Hamlet (Act 3, Scene I) | "To be, or not to be, that is the question."
Shakespeare Hamlet to be or not to be

Hamlet (Act 3, Scene I)

Written by on | Monologues Unpacked Shakespeare

Alright, let’s do it. Let’s tackle arguably the most famous and often quoted speeches in not only Shakespeare’s canon, but in all western literature. Pressure’s on, huh? Not necessarily. This speech does require careful analysis, but with an understanding of what Hamlet is going through at this point in time and the argument he is having with himself, we can access the thoughts and emotions he is experiencing.  

The speech happens in Act 3, Scene 1 of the play. It’s fair to say that Hamlet is going through a lot at this point in the story. He is facing several problems: He is grieving the death of his father. He is questioning the hasty remarriage of his Mother. He is disgusted by his Mother’s decision to marry his father’s brother (an incestuous act by his morals). And if that wasn’t enough, his deceased father has returned to Hamlet as a ghost and told him that he did not die from natural  causes. No, he was murdered. Who was he murdered by? Hamlet’s Uncle. Yep, the same Uncle his Mother is now married too. Whoops. Oh, and the cherry on top, his dead father’s ghost has demanded that Hamlet avenges that murder. It’s a recipe for a solid head-spin situation, if you ask me.  

Hamlet cops a lot of flack from modern scholars for his lack of action like a typical revenge tragedy hero, (think of the character Maximus from Gladiator) but come on, give the guy a break! One could argue he’s actually being quite rational about his approach; he is taking his time and searching for the right decision to make.  

Context

Right before this speech, Hamlet has come to a decision. The ghost may in fact not be his father’s spirit; it might be an evil banshee trying to trick him. So Hamlet needs some hard and fast proof to see for himself. How will he get the proof he seeks? He’ll stage a play to be performed for the King, and the play will feature a scene depicting a murder nearly identical to his Father’s. If his uncle reacts suspiciously to this scene, Hamlet will have his proof:

“The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King!” 

All these factors contribute to the ‘sea of troubles’ which Hamlet speaks of in this speech. Often when this speech is referenced it is overly simplified, stating that Hamlet’s conundrum is whether or not he should end his own life. This may indeed be something he is considering, but that issue is only one of his many problems, and to play the speech with only this in mind restricts us to a surface-level performance. 

The line, “To be or not to be” should not simply be translated as “To live or to die”. The ‘be’ in the line can be substituted for any number of words: to live, to exist, or to act to name a few possibilities. He is primarily concerned with taking action, whether that action is to end his own life or avenge his father or both is up to the individual performer.  

There is an age old debate over how to say this most famous of lines. Which word do we stress? What is the deepest possible meaning of the line? Check out this skit from the Royal Shakespeare Company featuring some of the best Hamlet’s the world has seen: “To Be or Not to Be” Shakespeare Live! | From the Archives | Great Performances on PBS

This speech comes at an unexpected time within the play. We have witnessed Hamlet’s lengthy delay and inaction, and finally once he has made a decision, (the play’s the thing) just when the audience think’s he is about to finally to take action, Hamlet’s next move is to deliver us this speech all about the fear he is experiencing of actually taking action.  

Let’s take a look at the speech and break it down: 

Original 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,
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 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 pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Unfamiliar Language/ Phrases 

Consummation: The point at which something is complete or finalised. 

Rub: The central problem or difficulty in a situation. 

Shuffle off this mortal coil: Simply, to die. Another image may be one of escaping the bounds of  the ‘coil’- the ropes of mortal existence.  

Calamity: An event causing great and often sudden damage or distress; a disaster. Contumely: Insolent or insulting language or treatment. 

Insolence of office: Disrespectful behaviour of the government/ authority figures in society. 

‘the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes’: The injustice a ‘good’ (patient) person  receives from those who are less moral, (unworthy) than them.  

Bodkin: A small knife or needle with a thin blade. 

Fardels: A bundle. A burden.

Breakdown of the speech 

Hamlet’s main concern is whether or not he should take action in this moment. This ‘action’ may be the act of suicide, or the act of murder in vengeance. Either way, Hamlet understands that there will be consequences.

Hamlet begins by questioning what is the nobler choice in solving his problems. Should he should just ‘grin and bear’ all that he is struggling with in this moment? At the start of the play he is implored by his Mother and Uncle to shake off his, ‘unmanly grief’. Are they right? Should Hamlet act like those around him and ignore all the pain and terror that one may experience in life? Ignorance is one option for making problems disappear. Or should he be courageous and fight the adversity, opposing his problems and becoming victorious over them? 

One option he has for opposing his problems is to die. To simply end his own life, and in doing so all his problems will be gone. Hamlet has had experience with death: He has seen his Father’s dead body at his funeral, with his eyes shut almost like he was sleeping. Hamlet makes this comparison. To die is just like going to sleep. So by simply going to sleep, he can be free from all his pain! It’s so simple! 

