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

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It is certainly the most famous speech in all of Shakespeare—at least the first line of it.

Within the playHamlet , the speech does not move a lot of plot, and often feels a little separated from the story. Different quartos and folios of Shakespeare’s work also had different...

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It is certainly the most famous speech in all of Shakespeare—at least the first line of it.

Within the play Hamlet, the speech does not move a lot of plot, and often feels a little separated from the story. Different quartos and folios of Shakespeare’s work also had different versions of the speech. It is often thought of as a soliloquy, but that is inaccurate, as Ophelia is generally onstage during the speech, with Polonius and Claudius hidden behind a curtain. Thus, it is up to the director and the actor playing the role, to decide whether Hamlet means every word of the speech, or whether it is something of an act put on because he knows people are listening.

The fame of the speech probably stems from the pithy, beautiful opening line: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” It is extremely easy to remember, and jumps right into themes of suicide and human nature more directly than a lot of other Shakespearian speeches. The fact that the speech is not overly concerned with the plot of the play also makes it transferable. In other soliloquies and speeches, Hamlet mentions his mother, the other characters, and goes into detail about what he has done and what he will do. This speech, on the other hand, stands alone remarkably well, making it accessible to study and recite without the rest of the play. The transferable nature of the speech likely helped it grow in popularity, as it was memorized and recited alone and used in other works.

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In act 3, scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the reader is being asked to analyze one of the most frequently examined and oft-quoted scenes in English literature. Commonly referred to as the “to be or not to be” speech, it is Hamlet’s soliloquy that determines whether the plot will develop in the most famous of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

The powerful scene finds melancholy protagonist Hamlet in a dilemma for which he finds no solution. He is unable to justify or accept his mother’s remarriage to his uncle Claudius soon after his father’s death. He has been confronted by his father’s ghost, who tells his son that he was murdered by Claudius and feels compelled to accept the responsibility of avenging his father’s murder. Hamlet must choose one of his options, which will determine the outcome of the tragedy, and unable to make a decision, he is being psychologically torn apart. He is on the verge of suicide:

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 heart-ache 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[.]

For Hamlet to sit back and take no action is impossible. He cannot live with that do-nothing resolution. He is not sure whether to commit suicide or live. He is trapped between two bad choices. The tragic hero knows he cannot sit back quietly and bear his uncle’s corruption that can only be remedied by causing Claudius’ death, which Hamlet believes is immoral. On the other hand, he is also aware that suicide is a sin in the eyes of the Church. Which solution is “nobler”? This is Hamlet’s unenviable situation.

The scene is integral to the play. If Hamlet does nothing or commits suicide, there is no drama. Accordingly, Shakespeare uses his protagonist’s choice to advance the action and conflict. Hamlet decides to seek revenge. He becomes obsessed, even rejecting his love for Ophelia: “Get thee to a nunnery.”

In the end, the tragedy is complete when Hamlet is killed. Shakespeare leaves his audience with a profound message: vengeance begets vengeance.

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"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. 

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