FAQs, performances and some fun stuff!

To be or not to be, that is the question’ is the most famous soliloquy in the works of Shakespeare – quite possibly the most famous soliloquy in literature. Read Hamlet’s famous speech below with a modern translation and full explanation of the meaning of ‘To be or not to be’. We’ve also pulled together a bunch of facts and commonly asked questions about Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, and have a couple of top performances of the soliloquy to watch.

Let’s start with a read-through of Shakespeare’s original lines:

Hamlet’s ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ Speech, 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.

What Is ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ About?

Hamlet is thinking about life and death, pondering a state of being versus a state of not being – being alive and being dead. ‘To be or not to be’ is followed by ‘that is the question.’ Life is a lack of power, at the mercy of fortune. Death is empowering, allowing the defeat of fortune. To die though, action in life is needed, making the proposition circular and hopeless. And life after death is an unknown, possibly worse than life itself. It is the great question that Hamlet is asking about human existence in general and his own existence in particular – a reflection on hether it’s better to be alive or to be dead.

Hamlet ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ Analysis

The first six words of the soliloquy 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.

Watch 2 Theatre Greats Reciting ‘To Be Or Not To Be’

David Tenant as Hamlet in the RSC’s 2009 Hamlet production

How about Patrick Stewart’s somewhat comedy take on the great soliloquy, as seen here on Sesame Street:

Why Is ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ So Memorable?

Ask people to quote a line of Shakespeare and more often than not it’s ‘To be or not to be’ that’s mentioned. So just what is it that makes this line of Shakespeare’s so memorable?

The line is what is known as a chiasmus because of its balance and structure, and that’s what makes it memorable. Look at this chiasmus from John F Kennedy: ‘Do not ask what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’  Far more complex than Shakespeare’s line but even so, having heard it one could never forget it. The first and second halves mirror each other, the second being an inversion of the first. Winston Churchill’s speeches are full of chiasma. Even when he is joking they flow: ‘All babies look like me, but then I look like all babies.’

Chiasma are always short and snappy and say a lot in their repetition of words and their balance. And so it is with Hamlet’s speech that starts ‘to be or not to be’, arguably Shakespeare’s most memorable line – in the collective conscience centuries after the words were written and performed.

Look at the balance of the line. It has only four words: ‘to,’ ‘be,’ ‘or’ and ‘not.’ The fact is that the language is as simple as language can get but the ideas are extremely profound. ‘To take arms against a sea of troubles,’ for example, and ‘To die, to sleep, no more, but in that sleep of death what dreams may come,’ every word but one monosyllabic, go right to the heart of human existence and the deepest dilemmas of life.

Commonly Asked Questions About ‘To Be Or Not To Be’

Why is Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech so famous?

This 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. Add to this the fact that Shakespeare is dealing with profound concepts, putting complex philosophical ideas into the mouth of a character on a stage and communicating with an audience with a wide range of educational levels, and you have a selection of reasons as to why this soliloquy is as famous as it is.

How long is ‘To be or not to be’?

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

Why is ‘To be or not to be’ so important?

‘To be or not to be’ is not important in itself but it has gained tremendous significance in that it is perhaps the most famous phrase in all the words of the playwright considered to be the greatest writer in the English language. It is also significant in the play, Hamlet, itself in that it goes directly to the heart of the play’s meaning.

What is Shakespeare saying in ‘To be or not to be’?

In the ‘To be or not be to ‘ soliloquy Shakespeare has his Hamlet character speak theses famous lines. Hamlet is wondering whether he should continue to be, meaning to exist or remain alive, or to not exist – in other words, commit suicide. His thoughts about that develop in the rest of the soliloquy.

Why does Hamlet say ‘To be or not to be’?

‘To be or not to be’ is a soliloquy of Hamlet’s – meaning that although he is speaking aloud to the audience none of the other characters can hear him. Soliloquies were a convention of Elizabethan plays where characters spoke their thoughts to the audience. Hamlet says ‘To be or not to be’ because he is questioning the value of life and asking himself whether it’s worthwhile hanging in there. He is extremely depressed at this point and fed up with everything in the world around him, and he is contemplating putting an end to himself.

Is ‘To be or not to be’ a metaphor?

The line ‘To be or not to be’ is very straightforward and direct, and has no metaphorical aspect at all. It’s a simple statement made up of five two-letter words and one of three – it’s so simple that a child in the early stages of learning to read can read it. Together with the sentence that follows it  – ‘that is the question – it is a simple question about human existence. The rest of the soliloquy goes on to use a number of metaphors.

15 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 (read our facts about Shakespeare’s Globe).

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

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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 – many times more than all other Hamlet quotes.

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

10. 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.

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

12. The storyline of Disney’s The Lion King is based on Hamlet.

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

14. At least two films have been named after lines 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”)

15. 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.

