To be or not to be? : LUSENET : Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet : One Thread

My college class is discussing the meaning of this speech by Hamlet. The professor seems to take a different view of this than other interpretations which I have heard. She believes that Hamlet is trying to determine if he should do something (to be) about his uncle if he finds out that his uncle really DID kill his father or do nothing (not to be), and simply let it be. What do you think about this interpretation?

-- Steven Wayne Menefee (, September 04, 1999


Full text of the speech should be in any copy of the play but if your copy seems not to have one, I have posted the entire speech here:

-- Virginia (, August 29, 2002.

I personally think that it's a debate about life and death (e.g. all that Star-Trekky stuff about the "undiscovered country" and "sleep"). I have heard various other interpretations but they just did't seem to gel quite as well. I'd be interested to know what kind of evidence your professor cited in the speech that led her to that conclusion, though. What do you think?

-- Virginia (, September 07, 1999.

after hamlet says "to be or not to be.." he goes on- "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;" many would agree that he explains himself in the lines that follow -to be or not to be- also there is a : right there. I agree he's talking about life and death, Whether he should just accept every thing and move on, and I am not going to bother going on, you know it

-- ErosLight (, September 12, 1999.

Not to belittle your tutor - but why go against the grain for the sake of collecting some splinters? Of cource he talks of suicide to end his fatal indecision - for even the act of taking one's own life IS an act - he would have done something, though (as Laertes says) he would also 'dare damnation' in the doing...

-- Sioned Edwards (, September 16, 1999.

The "To Be Or Not To Be" speech is not completely a speech about cashing in on life to embrace the eternal sleep. It is more plausible that the speech, in the first few lines, is more understood as "to do the play or not to do the play, about crossing the point of no return and suffering the consequences. At the end of act II Hamlet has decided that "the play's the thing..." where he'll know the truth about the King's actions. When he enters to begin the "To Be Or Not To Be" speech he is vascillating about doing the play in the court. This is indicative in "by opposing (Claudius) end them" (ending his own life through an act that would be viewed as treason). Then the troubles of the very act of death and Hamlet's views of it return to him. Here we see that he hasn't completely resolved what he should do, but he is aware that "self-slaughter" is expressly against the "canon" that he referred to in Act 1. Suicide is not an option, his conscience will not allow him to act upon this for his fear of punishment from Hamlet's belief in deity. Hamlet doesn't exactly have a resolution about what he should do and this is illustrated perfectly with Olivier's delivery. Perhaps he doesn't decide on a course of action until the "How all occasions" speech on rou

-- joseph s. curdy (, November 20, 1999.

I played Ophelia in Hamlet once, for the school play and the cast decided that it was absolutely senseless for Hamlet to say the To Be or not To Be speech, it really does not make sense. So we decided that Ophelia would read it from Hamlet4s diary and Hamlet would walk in on her, grab the book from her halfway through the speech and say the rest of the speech as an explanation. It makes more sense that way, because it can be interpreted that Hamlet is deciding on whether he should live or die, and Ophelia thinks it is her fault, after reading " To die, to sleep, no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to..." So we concluded that Ophelia denying her love to Hamlet was why he pondered on the meaning of life.

-- Larissa Dzegar (, November 30, 1999.

It was explained to me like this, To be, or not to be can be changed into to live, or not to live. hamlet was discussing with himself all the things that were going wrong and he was debating wether to take his own life. this is after he finds out about the murder but he really hasn't made up his mind about how to deal with his problems, revenge and so forth. but then comes along the play and it's the thing that shall catch the conciences of the king. there's his plan.

Marc L

-- Marc L. (, August 26, 2000.

I think I am related to Hamlet! And I have pics of him in the buff.

-- Zor Ko (, April 18, 2001.

