Why does Hamlet say the To Be or Not To Be?

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It doesn4t make any sense for Hamlet to say the TO BE OR NOT TO BE speech. I just don4t get it. When I performed as Ophelia in the school play we changed the script so that Ophers read it form Ham4s diary. That makes a lot more sense! Can someone help me out?

-- Larissa (tvmaniac31@hotmail.com), December 03, 1999

Answers

Well, to my mind, 2B/NOT2B was a pause in the "lunacy" for the audience. It allows us to see that this "manic" behavior is coming from the deepest of personal conflicts. The "it could all just stop now" knowledge. It also sheds some insight into Hamlet's inability to act on the Ghost's instructions. If you believe that you could be damned in the afterlife for your actions in this life, and your only two choices are suicide or murder, which do you choose? After all, his dad was killed before he obtained the proper church rituals of forgiveness and purification (a "purging of his soul" as it were) and he is in purgatory. Poor Hamlet is screwed either way and he knows it.

-- mikken (mikken@neo.rr.com), December 05, 1999.

Well, first of all I don't understand why Ophelia's reading the speech from Hamlet's diary makes a lot more sense. Anyhow it is still his words, his idea and perspective. Why did u decide it will make a lot more sense like that?

-- Anat (dayag@hotmail.com), January 31, 2000.

Look at his speach like this: things really aren't going his way, he ask himself "To be or not to be" or as i like to put it, to live or not to live. Hamlet's discussing with himself (come on, you know you do it yourself) about possible suicide. And he almost goes through with it except "But God has fixed his canon on self sacrifice" if god had left out that part about suicide a one way ticket to hell. it's a little late but that's as good of an explination that i can come up with Sin. Marc L

-- Marc Lowe (marc_lowe@dell.com), August 25, 2000.

Critics believe these words refer to life on theis earth. In order to be a human being, he must suffer, as suffering indulges you with knowledge. "to be or not to be" is part of a mutilated thought: " before I make any plan of action ( to kill my uncle) I have to decide whether afer this life I will be or not to be..." (he is concerned with the after life) It's like questioning oneself: "shall live or not", shall I commit suicide and face all the consecuences of the act in the after life ( dreams) or shall I live and suffers the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune?

-- alejandra (alexa@vocampo.com.ar), September 12, 2000.

Alejandra's response definitely hints at a Nietzschean background? Clearly, the "will-to-be" as she calls it reads a bit into it. I must agree with my previous compatriots and say that Hamlet is considering suicide. Remember that this is happening 275 years before Nietzsche proposed his theory of will-to-power. Hamlet is grappling with the damnation he would incurr by committing suicide. Hamlet was written, after all, at a time when God's wrath was actually still feared.

-- Kevin Butler (zippyfrog@yahoo.com), November 24, 2000.


um guys, the to be or not to be, for whether it is nobler in the mind to bears the ..... slings, arrows, blah blah It means Should i stay content, should i accept what has happened for what has happened and not do anything, to just be. Should i just suffer the slings and arrows and just live on, or should i NOT be, and kill this son of a bitch

-- aaron j reeves (animal87@hotmail.com), February 12, 2001.

this was period that he shoued the reader that he was thinking of killing him self again. to be or not to be = to live or not to live. he was going over his reasons to live . he thinks about his unfinised business with the exposing of claudius and decides to live.

-- dave (dhilly13@aol.com), April 09, 2001.

There is little doubt that Hamlet is contemplating suicide by the question "To be or not to be...." A simple reading of his other thoughts point in the direction of suicide as well. Without listing them all, a good one is his reference to a bodkin - a sharp pointed thing not unlike an ice pick. I don't think he was suggesting it should be used to make holes in leather; its actual use. He is asking the age old human questions that arises in times of great personal dilemma - "Who needs this crap?!" and "If I kill myself, is there more (and possibly worse) crap in the afterlife?!"

-- Steve (exog@mediaone.net), May 06, 2001.

The TO BE OR NOT TO BE speech is not a life vs. death contemplation, as in the physical sense. Hamlet has been shown very clearly his purpose in life, to avenge his father, and the 2B/not 2B speech is a questioning of this challenge. TO BE is the taking charge of his purpose in life and giving it his all. NOT TO BE is the way of a coward, and as the play continues we see clearly that Hamlet is in the TO BE category, the hero who fulfills his life purpose. Then he dies.