Kenneth Brannagh looks at skull as he speaks to be or not to be soliloquy

Kenneth Brannagh looks at skull as he speaks Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy

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127 replies
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  1. Benjamin J Rhoads III
    Benjamin J Rhoads III says:

    To be or not to be is definitely one to consider all our lives as it is human kinds destiny to struggle, and to make a difference. Any other considerations would be the cowards way out or the weak willed. We must also struggle in our lives because those before us made the same struggle and certainly we should therefore also struggle to make our lives worthy of their efforts!

    Reply
  2. Thomas P. Connelly USMC
    Thomas P. Connelly USMC says:

    To be, or not to be…it is a question that has plagued & baffled mankind across all ages, those recorded in modern history, & those ages lost & forgotten by our recorded history. “….what dreams may come..”, Many people have given much great & considerable time & thought to ponder o’er what thought & dreams the dead may have, if any. Many human beings have considered suicide, taking their own mortal life to escape “the slings & arrows”, the hardships, the pains & sufferings of their own life. It isn’t a love of death, nor even a “desire” for death that brings a person to consider suicide as a means of ending their own disappointments & pain in their daily life, rather it is desire to make their own pain & suffering end. Yet, DEATH & what if anything is beyond death, remains, for all thinking, living individuals a total unknown. Consider for a moment an individual so broken, so defeated by the “slings & arrows”, the hardships, bitter defeats, sarrows, & sufferings in their own, personal life, & in despairation to make their pain & suffering end, they take their own life, what a horror & tragedy it is for them, if after they are dead they learn & find that they have no end of pain & sarrows in death, but rather find themselves in an even worse & unescapable situation & anguish & torment a billion times worse than any they ever faced in their life, before they killed themself. Consider the person that has convinced themself nothing good will ever come to them in life, & they commit suicide, & the very next day, their lottery ticket turns out to be “the big winner” worth hundreds of millions of dollars, that could have changed everything in their life for the better, had they just been a ltitle more patient & stuck out the hardships for less than 24 hours longer. |None of us can see what tomarrow might bring us, whether good or evil, more sarrows or losses or greater joys & happiness than we ever even dreamed of. Shakespeare’s “HAMLET” gives us a chance to consider the ages old questions of life & death & what is beyond, that mankind has pondered across all time since the first man was given life. Suicide in reality is a waste of all that could have been, for nothing but the end of an individual’sender life, & the uncertainty of what is beyond this life & of what worse horrors we may face in death. I hope anyone contemplating suicide will choose instead to face their fears & LIVE, & try to make their own life & the whole world better, for all living beings.

    Reply
    • Cuan
      Cuan says:

      Thomas.

      How can you be sure that suicide is “in reality, a waste of all that could have been”?

      This it seems to me, is merely a reflection of your own fears of death and a belief in a western Christian ideal that suicide is somehow wrong.

      I’m not saying I advocate for suicide – I really don’t.

      However, I also am willing to consider that those who do contemplate suicide may have a different angle on things than I do, and it’s not up to me to judge them one way or another.

      Also, being open and comfortable about the idea of suicide may remove its power. If you keep telling someone they can’t have something chances are, they will want it.

      And if they didn’t do it, they might have won the lottery the next day?

      This, as an example of positive change in someone’s life is scarcely valid. The majority of people who win millions in the lottery remain as content or less content than before. Do you think that happiness lies in great wealth? Perhaps you should read more Shakespeare.

      “Since man was given life” when was this exactly?

      The idea of man being “given life” is perhaps more to do with the idea of human self awareness. When this began and if it’s even something that has a linier progression is up for debate.

      This blessing or curse, depending on your angle, of being aware of one’s self is also limited to your understanding of your own behavior. That understanding is in turn, informed by your experiences and reflections up to the present moment. I could go on.

      Your statement here (…since man was given life…)seems to be far too general and unfounded in an attempt to trivialize ideas you clearly haven’t researched.

      How do you know “it is a question that has plagued & baffled mankind across all ages”?

      There are some quite strong and we’ll founded interpretations on this very forum. They are grounded in the interpretation of how the English language works and the context in which the play was written. These people don’t seem “baffled” to me.

      You then presume to understand why someone would want to commit suicide.

      How do you know this information? Perhaps you had someone close to you who ended their own life. I have had this. It made me ask many questions but come up with little answers. I will never know what that person felt to come to the point of suicide, but I do respect their decision.

      Perhaps if my circumstances were different I would think differently about these things. Almost certainly I would.

      Presently, however, I don’t feel qualified to tell someone not to take their own life. And for some reason I find it a little irritating that you do.

      It just isn’t up to me to make choices for other people, especially around something as fundamental as life itself.

      I acknowledge that I do find the idea of death and suicide upsetting, especially if it is someone close to me. I think perhaps you do too. I also realize I would like to speak to them and discuss why they are making this decision if I had the chance. It remains their decision though.

      Your final idea “to face their fears & LIVE, & try to make their own life & the whole world better, for all living beings”.

      What is “better”?

      And

      Why are you presuming “they” need to face anything?

      I would suggest you focus more on reading and interpreating other people’s ideas on Shakespeare ( I thought that’s what this forum was about) and less on using this as a platform for your own, with all due respect, blinkered beliefs.

