"To Be or Not to Be," Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Act 3 Scene 1


Undoubtedly the most well-known name in English literature and poetry, William Shakespeare began his career as a poet. His sonnets are thick with kaleidoscopic imagery and subtle symbolic meaning. During his life he rose to prominence as a playwright, producing theatrical works in multiple genres that offer commentary on social and cultural conditions of his day. The opening line of this soliloquy (a monologue that externalizes a character's inner thoughts that other characters do not hear) is likely the most referenced line in all of literature. Drawn from Hamlet, a play about a young prince caught in the torture of discovering that his uncle has murdered his father in order to seize control of the throne and marry his mother. In this scene, Hamlet, emotionally and mentally unstable as a result of the devastating events he has discovered, considers the advantages and disadvantages of death. He puzzles over the nobility of enduring the challenges associated with mortality against the uncertainty of the conditions after death. 

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 undiscovere'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 doth 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.

Reflection Questions

  1. In what ways does the "conscience make cowards of us all"?
  2. What is Hamlet's justification for death? For life? 
  3. How does Hamlet use contrast to outline his arguments? 

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