-- Natalie Weeks (gnatalie@netidea.com), June 13, 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 (catherineamer@hotmail.com), October 05, 2001.



So, he seems to be concluding that it is cowardice to stay alive, rather than cowardice to kill himself.

-- catherine england (catherineamer@hotmail.com), October 05, 2001.

I am a Science student majoring in Chemistry and Natural Science(s) and am also a musician. I believe that the majority of Shakespears' plays are really quite silly and over-dramatic. My family is from England and of the nobility, and believe me, they did not even talk and behave that way! Too much suicide is within the plays which does not line up to the popular ideas of that time era. "To be or not to be..." is Hamlet basically trying to decide what to do, as far as what he must do (told and commanded by the ghost).

-- Sir Henry IV (johnhenrywrightiv@hotmail.com), November 17, 2001.

Have you seen PHANTOM OF THE OPERA lately, or THE MATRIX, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, read THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, etc. Hullo, it's entertainment not a newspaper or documentary. On the other hand, have you looked into what the current teenage suicide rate is: it's frightening. Of course Shakespeare wrote heightened, telescoped, condensed drama, but he still is very much dealing with the perennial human condition and problem, "the dilemma of living" (Rafael Sabatini).

Hamlet certainly considers death and suicide ("self-slaughter") elsewhere: I.ii.129-132 and 182-183; I.iv.64-67; II.ii.215-217. The soliloquy is "To be, or not to be ...", not "to do, or not to do" or "To kill, or not to kill my uncle"; and he goes on to consider "To die - to sleep ..." and whether "he himself might his quietus make/ With a bare bodkin. He ain't talking about quitting Claudius, but about quitting himself, so "he himself" doesn't have to "grunt and sweat under a weary life".

In the Renaissance, average life expectancy was around 30. Thinking about death in many often horrible forms, and including suicide, was an integral element in the Renaissance episteme. Savonarola, preaching on death, encouraged people to visit cemeteries and ďto take a skull in oneís hand and contemplate it often.Ē Shakespeare, explicit as ever, has Hamlet actually do exactly this to come to an acceptance of the inevitability of the reality of mortality.

Mutability and death were therefore also huge in poetry and drama for centuries throughout the whole of Europe: even in the 19th century Keats is "half in love with easeful death". In addition, love was very frequently considered to necessarily involve suffering and death, rather than happy ever after endings. "Death" was even a term for "orgasm". I can't possibly give sufficient examples here, but flip through a Renaissance anthology one day. Sure, it's romantic, melodramatic, perhaps even "silly" on one level; but it's also moving, beautiful and thought provoking. Probably no, you can't really die of love or grief, but you can die of not caring to live because of them. And perhaps that not caring is the greatest sadness.

-- catherine england (catherineamer@hotmail.com), November 30, 2001.


Hamlet's "To be or not to be..." meditation considers which path to follow, action (being) or inaction (not being). I agree with those respondents who note that Hamlet has elsewhere considered suicide, and so in this tightly dramatic play, repetition would not seem to fit. Then again, as one reads down through all the afflictions a person experiences in life--fardels chief among them for its sound alone--it appears that the only way to escape them comletely is not being, i.e. repairing to the undiscovered country from whose bourn no travels returns. Yet, what then to make of the seemingly key lines, "Thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought," and "Thus, conscience does makes cowards of us all." Thought and conscience are the bourn Hamlet inhabits at this point in the play. He chafes at not being able to achieve his immediate goal of exposing Claudius's villainy to a public that still buys his monarchy and a wife who is caught between a husband and a son. Even sure proof of Claudius's guilt--Claudius overheard at prayer--is in his future. Seeing suicide in this speech is akin to seeing madness in the Prince, a simplification of a kaleiscopic character. And after having written these words, I am prepared to take "the proud [person's] contumely."

-- D. X. Nekrosius (donald.nekrosius@ignatius.org), December 14, 2001.

