What is the meaning of "To be or not to be"?  

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When Hamlet asks this question, he is essentially asking whether it is better to be alive (to be) or to be dead (not to be). He wonders if it is better to put up with all one's bad luck or to fight one's misfortunes by ending one's own life early. He compares dying to sleeping, as though dying were only a kind of rest that allows a person to forget about all the heartaches and bad surprises that we experience during sour lives. However, when he compares one's potential afterlife to dreams--dreams that might be very good or very bad--Hamlet says that is what stops us from taking advantage of the opportunity to begin this rest (by taking our own lives in suicide). Who knows what one's "dreams" will be like? We can never know for sure, and so we hang on to our lives for fear of what may await us after death.

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These words begin Hamlet's soliloquy in act III, scene I. In this soliloquy, Hamlet is wrestling with some existential questions. As in several other of his soliloquies, Hamlet is considering suicide. With the words "to be or not to be," he is asking whether it is better to live or not to live. Hamlet wonders if death is like going to sleep. If so, then death is not so bad—except that in sleep we dream. Hamlet worries that in death he might have dreams that are worse than in life. The problem, Hamlet reasons, is that death may be an escape from the problems we face in life, but it is an "undiscovered country," and we do not know if it is better than life. In the end, Hamlet reasons, people go on living, despite all the evils and pain that they live with, because death, though inevitable, remains a mystery.

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