Hamlet is very unhappy. His first line in private tells us he wants to die, but he knows that according to his Christianity to kill himself is a sin. In 'to be etc" he applies his brain in an attempt at a detatched intellectual debate (he never once uses the first person pronoun) on the possibility of suicide. It makes sense. He believes he's alone. He's an intelligent man having a private think, but it's out loud and slower than natural thought for the benefit of the audience. The speech translates sort of roughly as:

To exist, or not to exist, that is the question I am considering. Whether it is more noble-minded to stick it out here in life and put up with all the crap life wants to throw at us, or to stand up to the crap and end it by killing ourselves. To die, to sleep: no more than that; and by saying sleep I mean ending all the heartache and the physical abuses that we're stuck in life with because we are human flesh. Death is a perfect end to be earnestly wished for. To die, to sleep. To sleep, yeah, but maybe to dream as well. That's the obstacle to suicide. Because the scary dreams that we may have in that sleep of death when we have cast off this turmoil of earthly mortal life (and/or cast off the bodily flesh that encases the soul) must make us stop and think. That's the thought that makes us put up with the adversity of life so long. For who would put up with [all this bad stuff of life] when he could lay himself to rest just with a dagger? Who would carry all life's burdens, except that fear of the unknown something that might come after death stops him doing what he wants; and you can't come back once you've crossed the boundary. Sheer bloody funk makes us put up with the evils of life that we know, than jump at those that might come after death which we know nothing about. So our awareness and knowledge, and our sense of morality, makes us cowards; and not only that, but also, our initial enthusiasm in great plans and enterprises turns pale and weak, and the plans aren't followed through and acted on because of the fear (because they might be dangerous and lead to death - in H's case this could be killing Claudius and/or killing himself).

SINCEREST ABJECT apologies to WS for that.

-- catherine england (, October 05, 2001.

Hello, I would like to have the whole speech of To be or not to be from Hamlet. Can anyone send it to me? Thanks a lot.

-- Al Calzada (, August 29, 2002.

The "to be or not to be" speech is, very simply, an outloud debate between two of Hamlet's deepest fears: living in a world that is so cruel, and the afterlife. Hamlet is considering suicide as a release from the evils of the world, yet he knows not of what would become of him after death. It is not a Christian fear of Hell that causes this debate, as nowhere in the solioquy does it say "oh, woe to the unfortunate law of God that hinder my own decisions." He is simply afraid of what COULD be after life. One big fear is that death is like a sleep, and that this sleep would construct an eternal nightmare: "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." He ponders why anyone would endure this horrible life while "he himself might his own quietus make with a bare bodkin" (bodkin is a middle english term for a knife or dagger). Hamlet is extremely intelligent, which is why he is so confused and which is why it takes him so long to make the decision to live...and eventually kill Claudius. The interpretation your professor takes is (in my modest opinion, mind you) wrong. Then again, I'm only 18.

-- Justin DeWees (, September 09, 2002.

jeez, you guys have really mucked this up. i have read comments that take a few lines of hamlet's speech out of context for an interpretation of life vs. death. other comments ridicule this approach and look at the speech in its entirety. while widening the scope of the context nets more insight, why stop there? - you must look at the speech in the context of the situation and the whole play....i believe many were asking "why does he say it?"...this is the most responsible approach. in short, hamlet KNOWS he has an audience listening behind the drape. the speech is directed at the eavesdroppers - it is fake, phony (what Hamlet hates most about Polonius)...Hamlet is plotting and playing politics. he is trying to throw them off his trail...he is feigning madness to avoid detection of his main objective - to have the truth be told and avoid killing Claudius if possible. doesn't that make it all so much more interesting!?

-- ds rutherford (, October 13, 2002.

Interesting, yes. Backed by the text? Afraid not.

-- catherine england (, October 13, 2002.

well, i'd have to agree with you

if you were right- here it is, though i cut and pasted a lot from several other sites of literary criticism (see, i'm not the only one who realizes that Hamlet knows he is being "played" and decides to act mad to downplay the threat he is to the king-do some searching for yourself and you'll see with writing and criticism much better than mine)...The King, Polonius and Ophelia are involved in a plot to investigate the source of his madness (3.1.34-37). The King and Polonius are spying on Hamlet behind the arras, and have arranged for Ophelia to appear, so as to determine whether she is the cause of his delirium. His speech begins immediately after the onlookers disappear. How appropriate that Hamlet reflects on suicide under the gaze of men to whom he is supposed to appear mad. Hamlet’s uncle has also arranged for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him, as Hamlet is aware (2.2.288-9). Sooo, Hamlet is smart enough to figure out R and G are spying on him, but not the king and Polonius through Ophelia? hmm...Hamlet has shown throughout the play his ability to detect spying. Hamlet even tells us that he will be donning the mask of insanity and melancholy for others throughout the play (1.5.170-2). The Prince of Denmark has made a similar speech on ‘man’ in which he reflects on man’s reduction to dust and the futility of human action (2.2.312-317). At that point, the character’s R and G were present and are also spying on Hamlet to understand his "madness". Also, by acting mad, Hamlet downplays the threat he represents and is able to put his traitorous friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death in his place, thereby able to continue seeking that his uncle’s guilt be proclaimed (4.7.43-47). He is also able to excuse his own responsibility for avenging his father’s death by stepping into the role of a madman. I'm sure to find more if needed. I just find it troubling that readers know not to take Polonius at face value, but are eager to take Hamlet's every word at face value, not thinking that Hamlet has learned to "act for the king" to cover his ass.

