To Be Or Not To Be
By Prince Charles
Well, frankly, the problem as I see it
At this moment in time is whether I
Should just lie down under all this hassle
And let them walk all over me,
Or, whether I should just say, 'OK,
I get the message,' and do myself in.
I mean, let's face it, I'm in a no win
Situation, and quite honestly,
I'm so stuffed up to here with the whole
Stupid mess that, I can tell you, I've just
Got a good mind to take the quick way out.
That's the bottom line. The only problem is:
What happens if I find out that when I've bumped
Myself off, there's some kind of a, you know,
All that mystical stuff about when you die,
You might find you're still--know what
In his great soliloquy, "To be or not to be," he is interrupted by Ophelia in the midst of a
most solemn train of thought. When she says to him--
My lord, I have remembrances of yours.
--it is probable that his rude denial of having given Ophelia remembrances, and his "Ha,
ha! are you honest?" with all the bitter words that follow, are meant to indicate the
disturbance which is produced in his mind by the clashing of his love for her with the
predominant thought which now makes all that belongs to his personal happiness
worthless. His bitterness escapes in generalizations; it is not against Ophelia, but against
her sex, that he exclaims. To that gentle creature, the harshest thing he says is: "Be thou
as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny." Coleridge things that
the harshness in Hamlet's manner is produced by his perceiving that Ophelia was acting a
part toward him and that they were watched. Perhaps, as Lamb expresses it, these "tokens
of an unhinged mind" are mixed "with a certain artifice, to alienate Ophelia by affected
discourtesies, so as to prepare her mind for the breaking off of that intercourse which can
no longer find a place amid business so serious as that which he has to do." At any rate,
the gentle and tender Ophelia is not outraged. Her pity only is excited; and, if the
apparent rudeness of Hamlet requires a proper appreciation of his character to reconcile it
with our admiration of him, Shakespeare has at this moment most adroitly presented to us
that description of him which Goethe anticipated:
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword,
The expectancy and rose of the fair state.
Hamlet recovers a temporary tranquillity. He has something to do, and that something is
connected with his great business. He has to prepare the players to speak his speech.
Those who look upon the surface only may think these directions out of place; but
nothing can really be more appropriate than that such rules of art, so just, so universal and
so complete should be put by Shakespeare into the mouth of him who had preëminently
"the scholar's tongue." The satisfaction he takes in the device, the hopes which he has that
his doubts may be resolved lend a real elevation to his spirits, which may pass for his
feigned madness. He utters whatever comes uppermost; and the freedoms which he takes
with Ophelia, while they are equally remote from bitterness or harshness, are such as in
Shakespeare's age would not offend pure ears.
The test is applied; the king is "frighted with false fire," and the elation of Hamlet's mind
is at its height. Then comes the climax--"Now could I drink hot blood." Yet he is not
raving, and in the scene with the queen he vindicates his own sanity:
It is not madness
That I have uttered: bring me to the test,
And I the matter will re-word; which madness
Would gambol from.
The question may be asked, why is it, when we think upon the fate of the poor stricken
Ophelia, that we never reproach Hamlet? We are certain that it was no "trifling of his
favor" that broke her heart; we are assured that his seeming harshness did not sink deep
into her spirit; we believe that he loved her more than "forty thousand brothers;" and yet
she certainly perished through Hamlet and his actions. But we blame him not, for her
destiny was involved in his. Says a writer in Blackwood's Magazine: "Soon as we
connect her destiny with Hamlet we know that darkness is to overshadow her, and that
sadness and sorrow will step in between her and the ghost-haunted avenger of his father's
murder. Soon as our pity is excited for her it continues gradually to deepen, and, when
she appears in her madness, we are as deeply moved as when we hear of her death.
Perhaps the description of that catastrophe by the queen is poetical rather than dramatic;
but its exquisite beauty prevails, and Ophelia, dying and dead, is still the same Ophelia
that first won our love. Perhaps the very forgetfulness of her, throughout the remainder of
the play, leaves the soul at full liberty to dream of the departed. She has passed away
from the earth like a beautiful dream."
"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."
