What is the "To be or not to be" speech in Hamlet considered important?

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belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"To be or not to be" is the most famous of all Shakespearean quotations, coming as a reflection on mortality and the meaning of life. Hamlet, in considering his own struggles and whether there is any larger purpose, speaks both to his own discontent and to that of the audience, who in watching share his feelings. His musings have become a standard in self-reflection, and are the basis for many philosophical debates.

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 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.
(Shakespeare, Hamlet, eNotes eText)

Analysis of this single soliloquy can -- and have -- covered entire volumes of criticism. The simplest interpretation, and the one that connects with most people, is of the ultimate purpose behind the life of an individual. Is there any meaning to life when all lives end in death? What of death itself: is there anything after life, or does the human mind -- the personality, electrical signals, soul -- simply vanish into nothingness? What reason is there to strive if life ends with a death that entirely destroys everything unique about an individual? But if there is some sort of afterlife, what might it be? It could -- and likely is -- so immense and mysterious that the human mind cannot encompass it. If that is the case, then the question again follows: what reason is there to strive in the minor world of the living if the dreams (afterlife) that follow are so incredibly complex and unknowable?

Because of the way that this single passage echoed with audiences and thinkers, these questions and classic quotations have become synonymous with Shakespearean themes.