-- ds rutherford (, October 13, 2002.

Oh dear, literary critics again. You or they are not proving it from this scene of III.i, only assuming it because of how Hamlet acts in other scenes. See now, here's the thing. Seems to me that if WS means that Hamlet is aware someone is spying on him or trying to play him, WS shows us without any doubt, as he does with R and G in II.ii. In III.i I think WS show us Hamlet working it out around 'Where's your father?' and not before. And as I've said before, that's how the whole conversation with Ophelia makes sense. So he doesn't work it out immediately this time: he's human, he can stuff up like all of us ... ah, the genius of Shakespeare ...

-- catherine england (, October 14, 2002.

Life and death seems the most obvious interpretation of the speech, however, having just studied the play at university, it has been brought to light that the speech has numerous meanings. I believe that Hamlet is contemplating suicide. At this point in the play it is important to remember the emotional turmoil Hamlet is under. Another interpretation, is the general "question theme" which runs throughout the entire play. Of is, or isn't? To do, or not? Do I, don't I? There are loads of other meanings which I can't even remember right now, but that's what makes it so brilliant...And whoever said it didn't make sense, try looking at it from one of these MANY meanings. It makes sense in so many different ways!

-- Lynne Cowie (, November 07, 2002.

I think Hamlet's speech concerns humanity as a whole: do we tolerate life and endure pain and suffering...or do we take our chances with death? The main is whether or not to live with despair or die with anticipation for what's to come.

-- anna s. (, March 01, 2003.

I think Catherine England may have pointed out this fact before, but the speech is totally detatched from the play. Ironic really, it being as famous as it is, but the play could lose the speech and not be affected in any way, I think. Firstly the speech is not "should I live or should I die", so to speak. It is not Hamlet contemplating suicide, although the matter of suicide is touched upon. It is not a personal speech. It is far more general than that. Throughout the speech, unlike Hamlet's other soliliques, he referrs to "us" and "we", and not "I", "me" etc. The true nature of the solilique has been mostly lost in modern theatre, and to most people. Think of the globe theatre that Shakespeare wrote his plays for. The huge thrust of the stage with the audience close up all around the sides of it. Very intimate! The solilique would have been the actor stepping out and talking WITH the audience. When Hamlet asks questions like "Am I a coward?", he really was out there demanding this of the audience, argueing with them, reasoning with them. No doubt they joined in and shouted back, to which Hamlet could have responded "who calls me villain?". Heh heh. It is all so much more fucking fantastic and wonderful and exciting to read when we consider these sorts of speeches in such a way. Go through Hamlet's soliliques and take into account the fact that he would have been standing there in the broad daylight, on that thrust stage of the globe theatre surrounded on all sides (except the back, of course) by the audience, but VERY close up, and he would have been talking TO them. WITH them. You may rediscover things, I am sure! So anyway, To Be Or Not To Be, is Hamlet almost stepping OUT OF THE ACTION half way through this great play and saying to the audience, "Is life really worth living?" He argues his case with them and makes his own discoveries and conclusions along the way. He would have been demanding of the audience, "Who would bare the whips and scorns of time?, etc" Great stuff and quite audacious of Shakespeare really.

-- Patrick Walker (, March 02, 2003.