I notice that whoever takes this argument, that Hamlet is not considering suicide but only the 'question' of killing Claudius, never does so in the context of the whole speech, but only in connection with the first line. I do not see how you can reconcile this argument with the rest of the speech, especially (to pull out the nitty gritty and shamelessly render a la prose):

"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer ..., Or ... To die - to sleep, No more ...: [to die] is a consummation (ending) devoutly to be wish'd ... But that the dread of something after death ... puzzles the will (what we want and what we plan to do)".

I do not see how it can be argued that this refers to anything but suicide.

And certainly, as I have said before, it's "To be (exist), or not to be ...", not "To do or not to do ...", "To kill or not to kill my uncle ...", "To avenge or not to avenge ...".

If you want to say that he's talking about Claudius' death, well, we know from III.iii.73-96 that Hamlet doesn't give a toss what Claudius is going to after death so long as it's gonna be bad. And I think if Hamlet thought Claudius "wish'd" the "consummation" of death Hamlet would find some way to punish him without killing him.

That Hamlet probably goes on, from about line 75, to consider the business of killing Claudius AS WELL is what marks the depth, complexity and trademark progression of his thinking and language. To say that he is not thinking about taking one's own life is to simplify Hamlet's versatility (I do not say kaleidoscopic character because that seems to imply changeability without reason, which is not Hamlet's way).

You yourself, Donald, seem to be arguing against your own first sentence in your second sentence. Hamlet is indeed considering his own "escape" by "repairing to 'The undiscover'd country'", that is, "something after death".

-- catherine england (catherine_england@hotmail.com), December 15, 2001.



Here are a few thoughts, arguing that the whole 'To be or not ...' thing is really academic in Hamlet's mind. Plato was the favoured ancient philosopher of the Renaissance. Hamlet would most probably have read him. The following dialogue occurs in his THE SOPHIST (sections 245E - 246C):

STRANGER: ...Now we must turn our attention ... so that we can know from all sources that it is no easier to say what being is than what not being is. ...for there seems to be a sort of Battle of the Gods and the Giants going on among them because of their dispute about existence. THEAETETUS: How so? STRANGER: One side drags down everything from heaven and the unseen to earth, rudely grasping rocks and trees in their hands. For they get their grip on all such things and they maintain that that alone exists which can be handled and touched. They define body and existence as the same thing, and if anyone says that one of the other things which does not have body exists they completely despise him and are unwilling to listen to another word. THEAETETUS: Terrible men they are of whom you speak. ... STRANGER: For that reason those who battle against them defend themselves very carefully from somewhere above in the unseen, contending that true existence consists in certain incorporporeal Forms which are objects of the mind. ...

These incorporeal Forms which exist, or 'be', include the human soul.

To Plato, and to Hamlet, the human soul is 'a thing immortal', eternal; and it is the essence of the person for which the body is only the shell.

Therefore a person cannot cease to be. He can merely move beyond the materiality of the flesh. This is what Hamlet is describing in his soliloquy.

I do not think he is actually afraid of death itself, or even of the manner of it. He says, 'I do not set my life at a pin's fee,/ And for my soul, what can [the ghost] do to that (the soul),/ Being a thing immortal as itself?' (I.iv.65-67) And he shows no fear when the pirates attack his ship, being the first to board the pirate ship (IV.vi.15-18).

What he fears is dying damned, through sin, which he might do for murdering Claudius or himself. That is what would lead to bad dreams after death: Hell or Purgatory instead of Heaven.

It is an important distinction in a period of Christianity which was still very much concerned with sin, repentance, and the belief that life was a preparation and testing ground for the afterlife.

Which is not to say that he is not suicidally unhappy. We know from 'O that this too too sallied flesh would melt,/ Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,/ Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/ His canon 'gainst self-slaughter' that he is. It merely provides a cogent reason why he does not act on that unhappiness, and one of many cogent reasons why he takes about four months to kill Claudius.

