Hamlet’s soliloquy contains what is probably the most-quoted line in all of Shakespeare: ‘to be or not to be.’ TIME’s compilation of the top 15 Shakespeare quotes put it at the top of their list. It’s likely that you have heard, read, or said the famous opening words of the speech: ‘to be or not to be.’
There’s more to it, of course, than “to be or not to be.” Here are some features the speech that you may not have been aware of.
First, here is Hamlet’s soliloquy in its entirety.
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 heartache 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—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 despised 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 undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler 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.
A modern English translation of Hamlet’s soliloquy
The speech is a stunning work of art and the most-studied of all of Shakespeare’s plays. It is best untampered. However, a modern English rendering can untangle some of the puzzling lines and Elizabethan turns of phrase.
Ben Florman, LitCharts’s co-founder, wrote the following modern English translation of Hamlet’s soliloquy:
To live, or to die? That is the question.
Is it nobler to suffer through all the terrible things
fate throws at you, or to fight off your troubles,
and, in doing so, end them completely?
To die, to sleep—because that’s all dying is—
and by a sleep I mean an end to all the heartache
and the thousand injuries that we are vulnerable to—
that’s an end to be wished for!
To die, to sleep. To sleep, perhaps to dream—yes,
but there’s there’s the catch. Because the kinds of
dreams that might come in that sleep of death—
after you have left behind your mortal body—
are something to make you anxious.
That’s the consideration that makes us suffer
the calamities of life for so long.
Because who would bear all the trials and tribulations of time—
the oppression of the powerful, the insults from arrogant men,
the pangs of unrequited love, the slowness of justice,
the disrespect of people in office,
and the general abuse of good people by bad—
when you could just settle all your debts
using nothing more than an unsheathed dagger?
Who would bear his burdens, and grunt
and sweat through a tiring life, if they weren’t frightened
of what might happen after death—
that undiscovered country from which no visitor returns,
which we wonder about and which makes us
prefer the troubles we know rather than fly off
to face the ones we don’t? Thus, the fear of
death makes us all cowards, and our natural
willingness to act is made weak by too much thinking.
Actions of great urgency and importance
get thrown off course because of this sort of thinking,
and they cease to be actions at all.
But wait, here is the beautiful Ophelia!
[To OPHELIA] Beauty, may you forgive all my sins in your prayers.
Hamlet’s soliloquy contains other famous Shakespeare quotes.
In the soliloquy there is more than just the famous line “to be or not to be.” You may have heard these Shakespearean quotes as well.
- Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles.
- To die, to sleep. / To sleep, perchance to dream
- Ay, there’s the rub,
- Shuffled off this mortal coil
- The pangs of despised love
- To grunt and sweat under a weary life
- Thus conscience does make cowards of us all
- All my sins remembered.
Understanding Hamlet’s Soliloquy, and the meaning of ‘To be or not to be’
What is the meaning of Hamlet’s soliloquy? Here’s a brief explanation of the meaning and themes, drawn from LitCharts’s comprehensive literary guide to Hamlet.
While Polonius and Claudius hide and eavesdrop, Hamlet breaks into this most famous soliloquy, perhaps the best-known speech in the English language. Hamlet returns to the question of suicide, wondering if it would be preferable to end his life or not.
Though Hamlet’s language has grown more direct from its earlier references to “dew,” it still speaks to his passivity in the face of desperation. He phrases the question of death in the abstract with the infinitive verb forms “to be, or not to be”—and makes it “the question” of humanity, as opposed to a personal matter. These choices imply that the decision whether or not to exist is a constant struggle for each person, a struggle that Hamlet tries to mediate through the metric of what is “nobler in the mind.” This phrase implies that death is evaluated based on the perceived correctness or social value, as opposed to, say, a universal ethical system.
For the two options themselves, Hamlet chooses evocative images: “To be” is put in relatively more passive terms as a continuous process of “suffering” an onslaught of external attacks from “outrageous fortune”—that is to say, the constant influx of events that cannot be shifted in one’s destiny. Suicide, on the other hand, is presented as an active fight that wages war on “a sea of troubles” and, indeed, is successful in the endeavor. The phrase “by opposing end them” seems noble or glorious, but what it literally means is to vanquish one’s “outrageous fortune” by ending one’s life. Thus Hamlet presents his lack of suicide not as the result of insufficient desperation, but rather his apathy from wishing to take on such a fight. Life becomes, for him, a constant decision of whether he will finally arrive at sufficient motivation to shift course and end his and/or Claudius’s life.
12 Facts about Hamlet’s Famous ‘To be or not to be’ Soliloquy
- Hamlet wasn’t alone while he uttered his soliloquy. According to the definition of soliloquy, “usually, no other characters are present.” In Hamlet’s case, Ophelia is positioned nearby, while Claudius and Polonius are hiding.
- The scene, Act III, Scene I, in which Hamlet delivers his soliloquy is often called the “nunnery scene.” Hamlet vituperates against Ophelia by telling her to “get thee to a nunnery.”
- According to legend, Hamlet is being performed somewhere in the world every minute of every day. (I’m unaware of where this bit of trivia originated, but its veracity is dubious.)
- The play, set in Denmark, is set, more specifically, in the Kronborg Castle of Helsingør. And, yes, you can rent the castle.
- The ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy is 33 lines long and consists of 262 words.
- The Lion King is the closest a popular Disney movie has come to adapting a Shakespeare play, in this case, Hamlet. Other literary works that borrow Hamlet themes are Great Expectations (Charles Dickens), Ulysses (James Joyce) and Tom Jones (Henry Fielding).
- Want to read Hamlet in Klingon? You can. Hamlet is one of two Shakespearean plays that have been translated into the language of Star Trek’s Klingons. How do you say “To be or not to be” in Klingon? “taH pagh taHbe’!
- Hamlet’s soliloquy takes up to four minutes to perform.
- As far as historians can ascertain, the first Hamlet performance was in 1600 or 1601. The acting troupe was the King’s Men, and the venue was, of course, the Globe.
- Hamlet, at 4,042 lines, is the longest Shakespearean play. Performances usually last 4-5 hours.
- The speech is written in iambic pentameter, and many of the lines have a feminine ending (11 syllables with the ultimate syllable unstressed). Students of Hamlet theorize that the irregularity of the feminine ending lines represents stress or turbulence, which Hamlet is obviously experiencing as he soliloquizes.
- The first person to perform Hamlet’s soliloquy was the actor Richard Burbage. Burbage was one of the most sensational actors ever to grace the Globe. He and Shakespeare were close friends.
- Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet who died at age 11. It is possible that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as a response to this personal tragedy.
Watch these famous recitations of the soliloquy.
Mel Gibson as Hamlet performs the soliloquy.
Here is David Tennant, former Doctor Who, and award-winning Shakespearean actor in his critically acclaimed performance.
This is Kenneth Branagh in his performance of the soliloquy.
And, true to form, Benedict Cumberbatch, seizes the audience with his interpretation.