The last HAMLET I went to was at a gazebo just back from a beach. That was so bloody intimate, when the wind blew Gertrude's skirt up we could all see her knickers. Anyway ... I agree with you Patrick: I also said somewhere that it's Hamlet engaging in a detached debate, rather than wallowing in personal trauma. But don't you think, especially in the light of his soliloquy in I.ii (in which he wishes that his flesh would dissolve into dew or that God had not outlawed self- slaughter) that the question of whether or not life is worth putting up with has been prompted in his mind, suggested to him, by his own personal circumstances, which are making his own life so hard to bear? In this sense, I feel sure he's considering the possibility of suicide on a personal level.

-- catherine england (, March 02, 2003.

Hmm. Well, I just read my post and it was very badly written. Very disjointed. I wrote it in a flurry of inspiration and didn't check it. Hmm. No I think that he questions within this debate whether suicide is a viable option, but it is a general question more than anything. A question about us all. "Is life worth living?". But it seems to me that this is almost like the play stopping half way through the run and the actor stepping out and discussing this ultimate question with the audience. Heh heh. It's great. That's what I think about it anyway. It shouldn't be taken as a lonely, melancholy prince silently brooding on suicide.

-- Patrick Walker (, March 03, 2003.

That's all right, most of mine are written like that. No matter. It's thoughts that count?

So you're saying that you think the speech has no place at all in the context of plot or narrative? That there is no reason for the character of Hamlet to think or say these things, even though the rest of the play shows us several? That there is only a poetic and/or philosophical whim of the writer intruding on what is an otherwise strongly unified and intensely self-referential drama? When I said I thought the play would stand perfectly well without the speech, so could conceivably lose it, I meant that the speech doesn't indispensably add to plot, narrative or character, not that it has no meaning within these things.

-- catherine england (, March 03, 2003.

No, no, no. Absolutely not. Don't get me wrong. I am not saying for a minute that it has no place within the plot. It does. But it is detatched from the play in the sense that is unconnected at either end from the action. It is the ultimate question that almost hovers over the whole play like a dark black wing. But Hamlet doesn't sit and brood alone on suicide. He comes out and discusses this "question" with the audience. I just cannot get this wonderful, inspiring image out of my head of Richard Burbage at the Globe Theatre standing there on that thrust, with the sun shining down, the street noise outside, but the audience right close up all around maybe in hush silence, maybe responding to him, as Burbage/Hamlet asks of them: "who (here) would bare the whips and scorns of time?...The opressors wrong?...etc"

So, anyway, in a sense it is Hamlet stepping out of the action to discuss this question with the audience, before he continues on his way. Wonderful stuff.

-- Patrick Walker (, March 03, 2003.

Yes, it's one of the things that make any soliloquy so compelling, and also lines said 'aside'. The audience is privileged to be a party to thoughts and feelings no other character is at the time. And especially in the comedies, one frequently gets the sense that the character is actually conversing with the audience. For example, the presence of the audience seems one reason for the delightful self- conciousness in Biron's speech at the beginning of IV.iii of LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST (which also even has an instruction to someone to 'hang' him), or in Benedick's stream of argument and questions at the end of II.iii of MUCH ADO. It's a great form of irony, almost an awareness on the part of the characters that their private lives are being put on public display and that they have to help this process along and make the details clearer. One of the things I loved and found so alarming in Oliver Parker's OTHELLO film was the way Parker had Branagh speaking Iago's soliloquies straight at the camera, hence, the audience. The effect sort of stuck me in my chair.

I don't know, though, that soliloquies could have been spoken too extrovertedly conversationally in WS's day: if the audience could participate in them, then there would be nothing to stop an audience from contributing back, telling characters what's going on that they don't know, at any point in the play. Hamlet could be forwarned of the poisoned sword and wine, Caesar of the conspiracy against him, etc., by concerned shouts fom the groundlings. Or was there a theatre etiquette which said only soliloquies were fair game for some limited audience participation?

-- catherine england (, March 03, 2003.

I happen to agree with Catherine on the fact that Hamlet is not discussing the question of life and death with the audience. I think this is his personel dilema at this point in the play. He mentions suicide numerous times through out the play. On one hand, he wants to end his life and all these problems, however he is afraid of what's to come afterwards. Therefore, he is saying this speech on a personal level,to himself. I dont think its a discussion with the audience.

-- Kristina (, March 08, 2003.

