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Hamlet's "To Be, or Not to Be" Soliloquy and Summary

Updated on November 20, 2017
Pages of William Shakespeare's first folio at the  Bodlean Library, Oxford.
Pages of William Shakespeare's first folio at the Bodlean Library, Oxford. | Source

Hamlet's Fourth Soliloquy

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. - Soft you now!

The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remember'd.

"To Be, or Not to Be" Performed by Adrian Lester as Hamlet

Summary and Analysis

This soliloquy is considered to be one of the most important and fundamental in English literature.

Hamlet’s desperate question, "To be, or not to be," occurs in Act 3, Scene 1, and is the most famous and celebrated because of its philosophical nature, questioning life and death–in short, existence. Hamlet's dilemma is whether it is worth it to exist, and he weighs life's worth against the nothingness of nonexistence as he toys with the idea of suicide.

He wonders which is more appropriate given his desperate situation: to die and end his suffering, thus avoiding the cruelties of fate; or to put up a fight against the misfortunes of life. In considering the former, Hamlet states:

[To die and 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

But when Hamlet considers the consequences of death and afterlife, he begins to examine the other option: life. He questions whether death is in fact an end to all his troubles, or if, perhaps, things may become worse as he is forced to reflect on all of the misdeeds and crimes he has committed throughout his life. He turns over the idea of death and questions if it is truly an eternal sleep or a hellish and unceasing restlessness.

Shakespeare's Globe, a reproduction of the Globe Theatre in London, where Hamlet was first performed.
Shakespeare's Globe, a reproduction of the Globe Theatre in London, where Hamlet was first performed. | Source

His obstacle, like all who contemplate death, is his fear of the unknown. In essence, dead men tell no tales, thus no matter how hard we try, man will never know what comes after the end of our life. He ruminates on this idea, thinking out loud:

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

Hamlet, using the word "we" in "and makes us rather bear those ills we have," aims to encompass all those who have sinned have considered death as a way out of their suffering.

This fourth soliloquy partly explains the dilemma in Hamlet’s mind regarding his delay in executing the revenge of the Ghost and killing Kind Claudius.

Title page and frontispiece for Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: A Tragedy.
Title page and frontispiece for Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: A Tragedy. | Source

If Hamlet kills King Claudius, he believes that he'll be dead too after killing him, and he is afraid of death because of the unknown consequences he mentions above. That is why is not able to make a decision on whether to execute the Ghost's revenge or to endure his sufferings at this point in the play.

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      Amrit Bara 4 months ago

      This note is very helpful to me and others too who is a student of English literature . So I thank for note. Thankyou.

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      MR. BE, NOT 7 months ago

      "To be or not to be" is the philosophical message to the audience. Fortimbraa, driven by revenge of his own father makes a different destiny for himself. At the end when he meets up with Hamlet, he is basically meeting his own paradox, however both agreeing that each is noble in their own way. Two parallel existences. One Prince to king living in while the other Prince to king dying in honor.

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      olivepowder 23 months ago

      wait what? is this not legit ! someone help asap i got an exam in 5......MINUTES!!

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      billy 2 years ago

      this is terrible in every way

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      Kiyoshi Wada 4 years ago

      According to the explanation of Hamlet’s Fourth Soliloquy (to be or not to be) - Original Text & Summary, the opening few lines seem to have much the same meaning as a common Japanese translation of this part: ' To be, or not to be: that is the question: Which is nobler, to suffer ~, or to take arms ~?' But I have a different interpretation.

      The whether clause is most probably an amplification. If so, 'Which is nobler, to suffer ~, or to take arms ~?' is unreasonable. Because 'To be, or not to be, that is the question.' and 'Which is nobler, to suffer ~, or to take arms ~?' are then two different questions that have different meanings.  As is clearly shown by a certain Japanese translation ( Which way of living is nobler, to suffer ~, or to take arms ~ ? ), to suffer ~ and to take arms ~ are both ways of life –courses of action open for Hamlet in his present difficult situation, though noticeably different from each other, stoically passive vs. heroically active. Thus the question of whether to continue to exist or not, that is, the question of ‘life and action’ or ‘death and inaction’ is totally different from the question of which is nobler of the two ways of living – two courses of actions.

