What Is the Meaning of "To be or not to be," Hamlet's Famous Quote?
Derek Jacobi as Hamlet
"To be or not to be" is one of the most famous lines in all of English literature. It marks the beginning of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech which is a soliloquy. The speech and the line reflect some of the existential questions that Hamlet the play and Hamlet the character are interested in.
What is a soliloquy?
A soliloquy is a speech made by one character.The speech does not actually represent spoken words but the thoughts and feelings of the character speaking (therefore, it is assumed that even if other characters were to "listen in" on a character who is giving a soliloquy as Polonius and Claudius do, they would not really hear the speaker, in this case Hamlet.)
A soliloquy is different from a monologue because the speaker is alone on stage and is considered to be speaking to the audience. In a monologue, the speaker addresses an audience that does not interject or offer comments (Anthony's Speech from Julius Caesar and Henry V's speeches to his troops in Henry V are examples of monologues.)
A soliloquy is not to be confused with an aside. An aside, like a soliloquy, represents words that a character speaks that are "heard" only by the audience and represent that character's thoughts or feelings. Unlike a soliloquy, an aside is a brief statement, usually uttered in the midst of dialogue. Also, asides are usually denoted by stage directions while soliloquies are not.
So what does it mean?
There are many "meanings" in Hamlet's speech and there are entire essays written on them and how they relate to the play as a whole. What I offer here are some generally accepted interpretations and observations of the speech.
1) The speech represents Hamlet's contemplation of suicide. Hamlet questions whether it is a viable solution to his problems.
2) Hamlet contemplates killing Claudius. He wants revenge but if Claudius will go to heaven, then killing will not avenge Hamlet's father.
3) The speech asks existential questions which have been bothering Hamlet. What happens after death? Is it better to act or to remain inactive? Is existence (living) worth the pain? Why do miserable people continue to live?
The Speech and the Play
Hamlet's soliloquy does not really advance the plot because Hamlet never decides "to be or not to be." For this reason, some versions of the play place the speech at different points in the play other than Act III scene 1. A critically acclaimed Russian film version puts the speech at the play's beginning. Another reason that the speech is often moved is the fact that Hamlet says death "the undiscovered country from whose born no traveler returns." This statement is somewhat puzzling since Hamlet has already spoken with his father's ghost. However, Hamlet seriously questions whether the Ghost is indeed his father or a devil of some kind. Therefore, Hamlet may indeed be deliberately ignoring the events of the play in order to make general existential observations rather than base the speech on his own rather unusual experience.