In "Hamlet", what ideas are suggested in Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" speech, and what gives it a universal quality?

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mrs-campbell eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his speech, Hamlet ponders whether life is worth living or not.  He wonders if it is worth it "to take arms against a sea of troubles" by fighting through each day of life, or "To die:  to sleep".  He thinks that to be released from life is "a consummation devoutly to be wished."  But since death is so greatly desired, what keeps us from death, he asks?  What makes us bear the awful trials?  He says it is "the dread of something after death...puzzles the will."  We bear life because we are afraid of the unknown that death represents.  That fear, that overthinking of what lies beyond, "does make cowards of us all" (III.i.59-83).

What makes this universally appealing is that we have all felt that life is hard at one point or another; we have all felt burdened and weighed down by the trials.  Also, death is a mystery to us; we don't know what comes next, and many of us fear it.  Those of us suffering greatly might wish for some sort of respite or peace.  But who knows what comes next?  Could it be worse than this?  The fact that we don't know what is next is more frightening to us than struggling through what we do know now.

frizzyperm | Student

This is probably the most studied text in the English language. What is its universal quality? Why do people find it so special?

It is because it gently and inclusively discusses topics that are extremely uncomfortable and taboo. People do not liking even thinking about these things, let alone talking about them.

Look at our society, it is FULL of cheesy people saying...

  • "hey life is totally awesome" (it is sometimes)
  • "Life is full of beautiful, happy people" (no, it's not),
  • "Get out there and shine like you mean it", etc etc.

But if you say, "sorry, sometimes I don't feel fine, sometimes I find life deeply confusing" then our 'caring, sharing' society generally replies, "la la la la, whatever, I'm going shopping."

Hamlet looks straight at life with no soft focus or false positive attitude and concludes, "It really stinks". He lists the things that make it stupid and painful. He asks himself, "Is life better than death?" He thinks about the unknown afterlife and says people only suffer life because they are afraid of death.

And remember that Hamlet 'lived' in 1600, when life was much much tougher than it is now (for Americans at least).

The 'to be or nor to be' speech looks at a topic we almost never talk about, and Shakespeare analyses it so beautifully and with such genuine human feeling that it speaks deeply to all of us.

frizzyperm | Student

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 heartache, 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 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,
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.

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