Some say that Hamlet is not contemplating suicide, because it would not make dramatic
sense for him to. If he wanted to suicide, he would have done it in the beginning, not
waiting until the middle of the play. He knows too much about the murder of his father,
and Claudius's guilt to want to die. Hamlet's intentions were probably more to
contemplate whether or not he will follow the ghost's words, as he will most likely damn
his own soul if he does go through with the revenge plot. He knows that he may be
damned, so whether to be damned or not to be damned, could be another viewpoint. My
English teacher argued this one in class, and this is the conclusion we came to.
(idea) by themusic (5.1 y) (print) ? 1 C! Mon Jul 31 2000 at 0:43:24
Arguably the most famous phrase in the English language, used, and abused, almost since
the moment The Bard composed them.
Hamlet is the archetypal intellectual: he is unable to do, only to be. In so many ways, this
soliloquy sums up the drama of the play.
Hamlet is caught between the cycles, and waves of a tradition that requires him to avenge
the murder of his father--who has no name--by his Uncle Claudius. This is represented by
the low, menacing repetition of "Rmember Me," beneath the floor boards by the ghost of
Hamlet, Sr., for lack of a better name.
The duration of the play is the duration of Hamlet's deliberation, as a good university
student, and intellectual. This is the "not to be".
Ultimalely, he succumbs to the tides of history--this is the "to be".
Clearly, the reason this play, if not most of Shakespeare is not popular, and is considered
boring--how many people think, or think enough to fight what instinct, and eveyone
around them, tells them what to be?
The speech is actually surprisingly full of ambiguity if you parse it line by line. Most of
the following analysis is cribbed from On The Value Of Hamlet by Stephen Booth, which
is also the best essay on the play that I have ever come across.
To be, or not to be,--that is the
so far so good. two distinct ideas, cleanly deliniated.
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?
okay, so life -- "to be" is now equated with suffering, a passive activity, while death via
suicide is considered to be an passionate act. The distinction of the speech's first line is
already beginning to blur.
Furthermore, the garden path construction of "whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer"
adds another layer of confusion into the mix. Also note that this is an extraordinarily
passive construction, whereas "take up arms against a sea of troubles / And opposing, end
them" is about as active as it gets.
Finally, "slings and arrows" is a rhetorical construct, called a hendiadys, that is designed
to press the mind into a single idea using multiple words.
In general, we will see that the speech repeatedly conflates opposites into single ideas.
--To die,--to sleep,-- No more;
these six words do a lot of work. one the one hand, they say that "to die is nothing more
than to sleep." On the other, they also say that "to die is to sleep never again." Once more,
opposites are being conflated.
Popular literary convention in Shakespeare's age used sleep as a metaphor both for states
of life approaching death as well as death itself; this phrase conflates both ideas together
at once. Because sleep can thus represent both life and death simultaniously, it will be a
central hinge of this speech.
and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,
1. "Heir": a word that is of particular importance to Hamlet's character
2. "Heir": introduces an idea of continuity from generation to generation that is itself
antithetical to the conception of death as a permanent state that the speech has so far
3. "the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to": introduces a Christian ethos the
speech (i.e. human beings are heir to the curse of Adam)...
--'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd.
3. (cont) ...which is immediatedly recast ironically in "devoutly to be wished," which
reconsiders the blasphemous act of suicide in a specifically religious light.
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;
4a. "shuffled off this mortal coil": 'cast off the turmoil of this life'
4b. "shuffled off...coil": an act that rejuvenates a snake
5. "for in that sleep of death what dreams may come": another garden path sentence.
6a. "makes calamity of so long life": 'makes calamity so long-lived'
6b. "makes calamity of so long life": 'makes a long life a calamity'
Also note that the idea of the afterlife as unknown is touched upon here, but only
euphemistically; the speech will return to this idea later.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despis'd 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 these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
relatively straightforward, but...
But that the dread of something after death,--
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns,
...this is problematic. The idea of 'no traveller returning' from the dead has already been
touched upon in this speech. It is true in all contexts except within a play where the hero's
father has come back from the dead to spur him to revenge.
The rest of the speech behaves as though it has been riffing on a coherent idea
throughout; as Booth notes, it also describes the action of hearing the speech itself:
--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.