Hamlet's solilique is NOT a personal dilemma of suicide. This is utter fact. The nature of the solilique was often one of talking to the audience. As I have said, he is talking about "We" and "Us". Not "I" and "Me". This is a general question: "Is life worth living?". Take Leontes' speech in A Winters Tale. He comes out of the fourth wall and says: "And many a man there is, even at this present/Now while I speak this, holds his wife by th' arm/That little thinks she has been sluic'd in's absence..." It was just the nature of Shakespeare's theatre. I am not saying he was talking "with" the audience, holding a discussion exactly. But when Hamlet says for example "What is a man if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed" he was, I think, asking the surrounding spectators at the Globe. Not speaking loudly to himself. We should stop thinking of Hamlet as literature and instead as a fucking great play written for Shakespeare's theatre.

-- Patrick Walker (, March 08, 2003.

I think that in act 3, scene 1 Hamlet is debating with himself whether it is better to live or to die. He begins his soliloquy with the words “to be, or not to be, that is the question:” and goes on to contemplate the pros and cons of being or not being.

Hamlet says that life is full of suffering, hardship and misfortune, and it involves a constant struggle to defeat evil and overcome obstacles. He says that life makes it necessary to endure the sin, oppression, abuse, contempt, rejection, and unrequited love of one's fellow men. Hamlet speaks of: “the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” and decides that, in general, life holds for the liver hard work, misery and trouble.

After concluding this, Hamlet goes on to question why anyone would bear the hardships of life when they could sleep (die) and have peace, saying: “who would bear the whips and scorns of time... when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?” It seems to Hamlet that it is better to end the heartache, and trouble of human existence, than to struggle through the difficulty of “being.”

Although Hamlet is sure that death would be easier that life, he is unsure of what (if anything) would follow earthly existence. He is afraid that he might “dream” or experience some sort of afterlife such as heaven or hell from which “no traveler returns.” Hamlet is so afraid of what lies beyond his earthly life that he decides that he would rather bear with his present hardships that face new ones that are unknown to him. He says: “the dread of something after death... makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.”

-- Erin James (, March 26, 2003.

I would like to comment on the soliloquy form the perspective or the persona of Horatio as a letter written to Hmlet out of his concern on hearing the solilouy. Please pardon me for getting astray from the subject