-- catherine england (catherine_england@hotmail.com), January 05, 2002.


i've been performing Hamlet for over the 130 times all around the world ( www.menofortas.lt ) and i think this "to be or not to be" it's just like having a fever and speaking words, that comes through you....not out of you.. Hamlet is just like a little child.....who's philosophical speaches are mostly naive... he doesn't know what to do at all....and he's completely lost and not responsible for what he does..... blinded by the idea of revenge...which is based on love to his father and his lose. when he says "to be or not to be" he doesn't really hear his own words..... it's something that speaks through him....maybe the ghost of his father..... after he says "to be or not to be" he never remember that such words came out of his mouth....because what he does, is not depending on his own decisions.... sorry if my words doesn't make any sense too :)

-- andrius mamontovas (andrius.m@mail.lt), May 08, 2002.

But they do make sense. As in you've played Hamlet in HAMLET 130 times? Wow. I did Ophelia once: it gave me nightmares, and if Ophelia herself has any like mine were, no wonder she goes round the bend.

Anyway ... I think you're right that Hamlet is lost, floundering, not knowing what to do. I think this speech is just one of his attempts to sort it all at least in his head. And his is 'a unique difficulty isnít it?' - several in fact, all mixed up together, and not at all easy to sort.

I love Horatio: what a great guy, what a great friend, and 'e'en as just a man as e'er my conversation coped withal'. He's there, helping all he can no matter what, steadying where necessary; but he minds his own business to the extent that he doesn't advise except to try and protect, and doesn't judge. Here we go, sorry, but I'm gonna quote Plato again: '... the just man sets ... in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself ...' (Plato, THE REPUBLIC, Book IV chapters 443-444). I reckon that's pretty much what 'To thine own self be true ...' means too.

Hamlet does it differently: he analyses and evaluates everything, himself included, as part of his process of sorting and dealing with his existence. I think 'To be ...' is just one example of this. I like it 'cause it's a great speech - fab structure, fab ideas, fab to say, etc.. But it's not the (forgive me) be all and end all of HAMLET. In fact you could leave it out and neither plot, nor balance, nor Hamlet's development of thought and character would really miss it. (I thought about putting on the play and cutting the speech and having the audience walk out going, 'Hey, where was ... ?' - that'd be funny.) It's like an aria in an opera, a showpiece for writer and performer. But holy mother of cows, what a showpiece.

Yet it does go to H's state of mind in III.i. And it makes me wonder what on earth could have happened before he comes in - that is, what puts him into the frame of mind to think in this vein at this point time.

Well that was all a great big help wasn't it - not: now I'm back at our original question: why does H say it? Seeing as we can't have WS to dinner and ask him, I guess it's for individual actors/directors to decide.

-- catherine england (catherine_england@hotmail.com), May 09, 2002.


Perhaps he knows that Polonius and Claudius (and Ophelia) are there listening to him, and he wants them to think he's contimplating suicide?

-- Al (alllieee@hotmail.com), October 19, 2002.

I don't think he knows: WS is pretty explicit about such things, as in MUCH ADO. Hamlet finds out Ophelia is there at 'Soft you now,' which is why he breaks off. He works out Polonius is listening at 'Where's your father?' and Ophelia's 'At home,' which is why he then gets angry. Maybe he never realizes Claudius is there, although he'd know Polonius would report everything to the King anyway, so that it makes no difference.

In any case, it's not even sure that they all hear 'To be ...'. A soliloquy is really thinking, spoken out loud for the benefit of the audience.

-- catherine england (catherine_england@hotmail.com), October 19, 2002.


to live or to die- that is the greatest decision in our power to make. Whether it would be more noble, when i am judged, to suffer the outrageous hand that fortune has dealt me, or to fight against fortune, and end my life of trouble with my own hand. To die is just to sleep, and by sleeping i mean ending the physical and mental paiin of this life, - that ending sounds desirable to me. to die, to sleep, to sleep, and maybe to dream. but, in those dreams of death must be greatly considered-that is the reason we put up with a long life of pain. why else would we bear "the whips and scorns of time, etc. when he could just end it all with a daggar?" why would we bear all these aweful things, and grunt and sweat under the burden of our weary life, except that those dreams of death frighten us. We dread the afterlife, because we know that death is the point of no return. This fear freezes our hand from suicide, and makes us bear the pain of this life rather than risk greater ills on the other side. The awareness of a possible afterlife, then, makes us shrink from taking action and so we are cowards because we bear life and are afraid to do anything about it. - or also-

