In delivering this speech, Hamlet is not alone on the stage (as is standard for a soliloquy). Ophelia is onstage and has, in fact, been instructed to position herself where Hamlet cannot fail to notice her. This has led to the suggestion that the speech is not meant to be taken as a soliloquy at all, rather as a further act of feigned madness and melancholia directed toward Ophelia, particularly when Hamlet's resolute passion either side of this scene is considered.
According to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer:
The essential purport of the world-famous monologue in "Hamlet" is, in condensed form, that our state is so wretched that complete non-existence would be decidedly preferable to it. Now if suicide actually offered us this, so that the alternative "TO BE OR NOT TO BE" lay before us in the full sense of the words, it could be chosen unconditionally as a highly desirable termination ("a consummation devoutly to be wish'd" [Act III, Sc. I]). There is something in us, however, which tells us that this is not so, that this is not the end of things, that death is not an absolute annihilation, unless it's written upon another, for love is the ultimate end and will forever be remembered in our hearts. For he will be mine and remain mine for eternity.
Thus, the lines "whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer/the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" represent the to be option, and "to take arms against a sea of troubles/and by opposing end them" the not to be option. The possibly paradoxical concept of equating taking arms with not being is usually explained by that taking arms against an irresistible sea of troubles is suicidal-our troubles, resisted rather than borne, will destroy us. Another interpretation on these lines is that the only way to take arms against an ungovernable tide is by the "constructive act of suicide." But both of these contemporary views of that passage recognize that one's own death is the result of taking arms.
Although the "conscience" that "does make cowards of us all" is often linked to the excerpt that follows and interpreted as an odd use of the word to mean "consciousness of the possibly bad unknown that awaits"; it can be also understood as the sense of right and wrong. According to E. Prosser, "This soliloquy is a meditation on the central theme of the duties and temptations of a noble mind in an evil world". By that interpretation, it is the moral injunction against suicide that would be ultimately decisive, rather than the "dread of something after death", which only symbolizes the usual fires of Hell. Lewis, on the other hand, concludes that here it means "nothing more or less than 'fear of death"
However, the next five lines (starting with "and thus the native hue of resolution ...") no longer refer to moral judgements, but rather in a similar way anything (not just suicide) can become problematical if dwelt upon.
This, along with Hamlet's indecisiveness and uncertainty of knowledge being major themes throughout the play, inspired many commentators to read the choice between the life of action ("to be") and life of silent acceptance ("not to be") as a primary focus of Hamlet's dilemma. According to that interpretation, "whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer/the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" would be associated with the "not to be" alternative, while "to take arms against a sea of troubles/and by opposing end them" with "to be".
In this take, the Prince's further pondering the nature of death can be seen in yet a different light, the inevitable failure to win the fight against the "sea of troubles" or the only way to actually defeat it. Namely, death could be considered as a third option?the one that avoids having to choose between "to be, or not to be" altogether.
Regardless of whether the focus is placed on life versus death or on action versus inaction, the soliloquy and the play led to the character Hamlet being compared to existentialists after the term was introduced in the twentieth century.
Wikipedia contributors, "To be, or not to be," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=To_be,_or_not_to_be&oldid=330717496 (accessed December 21, 2009).
5 Hamlet "To be or not to be" Soliloquies
AuthorName: William Shakespeare
Eras: 1601-1700, 1501-1600
To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind...View Full Monologue Text
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 - 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.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th'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 undiscover'd 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 remember'd.
Age Range: 20s - Late, 30s - Early, 30s - Late
Dialects: Standard American, Standard English
Rating: Suitable for all ages
Copyright Status: Public domain