What is the significance of the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy?

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literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The soliloquy appears in Act III, scene i. It has historically been regarded as the most famous of all quotes in Shakespearean literature, perhaps in all literature.

That being said, much of the soliloquy represents paradox. Hamlet is questioning life and death, being and not being. For Hamlet, it seems that each exists upon its own premise and crosses over at the same time. When living, one is moving closer to death. It is only in death when one stops having to worry about living and death alike.

Hamlet goes on to think about sleeping, which is again compared to death. The question Hamlet seems to have is if sleep is like death, then dreams would be the ability to begin a new life. He seems to be thinking that if he can sleep, then he can dream (and create a life he desires). Curiously, even dreaming for Hamlet seems conflicting (a time when one should be able to not be conflicted--an idea seen in Macbeth when Macbeth declares that he cannot sleep after murdering Duncan). The conflict of dreaming is a theme which traverses many of Shakespeare's plays.

The significance of the soliloquy is that Hamlet proves to be a thinker, not just one who acts and reacts. Many times throughout the play, Hamlet considers his life, the conflicts in his life, revenge, and his actions. It is in this soliloquy that Hamlet is seen as a true philosopher. This allows readers to recognize that his actions are not simply reactions to what is going on around him. Instead, he deeply considers things.

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is perhaps the most famous soliloquy in Hamlet, and indeed in all of Shakespeare's plays. In it Hamlet weighs the relative benefits of life ("to be") and death ("not to be"). To live involves constant struggle against the travails that life throws at him ("the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune"), and he thinks momentarily that death, even through suicide, might bring a welcome sleep. 

But if death is truly like sleep, then it is possible that we might dream, which is, to Hamlet, "the rub." This is what keeps people from choosing suicide, for life is so unbearable that we would choose to end it if we weren't afraid of what came after. Most would rather continue to live, as bad as life may get, rather than risk the possibility that what comes after could be even worse, or more of the same. 

This soliloquy is significant because it demonstrates that Hamlet's increasing melancholy is not entirely a fabrication. He is genuinely deeply disturbed by the events that surround him, and the actions of his mother and his uncle seem to have convinced him that the world is fundamentally evil. It also demonstrates one of the defining characteristics of Hamlet, his continued introspection and contemplation of some of life's most enduring and difficult questions.

arjun | Student

Shakespeare has used major as well as minor soliloquies in his master piece tragedy Hamlet. The above soliloquy is very famous and so many writers have added it as reference supporting their works. It comes on fourth number. It is considered most philosophical and used as examples by the scholars in their works. The soliloquy is a fine example of Shakespeare's ability to express a character's torment with just the use of language. Obviously, in action, the speech's power is even more potent, but the words alone adequately express the tumultuous workings of Hamlet's mind.

It is not the words alone that create such an extraordinary effect, the type of verse is crucial too. The soliloquy is written in iambic pentameter with a feminine ending, meaning that each line has eleven syllables rather than ten, the last of which is unstressed. This a popular choice of Shakespeare's and is used to similar effect in Macbeth's "Tomorrow" speech. He is shown on the horn of dilemma and thinks whether he should tolerate it or fight against the tyranny of life. His acute pain, caused by obsession, pushes him to committing suicide. He prefers escaping from reality. Such dejection is interim. when he comes to round, he condemns it cowardice and uplifts himself to the spell of suicide. He opposes death and imagines whether death is a deep sleep, free from troubles with whom the body is attached, or not. He jumps to tantamount that death is no doubt a sleep but there are thousands dreadful visions usually disturb and shock such sleep. He hesitates to commit suicide because it is not way of getting rid of the troubles of life, but of implicating or trapping himself into more torturous troubles. If it had not been, it would have been the best remedy for all troubles given by life in the world.

So it is conscience that makes the affected too weak to commit suicide. It robs our moral courage and irresolute. In consequence we become pale through anxiety. This soliloquy chances the person to think about something repeatedly. Besides it cuts out selfishness and gives birth to what is right. It is the mood of Shakespeare adds great name and fame to his personality. The whole world adds different meanings to it and quench thirst. It is the magic of knowledge and wisdom. The final lines rather neatly describe the character of Hamlet. In fact, it could be reasoned that it is a moment of very clear self-recognition. Subsequently, Hamlet finds that, yet again, hesitancy has prevented him from acting. It is