I am having a hard time understanding Shakespeare's famous "To be or not to be" speech from Hamlet.    

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hamlet's third soliloquy in Act III, Scene 1 differs from his previous two as it is less emotional and more philosophical, born of the prince's lingering melancholy, wrought from his grief and anger at learning of his father's murder, as well as his repulsion for his mother's marriage to his uncle.

Certainly, it is an existential question that Hamlet poses at the beginning: "To be or not to be"--To live, or to die. Hamlet deliberates the pros and cons of existence in the world. As he deliberates, he considers whether a person should choose death and end all the worries of his life. For, the quandary is that no one knows what comes after death. Thus, Hamlet ponders,

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 (3.1.65-69)

Indeed, it is this fear of the unknown that prevents many from ending their lives. If one dies, is that all? Is the person going to exist in some peaceful manner, or suffer all the more? It is this not knowing what lies in the hereafter that prevents suicide. For, despite all the "outrageous fortune" and the "sea of troubles" that lie ahead in life, continuing to exist may yet be better than what happens after life is extinguished. Furthermore, as a Catholic, Hamlet also fears the punishment for the mortal sin of suicide--that "dread of something after death."
Considering all that he has brought to mind, Hamlet concludes, "Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all." That is, the fear of eternal punishment and the unknown prevents people from ending the sorrows of life.

In this soliloquy of Act III, Hamlet asks the question that is in the minds of all depressed people: Should one continue to live in misery or should one end one's misery despite not knowing what lies beyond life?



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