-- maxine riley (savoirfaire22@aol.com), November 17, 2002.

continued: or also meaning: then this thought of a God in the afterlife- this sense of morality, makes me afraid to commit murder for fear of purgatory or worse, hell. and so my resolution for revenge is weakened- and my great enterprise, with these thoughts in mind, is turned around and i cannot take action.

i beleive hamlet is struggling with BOTH a contemplation of suicide and of murdering claudius. i think he sees only two ways to avenge his father: either to kill himself and perhaps expose clauduis, while hurting his mother and taking the place of his father in purgatory, or actually killing claudius, for which he would also suffer purgatory or hell. neither of these choices lead to a happy ending for hamlet, and he is realizing and lamenting his catch-22 situation. he is in deep anguish and also would rather just end his life to end his troubles. after all, he said earlier " o cursed spite, that ever i was born to set it right." (1,5,210-11)so he does not wish to deal with this sticky situation, and wishes he could end it all by suicide, yet, since he is God-fearing, he fears the consequences of that also.

-- maxine riley (savoirfaire22@aol.com), November 17, 2002.


I think too much emphasis is put on this speech and not enough on the actual fact that shakespeare had metal problems after his son Hamnet died. Anyone see the madness in all his characters? Think about it, he went around the bend and tried to make all his characters go round the bend too. When it all comes down to it, maybe this was shakespeares way of saying he wanted to end his own life.

-- Lydia Kensington (lydia_kensington@hotmail.com), December 04, 2002.

For Hamlet everything in the world has lost meaning since his father's death. He had nothing to live for untilhis father's revelation. Hamlet is now contemplating whether to be a murderer or not, whether he should stoop to Claudius' level and commit murder. In addition the world seems to be so full of trouble that he is contemplating suicide. This feeling is however kept in check by Hamlet's fear of "eternal damnation". Finally Hamlet is contemplating whether or not the ghost is a true one as according to him no one returns from the land of the dead.

-- Ryan Christopher Fernandes (ryan0789@emirates.net.ae), November 23, 2003.

Hello, you are all wrong. Hamlet is suffering from multiple personality disorder. He is wondering if he should kill his uncle which is also himself. His uncle is Hamlet's skitzophrinic friend as well as the ghost. Hamlet killed his father and married his mother. He created his uncle in his mind to create a false reality for himself. He could not bear the reality of his incestial relationship with his mother because it is moraly wrong. That is why he takes so long to kill his uncle and when he does kill him, he dies as well.

-- clayton (claytonallen@email.com), January 06, 2004.

Shakespeare's Hamlet has the famous soliloquy "To be of not to be" and its meaning is controversial. The soliloquy has to do with Hamlet's moral and ethical dilemma of revenge verses surrender; but, that cannot be true because the meaning of the soliloquy can only be found in the words and the moment in which the actor or actress says aloud the phrase "To be or not to be."

After consideration, I believe Hamlet was faced with the moral and ethical dilemma of revenging his father's death by killing Claudius verses abstaining from avenging (by ending his own life).

Hamlet's choice between two equally negative paths is facilitated after the sword match with Laertes. Hamlet finds his purpose in life and death. What do you want to be? I want to be someone. I want to do what is right. I want to be, rather than not to be.

The actions of Hamlet in avenging his fatherís death are justified:

1) The fatherís posthumous visit to warn Hamlet. 2) The mother drinks the poisoned wine. 3) Laertes confesses the plot to Hamlet. 4) "Hamlet kills Claudius with the poisoned weapon, finally avenging his father's death (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet".

-- Code (codemarvel@yahoo.com), May 25, 2004.


It pretty much just means that he is deciding if it is more noble to endure and suffer the pain and anguish of life or whether to end it all and go into a permanent sleep. But what troubles Hamlet, is that he does not know if all the pain would be there waiting for him in death. To be or not to be is the beginning of Hamlet's contemplations.--If you wish to know more or you have more questions e-mail me and I will TRY to reply. Your Welcome, Jake.

-- Jake (poindexter1011@earthlink.net), February 22, 2005.

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