What Does To Be Or Not To Be Mean

Why does Hamlet say "to be or not to be" and what does it mean in Hamlet?

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William Delaney eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I think it is entirely possible that Shakespeare wrote the “To be or not to be” soliloquy as a separate piece expressing his own personal feelings about life and death and then put it away in the bottom drawer, as writers will do, until he found a convenient spot for it when he was writing his play Hamlet. What is important in this soliloquy, and what explains its great popularity, is the truths it tells about human existence, not what it reveals about the character of the moody Prince. We have all personally experienced some of the slings and arrows Hamlet complains about, just by being alive...

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hethra101 | Student

'To be, or not to be' is the famous quote from hamlet. It bases itself around the human condition and draws into question; Why do we struggle with life if we know inevitably we are going to die (which is the mark of humanity).

Hamlet tries to imagine death as eternal sleep (takes away troubles), but even in sleep we are still active through our dreams.

Throughout the play the common theme he asks himself is whether or not it is more noble to just put up with the everything or to fight against hardships.

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etotheeyepi | Student

One can image Shakespeare #1, aka Will Skakspere of Stratford, suffering the slings and arrows of London, but one might also imagine Shakespeare #60, aka Edward de Vere, suffering the slings of losing control of his property and the arrows of almost being hanged for accidentally killing a man.

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ciael | Student

In the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy, Hamlet wonders whether to live or die, given the pain he feels at his father's death/murder, and his mother Gertrude's hasty remarriage to the murderer. In this soliloquy, he wonders if it is nobler to bear his grief, or to take action.

His father's ghost has told him what happened and demands revenge. Hamlet has two ways of taking arms against the sea of troubles he faces--commiting murder, or committing suicide. In his belief system, both would lead to eternal damnation. Ay, there's the rub. There's the nightmare that troubles the eternal "sleep" of death.

Thoughts of what could happen after death "give us pause". He wonders who would bear the injustice and disappoint-ments of life, knowing suicide would end these. It is the "dread of something after death (that) puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have/than fly to others that we know not of..."

The next line is one of Shakespeare's famous double entendres, full of irony: "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all": conscience is both knowledge and knowledge of right and wrong. He goes on to say that " thus the native hue of resolution/is sicklied over with the pale cast of thought; enterprises ...lose the name of action." This conflict between thought and action is an oft explored theme in this play. It is perhaps too facile to call it procrastination as it is also about the conflict of reason versus rationalization.

Finally, catching sight of Ophelia, Hamlet asks (whether or not she hears him) that she remember his sins in her prayers (orisons). As this soliloquy reflects, it seems that everywhere he looks, everything he considers--whether inaction, murder, or suicide--he is doomed.

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