Surely that solution is far too simple; he needs to investigate further. If death is simply like being asleep, what would that experience be like? Would it truly be peaceful? Hamlet himself confesses  o Rosencrantz and Guildernstern that he has nightmares, saying: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” With this in mind he wonders what nightmares one might experience in death; that’s the reason to hesitate.  

There are so many pains in life one must experience: heartbreak, oppression, injustice, rudeness, and it would be so simple to end all these pains; you could end them with the sharp point of a needle, but this mystery of what happens once we die makes us fear the unknown. “Better the devil you know” as the saying goes. 

Hamlet does not necessarily come to a solution, but he does come to a conclusion about the reason for his lack of a solution: consciousness. Humanity’s greatest asset, our minds and imagination, are our greatest inhibitor. Our minds, our ability to reason and question makes us doubt our decisions and leaves us paralyzed by thought.  

Modern Translation

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 act, or not to act: that is my question.
Is it more honourable to tolerate and submit to all the pain of fate and life, or to fight back against a million issues and by winning the fight making the problems go away?

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:

To die: to sleep; (that’s all sleeping is); and by simply going to sleep we can end al the pain and anguish that humans are destined to experience, that’s a completion I wish for. (Let me question that theory further) To die is to sleep. What happens when we sleep? We dream. Ah. There’s the catch. What will be the dreams I have in that most final of sleeps when we have died? That’s a scary thought that makes me hesitate.

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?

That question of what happens after death that makes us respect and bear all the disasters of living our long lives. Because who would tolerate all the pain we go through in life: being oppressed by the powerful, being insulted by the proud and arrogant, being heart broken, being let down by the shortcomings of justice and the law, and the insults from the government and those who are unworthy when you can end it all so easily with a small sharp knife?

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? 

Who would bear the all burdens of life; to work and toil in a painful existence were it not for  the fear of the unknown, the mystery of what happens after death: death, that unknown place where once you go you never return. This mystery makes us doubt ourselves and feel that we’d rather accept the struggles we currently face than go to others that we don’t know the true extent 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 pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Therefore, our minds make us cowards. Our resolution to end the pains of life is weakened by our imagination, and our greatest endeavours too are reconsidered for fear of what may be the end result.

A Note on Performance

It’s fair to say that it’s many actor’s aspiration to play Hamlet and to speak this speech. How can we approach it with a fresh take, given that so many of the great actors in Western society have played it before us? Let me share a few examples of this speech performed through the ages:

  1. Laurence Olivier (1948)
  2. Richard Burton (1964)
  3. Kenneth Branagh (1996)
  4. Adrian Lester (2016)
  5. Andrew Scott (2018)
  6. Paapa Essiedu (2018)

NB: the lack of female performers in the above list. Check out this TedX talk on Hamlet being performed by and/or portrayed as a woman: Hamlet: Thy Name Is Woman

What did you think of each of these renditions? What did you like or dislike?  

Each of these performances bring something of the time and of the individual to the role. They make the role their own. This is essential to remember when we play Hamlet ourselves. What is important is not trying to fit the mould of the performers who have come before us, but rather to bring something of our own uniqueness to the role. To bring our own understanding of what it means to live and exist on this earth, having suffered our own pain and our own challenges in our  own way.  

What’s essential in delivering this soliloquy is the following: 

  1. We understand what we are saying,
  2. We understand the situation Hamlet is currently in, and all the given circumstances surrounding the speech and, 
  3. We have built our imaginative state to support the beginning of the speech.

We’ve covered off on the first two points, so let me speak briefly about the third. So much focus and pressure is put into the first line of this speech. How do we say it? What word(s) do we stress and why? I’d encourage you to instead put your focus into finding the imaginative state of the character before you start speaking. Think about all that has led up to this moment, what headspace the character is in right now and the thoughts which are rushing around his mind which force him to need to speak in order to try and find the solution to his problems. 

Conclusion

This is a truly wonderful and challenging speech to deliver. Remember, the key to this speech is investing yourself in the role and empathising with the many problems that Hamlet is facing at this point in his life.

It’s important not to oversimplify or over complicate the soliloquy. Start from the beginning, speak the words out loud slowly to yourself and consider what comes to mind when you speak them.  

Like any soliloquy, there is a debate taking place. It’s important for the actor not to play an emotional ‘state’ throughout the speech and colour it’s delivery with ‘depression’ or ‘sadness’.   myriad of different emotions and experiences can potentially arise when speaking these words, and we must be wary of imposing one emotion over the whole soliloquy. 

Argue the points Hamlet is making, both with himself and the audience. Hamlet is searching for an answer rather than simply accepting his own doom. He is still alive, therefore he has not committed himself to one fate. He is alive and any outcome is possible. All of these possibilities must be alive within the performer at every point throughout this most famous of soliloquys.

 

About the Author

Avatar

Is made up of the core Stage Milk writers. We work together to come up with a number of our lists and articles.

About the Author

Avatar

Is made up of the core Stage Milk writers. We work together to come up with a number of our lists and articles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 × five =