Basically, the speech starts out presenting "to be" and "not to be" as two simple
opposites, then launches into a series of examples that contradict the idea that they are, in
fact, opposites, then comes out of the whole mess with a single idea as though nothing
strange has happened. Shakespeare gets away with this because his rhetorical skills are so
strong; the speech obfuscates at the same time that it is promising that it is simple and
The whole play is actually kind of like that.
"To be, or not to be, that's the question: ....."
The first line of Hamlet's famous monologue about death and its consequences. It is
followed by these four lines:
"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. ................ "
The lines describe the classical choice we have to make when we get into trouble: do we
accept our fate because we see the suffering as a just punishment for our sins (mere
fatality has no deep roots in western civlization), or, do we put up a fight and try to
eliminate the problems and perhaps even those who threaten us. It makes you think of the
biblical story about Job's submission to God's will. Perhaps it makes you think of how
some historians have blamed the Jews for this same passive attitude of submission to
their fate which in their view made the holocaust possible, or at least more easily feasible.
In their opinion the Jews should have taken "arms against a sea of troubles".
Certainly in Shakepeare's day more than in ours this was a real dilemma. The medieval
attitude of humble acceptance of suffering seen as God's will was still considered to be a
morally elevated (noble) way of dealing with problems in one's life.
The fact that this dilemma gets so much emphasis at this point in the play is a bit
unexpected. Hamlet has already promised his father "to take arms", that is, to revenge his
father's murder, hasn't he? Is he having second thoughts on philosophical or moral
grounds, then? The answer is clearly negative, his dawdling mainly results from his
hesitation about who or what the ghost really is and whether it tells the truth about his
The four lines state a moral, a philosophical problem. The funny thing, however, is that
Hamlet, distracted by intense emotions of sadness (his father's death), fear (the
confrontation with his father's ghost) and hatred (his mother's behaviour and his uncle's
crime), should bring up this philosophical discussion at all. Also, the wording is out of
character: commentators have pointed out the stiffness of the language in these lines and
the (very much unlike Shakespeare), mixed metaphor (arms against a sea of .... ). The
lines just don't seem to fit in On top of this there is the problem of logical continuity and
coherence in the first six lines. I have not been able to find a clear and straightforward
explanation, experts give a few more or less acceptable interpretations.
All in all, a confusing business. Maybe, just maybe, a look at a contemporary version of
the play, the so-called "First Quarto" of Hamlet can be of some help. Even though this is
recognizably the same play, it is radically different. It's much shorter and some of the
names are different. So why look at it? Well, the part with the monologue in it is much
like our accepted version. Here are some of the lines from this part of the play in the First
King: See where he comes poring upon a book.
Corambis: And here, Ofelia, read you on this book And walk aloof; the king shall be
Exeunt the King and Corambis
Hamlet: To be, or not to be; ay there's the point. To die, to sleep: is that all? Ay all.
Yes, the four lines we have just discussed are missing! And yes, Hamlet appears with a
book on the stage here. In the commonly used version his mother mentions his being
occupied with a book in the second act.
Well, he is a student, isn't he. Students use books. But surely this isn't a time for him to be
doing his homework? An explanation could be that he is trying to find advice on how to
proceed in the tricky situation he finds himself in in a theological or philosophical work.
After all, it is not an unnatural act for a student to try and find answers to problems in
Once you accept the possibility that Hamlet is reading a book , a book in which he hopes
to find good advice, when he appears on the stage just before his conversation with
a new explanation of the first few lines of the monologue offers itself. The problems of
coherence and style would vanish if the four lines did not express Hamlet's thoughts, but
were read aloud by him from the book (a philosophical work)he is holding.
Suddenly the passage becomes clear: in his search for an answer to his problems in
philosophical literature Hamlet has come across the dilemma of the basic attitudes of
acceptance versus resistance in life. Hamlet, however, rejects this dilemma outright. To
be or not to be, to live or to die, that is what he sees as the real choice. He rejects the
moral/philosophical authority of his book which gives him the choice of passive
acceptance or active resistance. That just will not do in Hamlet's view. The real choice for
him, at that point in the play, is the one between life and death, not between two different
attitudes in life.
Looking at the text in this way, the first line does not explicitly mention suicide but the
idea of suicide is implicitly there, of course. The remaining part of the monologue deals
with the consequences of the choice for death.