To be, or not to be
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"To be, or not to be" is the famous opening phrase of a soliloquy in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. Debate surrounds its meaning, and that of the speech, but most agree that it asks the fundamental question "why live?" and gives the desolate answer that death might be worse.
This is the 1623 First Folio text (F) of the complete soliloquy with spelling updated but capitals and punctuation untouched. Four common editorial emendations (highlighted in italic) are incorporated from the other authoritative original edition, the 1604 second Quarto.
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 wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, 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:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor's wrong, the proud man's Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveller returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,
And thus the Native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o'er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action. Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia? Nymph, in thy Orisons
Be all my sins remembered.
Hamlet speaks this on his entry to Act 3 scene 1 (known as the 'nunnery scene' because of the Hamlet/Ophelia dialogue after the speech) which is when Polonius and Claudius put into effect their plan, hatched in Act 2 scene 2, to watch Hamlet with Ophelia to determine whether, as Polonius thinks, his 'madness' springs from "neglected love". They have planted her where it is his habit to walk and think and concealed themselves to observe the encounter. Until he notices Ophelia at the end of the speech Hamlet thinks he is alone.
In the first edition of Hamlet in print, the First Quarto, the speech appears as follows (spelling modernized):
To be, or not to be, aye there's the point,
To Die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all:
No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes,
For in that dream of death, when we awake,
And borne before an everlasting Judge,
From whence no passenger ever returned,
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damned.
But for this, the joyful hope of this,
Who'd bear the scorns and flattery of the world,
Scorned by the right rich, the rich cursed of the poor?
The widow being oppressed, the orphan wronged,
The taste of hunger, or a tyrant's reign,
And thousand more calamities besides,
To grunt and sweat under this weary life,
When that he may his full Quietus make,
With a bare bodkin, who would this endure,
But for a hope of something after death?
Which puzzles the brain, and doth confound the sense,
Which makes us rather bear those evils we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Aye that, O this conscience makes cowards of us all,
Lady in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered.
Lines taken from Geroilamo Cardano's 1543 De Consolatione, in English as Cardanus Comforte, Thoams Marshe 1575.
- Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Philip Edwards, ed., updated edition 2003. (New Cambridge Shakespeare)
- Hamlet. Harold Jenkins, ed., 1982. (The Arden Shakespeare)
- Lewis, C.S., Studies in Words. Cambridge UP, 1960 (reprinted 2002).
- Schopenhauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Representation, Volume I. E.F.J. Payne, tr. Falcon Wing's Press, 1958. Reprinted by Dover, 1969.
- "Something Rotten". Jasper Forde 2004
- "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark". Washington Square Press, ed., 1992. (Folger Shakespeare Library)
- Hamlet's To Be Or Not To Be soliloquy translated into modern English
- The Fishko Files: The Many Faces of Hamlet from WNYC's Sara Fishko, a radio piece and accompanying blog post about the many interpretations of the soliloquy.