"May the heavens and its inmates bless and prophesize a dear friend and more of a master to me, Hamlet, that has been overruled by certainly the worst evils of mankind. I pray to the Lord to bring down his worries to me and keep the good and the most innocent mind of my master as it is. Good Lord, I will try to my best possible level to console Hamlet but ultimately he is in your refuge. Please let my prayers bring worth." · Horatio’s letter to Hamlet "Dear Hamlet, Hope this finds you in the best of your health. You might take this letter as one of the many casual letters addressed to you by me but it is my earnest request to you to regard this little piece of paper today with the best possible solemnity. Hamlet, do not regard this as my sycophancy but I believe that you are one and the only one person that I really care for today after my dear parents left me alone to survive. You have been my sole support right from when we toddled together until today, not letting any of the harms of the universe touch me before you. So, under the name of the Almighty, it becomes my most obvious duty to try my best to repay all that I am obligated to you, and I will never fail any circumstance that helps me to help you the same way as you have been on my side at any times of difficulty. I believe that is what true friends stand for. Therefore I ask pardon of you for the coming part of my letter because I will be addressing you as a friend and not any other rank. I saw you yesterday in the evening at the terrace when I had just returned form the forest and was feeding my horses. I thought you needed some company and so I set forth to your side. But the health of yours that I witnessed at that time has struck an arrow of concern deep into my heart. Remember one thing, my dear friend, keep steady in times of difficulty and all will be right. This extreme melancholy will bring nothing else but undesired circumstances. Please keep control over your actions and your thoughts, because they are your only weapons in your fight during the bitter phases of life. “Suicide”, the word itself brings down the honor of your family and yourself. Keep in mind the personality of your father, the Great King Hamlet, who never sought cowardice throughout his whole life. Keep in mind your glorious heritage that which might be stained by the black dot of any unacceptable actions by your side. Regard this phase of your life as a great battle that you are supposed to win to keep up the honor of your father, the man that has raised you to such a good position in life. It would be the most dishonorable thing on your part to seek refuge in these petty and gutless thoughts of suicide. “TO BE OR NOT TO BE” is not the question. The only fact is that you are here today for a purpose and that purpose is well known to you, thanks to the haunting spirit of your father. Yes, it is the most fair on your side when you believe that the nightmares after death are never going to let your soul rest in peace. I will be very glad to remind you of your father’s condition just now. His spirit today haunts the palace gates today just because of the reason that he died an untimely death and was unable to repay his sins. Remember though, that the cause of his death was unknown to him and still he is in the worst condition a soul could be. Just try to visualize what might become of you, if you try to escape your responsibilities, which at this moment is to avenge your father’s death. Please let firmness and balance rule your mind and nothing else, because at this point of time, they will solely help you in rediscovering yourself and boost your confidence. You will never recognize your potential if you take this retiring path purchased by cowardice and thus will never be able to achieve the purpose that you are here for. Let not your self-conscience make a coward of you as you were saying yesterday. This is utterly irresponsible action on your part. Your father had great expectations for you. Please do not lower yourself in his eyes by accepting defeat. The task that he has chosen you for is to be performed only by you and by no one else. You are the only person left that he can trust upon after the foul act of the queen. Again I seek pardon for speaking this nonsense about your mother but friend, it is becoming hard for me to keep quiet. Let infidelity not capture your father for the third time after being betrayed by your cousin and your mother. Keep in mind that blood relations have turned against him and hence decide what to do next being his son. You represent a warrior class and talking all this nonsense does not fit your disposition. You have already hurt your father’s feelings by all that you recited yesterday. But now take my words with the best possible seriousness and for your own good, “PLEASE GET RESILIENCE TO LEAD YOU ASTRAY FROM THIS UGLY THOUGHTS THAT HAVE IN SOME WAY OCCUPIED YOUR OTHERWISE STABLE MIND”. I pray with all my heart to the Almighty to give you the fair knowledge and take on this humble piece of advice form me, being your minor, as one given out of the greatest concern for you. Your true to life friend, Horatio"

-- Mrunal Patel (, November 03, 2003.

I think the infamous soliloquy by Hamlet has numerous meanings. Throughout the play we learn of Hamlet's intelligence and how he is capable of handling different situations. I believe that Hamlet is making a decision about whether he should take revenge on his fathers death. 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's thinking about whether he should sit back and let things happen, or whether he should face his problems and end them.

-- n_g (, November 26, 2003.

Just saying, in classroom discussion, my class discovered three possible meanings for "To be or not to be". One is to live or not to live, one is to give in and just be purely into appearances like everyone else, and one is to stand up and do something or sit back.

-- Hoonose Me (, March 22, 2004.

When bringing in the metaphors used in the rest of the play, one must note that the metaphor used relaying life to acting should be on thought. To be or not to be. To act or not to act. To pretend to be something he is or not. Hamlet, after the turmoil’s of his life had began, has been acting because with this universe surrounding him, cannot be himself. Likewise, he simply asks should he be something he is not in the real world or the real person he is in the shadow, imaginative world. How shall he keep his sanity if his choices are to forever act or to be killed for being who he really is? Should he rebel?

-- Rob G (, December 06, 2004.

So many people continue to rewrite this line, 'To be, or not to be?' Why? Why can't it be sufficient as it is? The verb 'to be' is the verb 'to be', not 'to be this, that or something else', or 'to do something'. To be is used as I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, you all are, they are. No one rewrites the line, 'I think, therefore I am'. It isn't 'I think, therefore I am clever', or 'I am a mastermind', or 'I am going to write a book'. It's just 'I am'. Hamlet's question, opening this speech, is simply whether or not to be.

-- catherine england (catherine.england@arts.usyd,, December 06, 2004.

I disagree. Firstly the major question in Hamlet's most famous speech cannot be suicide. If it were it would be dramatically irrelevant. Hamlet is no longer sunk in the depths of melancholy as he was in his first soliloquy. He has been roused to action and has just discovered how to test the ghost's word. When we last saw him, 5 minutes before, he was anticipating that nights performance, and in a few minutes we shall see him eagerly instructing the players and excitedly telling Horatio of his plan. To have him enter at this point debating whether or not to kill himself would indeed be totally inconsistent with the character and with the movement of the plot. It would be ridiculous.