      Reply
  3. John Bauman
    John Bauman says:

    Although not a classic, you could add the Bette Midler-Shelley Long comedy “Outrageous Fortune” to the list of movie titles taken from the soliloquy. The place where meet the high and lowly brows…

    Reply
  4. TravisG
    TravisG says:

    What does it really mean? Its the dilemma of accepting or refuting a pregnancy. “To be, or not to be: TO BE BORN, OR NOT BORN that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer TO ALLOW SEED TO GROW INTO A LIVING BEING The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. THE STRUGGLES OF RAISING A CHILD, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them?TO END A PREGNANCY KILL A LIFE, BECAUSE NOT READY ” – William Shakespeare.

    Reply
  5. Tara Mills
    Tara Mills says:

    I always thought that part about what dreams may come wasn’t about the dead.. but that if your dead you can not dream the possibility of future bitterness even a glimpse gives us pause. But I’d we are dead we can’t have dreams. And there in lies the rub. We suffer all for the faint glimpse of hope and that makes for such a long life for who would hold on without hope?

    Reply
  6. Mark
    Mark says:

    Is hamlet,Macbeth and Lear the first plays about mental health?
    Hamlet starts with him seeing ghosts and hearing voices that implore him to murder. In this monologue and the yorrich monologue he is clearly depressed, suicidal and confused. This leads him to all the troubles and tragic errors he makes
    Lear has to be the first play with dementia as its theme.
    Shakespeare was miles ahead of the rest of the world

    Reply
    • Cuan
      Cuan says:

      Mental health is merely a label some person came up with in contemporary society to compartmentalize something that seems indefinable and inseparable from who we really are.

      The idea of mental health being “other” is only further compounded by modern health “experts” efforts to define and control, in the belief that perhaps they are doing something positive for humanity. It feels to me however, that this is not the case.

      The question, perhaps, is would you rather choose to live in denial, or make peace with disillusionment?

      As for Shakespeare being “ahead of his time” : this could be interpreted as a back handed compliment to contemporary society, implying that there has been some kind of “progress” since Shakespeare’s time.

      I beg to differ. The fundamental questions of life and death haven’t changed in the slightest. If anything, all our Western modern society has done is try to simplify ideas that cannot be simplified, name things that cannot exist in a vacuum and alienate those that point out complexity.

      Our attachment to the notion of permanency has never been so strong.
      The irony is that the more we attempt to define and simplify the more uncomfortable we become with genuine mystery.

      Reply
  7. kyren
    kyren says:

    Thank god there was no positive psychology around in Shakespeare’s day or it would never have been written. We are not allowed to contemplate suicide today. We must push it out of our minds, seek help, take drugs and get therapy. We can’t grieve, pine, admit defeat, feel regret, sorrow, or anything deeply. That is the unspoken tragedy of the modern world.

    Reply
    • Sarah
      Sarah says:

      But… That’s literally the point of therapy — to have a safe place to grieve, pine, admit defeat, etc. if you do not already have a space to do so. The actual unspoken tragedy is the stigma of seeking mental aide and being told to “suck it up and move on” instead, or having to feel like you have no space to take a moment to breathe and contemplate your reality.

      Reply
    • KDM
      KDM says:

      Brilliantly written. Your comment really is very thought provoking. Popular psychology books irritate me, as we can’t explore the human condition of it’s ok not to be ok. Having to be happy all the time is stressful. We expect too much of ourselves. We’ve got to be: rich, thin, happy, perfect, interesting, intelligent etc etc. Why can’t we “just be”.

      Reply
    • Cuan
      Cuan says:

      You said it Kyren.
      I believe the generalized societal fear of anything “negative” in our lives in contemporary western culture is paralyzing to the point that we actually cease to live.

      It seems this may have been exactly what Shakespeare was writing about.

      Hamlet is trapped in a place of no feeling except anxiety because he is afraid of feelings themselves. It’s remarkable how relevant that is today.

      Reply
  8. Paul
    Paul says:

    Ahhhhh……but once you have reached this point should you allow fear OR common sense influence any of your decisions….. THAT is the question…..no?

    Reply
  9. Mr Helpful
    Mr Helpful says:

    Your take on ‘To be or not to be’ isn’t No Sweat Shakespeare: you make very heavy weather of it. No sweat Shakespeare would be “No-one really understands this speech, period.” You present it as a meandering stream of thought, which you guess is subjectively about Hamlet’s situation, when it has every appearance of being a unitary argument and contains no subjective reference at all! Better to admit you don’t get it than make up a convoluted story and pass it off as understanding.

    Reply
    • H. Gianoutsos
      H. Gianoutsos says:

      Please edify us with your take on this weighty subject.. Go ahead take a stab at it, I await your reply with baited breath.

      Reply
  10. Emile Jorem
    Emile Jorem says:

    The monologue spoken while holding Yorrick’s skull is not the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy though… This is, in Brannagh’s movie, performed in front of a mirror…

    Reply
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