Hamlet Common Allusions: "To Be, or Not to Be"

William Shakespeare

Common Allusions: "To Be, or Not to Be"

An allusion, of course, is an indirect reference to a famous work of literature in yet another work of literature or work of art.  As allusions go, Hamlet's first line in this particular soliloquy ("To be, or not to be") is very likely the line most alluded to in all of literature and film.  This indirect reference to "being" or simply "existing" is also possibly the most famous one-liner of all time.  It is a contemplation of suicide.  It is a reflection upon the importance of life itself.  It is melancholic wisdom in a nutshell.  If we look at this line a little more closely, we see what most scholars readily admit: Hamlet is deeply pondering the benefits and the drawbacks of simply "existing" in this world.  To put it more bluntly, Hamlet is considering suicide.  This idea hinges on the verb "to be" being defined as "to exist."  The rest of Hamlet's soliloquy is the character's melancholic reasoning for that suicide (which he never attempts).  Further, it is important to note that the entire soliloquy (which encompasses forty lines or so) is often alluded to in other works of literature.  In fact, even though the most common allusions will be mentioned here, please realize that, depending on where one decides to begin or end the allusion, there are infinite possibilities.  For example, another common indirect reference in other works of literature or art is to speak of "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."  (There is even a movie from the 1980s called Outrageous Fortune, a direct allusion to Shakespeare's Hamlet.)  Yet another common allusion in modern literature comes from the following line:  "To die, to sleep-- / To sleep--perchance to dream."  This line makes a direct comparison of the death of the mortal body to the act of sleeping.  It also suggests a direct comparison of the afterlife that a person experiences after death to a dream that a person experiences during sleep.  Another allusion that should be mentioned is "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all."  In this line, Hamlet is admitting that, due to fear of hell or due to consequences in the afterlife, he becomes a "coward" in that he can't actually take his own life.  Further, he subjects all of us to that idea.  (Some scholars think the irony in that idea is that even though Hamlet remains a coward in not being able to commit the act of suicide, it is Ophelia who is the brave one by doing so.)