In answer to the people here who will say that this "contradiction" was Shakespeare's point, I can point to an even more compelling argument: the imagery of the soliloquy. The metaphors all suggest that Hamlet's choice is between suffering the ill's of this world and taking resolute action against them, NOT between enduring evil and evading it.

"To take arms against a sea of troubles" cannot logically be translated as "To kill myself and thus escape from troubles". "To take arms against" troubles suggests the aggressive activity of battle; "by opposing end them" suggests that the troubles can in fact be destroyed. Similarly "enterprises of great pitch and moment" suggests world undertakings of great significance, momentous public actions of profound imapct. It cannot, by the very meaning of the words, refer to a private action of retreat.

Another objection to the "suicide theory" is the very form of the question that Hamlet puts to himself. He states his dilemma as "To be or not to be", not as "To live or not to live". The issue, as he sees it, is not between mere temporal existence and non-existence, but between "being" and "non-being". In other words, he is struggling with a metaphysical issue, not the narrow question of whether he should kill himself, but the wider philosophical question of man's "essence".

Hamlet is facing a moral question that is generally thought irrelevant to the play: whether or not he should effect private revenge. To lesser playwrights the ethical issue had been obvious. Revenge was immoral and therefore revengers openly chose to defy morality. Shakespeare has created in Hamlet a man who asks not "shall I or shall I not do an evil act" but "Is this act truly evil?".

"To be, or not to be: that is the question"

"To be" what? To be a man, in the full metaphysical sense of "being" as it was understood by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. "Being" is what a thing is, its "essence". A thing is or it is not. Hamlet defines this "being" and "non-being", and thus the choice facing him:

"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?"

Is it truly nobler, he asks, to endure evil passively, as all of the voices of the Church and State and society have insisted, or does the true nobility of that which is man demand that he actively fight and conquer the evils that beset him? Can it really be "virtue" to sit back and leave it to Heaven? On one level this is a debate on the morality of private revenge, but on another this is the metaphysical dilemma of the Renaissance. In what does man find his "being"?

To the medieval theology man had to being in and of himself. Man "is" only because he is created by God in His own image. His proper function according to his own nature, was obedience to divine law. But in the 14th and 15th Centuries new voices were raised, notably those of the Florentine humanists. Can man fulfill his given nature, can he attain true nobility, solely by withdrawal and contemplation?


-- Patrick Walker (, December 09, 2004.

Hamlet challenges the moral view of the medieval mind in his two great soliloquy's of moral choice: To be, or not to be" and "How all occasions do inform against me". On the one hand the voice of conscience tells him that it is nobler to endure than to act; on the other hand the voice of instinct raises an unsettling question made more explicit in the second of these two soliloquys:

"What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? A Beast, no more. Sure, he that made us with such large discourse, Looking before and after, gave us not That capability and godlike-reason To fust in us unused."

Hamlet is trapped between two worlds: The moral code from which he cannot escape is basically medieval. But his instincts are with the Renaissance. Shocked from his acceptance of the commandments of the Church and State, he is forced to reconsider: Can God have created man a thinking creature and yet have ordered him not to use the very faculty that raises him above the beasts? What is it "to be"?

In striking out at Claudius it is highly probable that Hamlet himself would be killled. For a moment he is forced to rest aside moral considerations. If he should die? Unlike Macbeth, Hamlet cannot "jump the life to come". Should he decide to act Hamlet knows he will dare damnation. On the other hand, if he decides to do nothing would he not live a coward in his own esteem? Reflecting that it is only the fear of Hell which prevents man from either destroying evil by direct action (or escaping from it by suicide) he arrives at his decision:

"Thus conscience does make cowards of us all...etc ...With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action".

The resolution of the soliloquy on the word "action", his rejection of the coward conscience, and his actions following the play scene all indicate that Hamlet has now decided to act.