      My (grammatical) interpretation of the whether clause is as follows. Although the pronoun ‘ it ’ in ’tis indicates to suffer ~ and to take arms ~ , the whole clause does not mean ‘Which is nobler, to suffer ~ , or to take arms ~?’ It means ‘Is to be nobler (than not to be )?’, that is to say, ‘ Is to suffer ~, or to take arms ~ ( no matter which ) ( really ) nobler ( than to die )?’ Taken literally, ‘to take arms ~’ obviously implies life and heroic action, “though perhaps with the loss of life”, and does not equal ‘not to be’ as some think it does. So the equivalence is between ‘to be’ and ‘to suffer ~, or to take arms ~’ and between ‘not to be’ and ‘To die’ (l.60).

      I think this is the only way to make the whether clause a more consistent elaboration on the question of whether to continue to exist or not, and that “Shakespearean grammar” would permit this explanation.

      I would appreciate it very much if I could have any comments on my interpretation.

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      PBK 4 years ago

      I have a different interpretation, always felt 'they' the speakers for humanity, they who cry out in the name of the collective but are in fact some minority, some individual of it. They, public teachers, ignore the most basic and fundamental part of the speech and of the play. The reason why I believe "To be or not to be" is the most important soliloquy in Western Literature. The words could be said this very second and....

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      Syed Hunbbel Meer 5 years ago from Karachi, Pakistan.

      You are welcome. I am glad that I was of any help. Best of luck :)

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      YOUSFI HALA 5 years ago

      IT IS THE FIRST TIME THAT I READ HAMLET I FOUND IT SO DIFFICULT TO READ IT BUT THANKS TO UR METICULOUS EXPLANATIONS I'VE UNDERSTOOD IT so thanks again :)

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      TattooKitty 6 years ago from Hawaii

      Great subject for a hub! Thanks for the read ;) Although Shakespeare's "to be or not to be" soliloquy is, by far, one of the most quoted parts of any play in history, I actually prefer "Tis now the very witching time of night" (Act III, Scene II).

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      Syed Hunbbel Meer 6 years ago from Karachi, Pakistan.

      Absolutely. Though I guess that 'to be or not to be' stands apart in the literature environment, because of the philosophical and the thoughts of general audience involved. It is so much true, sensible and logical by every means.

      And I guess I should hurry up to put that last soliloquy, because of the fan basis of that soliloquy :)

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      Paradise7 6 years ago from Upstate New York

      I actually agree with gekeye; that last soliliquy is absolutely unparalleled in literature. However, for most people, it seems the "to be or not to be" fourth soliliquy seems to have much more lasting resonance. The resonance it has seems to not even belong to the overall resonance of the play, but stands alone, as poetry with sharp, vital, mortal images stands alone.

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      Syed Hunbbel Meer 6 years ago from Karachi, Pakistan.

      That soliloquy is lined up for the series :)

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      gekeye 6 years ago

      While there is no question “To be or not to be” is unequivocally Shakespeare’s most recognized line, and perhaps the most well known in English literature, and that the soliloquy is vital to the play, it may not be the most important moment of Hamlet sharing his innermost thoughts.

      The “How all occasions” final soliloquy, set in Act IV as Hamlet has just met Fortinbras’ captain, represents a turning point in his character. Unlike his prior soliloquies which end with him always seeking a way out (including those prior to his visiting his mother and in the chapel), this one shows a more resolute and determined Hamlet, concluding with the unwavering, “My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (IV.4). When he next appears, Hamlet is a far more driven character, hell-bent on revenge, leading to his perhaps ill-timed and quite melodramatic graveyard grapple with Laertes over who loved Ophelia most.

      Nevertheless, the audience now sees a transformed Hamlet who was certainly inspired by Fortinbras’ drive to preserve family honor, a notion the strikes at Hamlet, given his similar set of circumstances. While Hamlet does not agree with what the Norwegian prince is doing (attacking Poland for lack of anything better to do, though with inexorable designs on Denmark), he says that by finding “quarrel in a straw,” Fortinbras is defining the nature of greatness. This admiration for Fortinbras also advances the action of the play and helps explain Hamlet’s curious death-door decision to cede Denmark to its long-time adversary.