‘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 soliloquy 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 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.
Hamlet ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ Analysis
Hamlet is thinking about life and death. It is the great question that Hamlet is asking about human existence in general and his own existence in particular – a reflection on whether it’s better to be alive or to be dead.
The in-depth version
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. The ‘sleep of 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 term ‘mortal 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 the sleep of death is unknown and could be worse than life.
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 agonized frustration in this soliloquy that however bad life is we’re prevented from doing anything about it by fear of the unknown.
Watch Two Theatre Greats Recite Hamlet’s Soliloquy
David Tenant as Hamlet in the RSC’s 2009 Hamlet production:
We couldn’t resist but share Patrick Stewart’s comedy take on the soliloquy for Sesame Street!
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. Just look at how many now-famous phrases are used in the speech – ‘take arms’, ‘what dreams may come’, ‘sea of troubles’, ‘to sleep perchance to dream’. ‘sleep of death’, ‘whether tis nobler’, ‘flesh is heir’, ‘must give us pause’, ‘mortal coil’, ‘suffer the slings and arrows’, outrageous fortune’, ‘the insolence of office’… the list goes on and on.
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. Just look at how many now phrases
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.
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.
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 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.
Let’s try reading it again…
If you’re still with us, you should now have a pretty good understanding of the true meaning behind the words of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech. You may have also watched two fantastic actors speak the immortal words, so should have a much clearer understanding of what messages the soliloquy is trying to convey.
With all of this in mind, why not try reading the words aloud to yourself one more time:
And that’s all for this take on Hamlet’s immortal lines. Did this page help you? Any information we’re missing that would be useful? Please do let us know in the comments section below!