Hamlet must ask this question at some point during the play. He must make his moral choice. After the Play Scene events will move to quickly and be too excited for Hamlet to pause for objective deliberation on an ethical issue. The ideal moment is now. Hamlet knows that he will shortly have to answer. Until now he has not had to face the unavoidable moral question: If the Ghost's word is proved true, as he expects, what should he do? He must decide now: "if Claudius is proved guilty, should I kill him?" Claudius' aside confessing his guilt directly before this soliloquy makes it almost certain that this is the question that Shakespeare is posing. The confession is a devise that warns the audience that Hamlet will not be debating the killing of an innocent man. Claudius has not been acting like a conventional villain and the audience must not be misled. Any DOUBT of Claudius' guilt would divert us from the real issue with which Hamlet is about to struggle: if Claudius is proved guilty (as we now know he is) should Hamlet kill him?

-- Patrick Walker (, December 09, 2004.

I'm rather interested in your ideas of 'medieval' and 'renaissance'.

Apart from that, well, I've said what I think it's all about way up above.

But I must add now that I don't at all think debating the question of 'being' is at all inconsistent with either him or the plot. He has not yet been able to act, he is still not at all certain about the ghost (as indeed the end of II.ii also showed), and the unpleasantness of the reason for his needing to act, his disappointment with his mother and old schoolfriends, his loss of Ophelia, have not gone away. It is entirely within his character and the plot that at this point of hiatus, even as he waits for the chance to act this night, he should debate the notion of whether a man should 'be'. It is indeed a theme he continues in a different way in his anger just a bit later in this scene, with Ophelia - man is a gross, evil, sinful beast of a being, susceptible to the charms of women - 'What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?' - ‘For virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it.’ - perhaps the world would be much better off if a man such as I were not being in it.

-- catherine england (, December 10, 2004.

Sorry, I didn't post it above. It was in:

the meaning of act 3 scene 1 from to be or not to be ....of action (karimakaro, 2002 -02-05)

-- catherine england (, December 10, 2004.

Well as I said, personally I feel that debating the option of suicide would be irrelevant, as I said. It doesn't carry the plot forward, or expand other ideas and philosophy consistent in the play. If the question is suicide the arguement Hamlet puts forward is very black and white, simple and hardly worth the effort it takes to speak it. I have spent years reading, searching, trying to find out what was Shakespeare's overall design in Hamlet and I had always thought when it came to this soliloquy - "So what? Big deal. That's hardly insightful or philosophical..." It was always my least favourite speech... But I now believe that here we have Hamlet questioning the far wider, profound and STILL relevant to this day question of the nature of man. The great question of the Renaissance, for Hamlet is the new man of the Renaissance. His speech "What a piece of work is man" is not simply an expression of existential despair but the whole ideal of Renaissance thought. He continues this argument begun in "To Be..." into more blatant, direct terms in "How all occasions...", and along the way he will continue searching.

What is it "To be"?

-- Patrick Walker (, December 10, 2004.

No, well of course it isn't SIMPLY about suicide. And of course yes, it is PART of his considerations and questionings regarding the nature of man. But suicide is, at this point, a part of this considering and questioning.

-- catherine england (, December 10, 2004.

I don't think Hamlet is talking about killing himself, I think your professor is right. If you look at this scene with the rest of the play, it doesn't make any sense why he would kill himself. He spends the play in contempation about if his uncle did kill his father or not, and if so should he take revenge. It makes no sense for him to consider killing himself, because it doesn't tie in with the message of the rest of the play, I hope this helps some.

-- Eric Staunton (, December 12, 2004.

I cant belive you sad people just sit there and basicaly have an argument about a play. yea i do it for English i didnt read it out of choice and i realy wish i didnt have to read it because its crap i just cant belive youre having arguments about a play when there are so many different discusting circumstances that are worth discusing like crack head pedos if you want to discus something disucs how this f***ing world can be made better

-- Grace Knight (, January 23, 2005.

I feel sorry for you.

Getting to know great works of art like Hamlet and the works of Shakespeare has made my life infinitely more richer than discussing and placing my greatest values in such mundane, aesthetic nonsense as you're suggesting.

-- Patrick Von Doomsday (, January 23, 2005.

I'll have exam about this "to be or not to be", can someone help me about this. For my understanding, it absoutely not suicide, and I thing that was "should or not not kill, should action or inaction, reality or dream. In addition, I think that he was more concerned about the after-effect, after he kill his enemy. THerefore, I believe that has to do with double consciousness. Moreover,

-- gigi (, January 24, 2005.

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