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What Is the Meaning of "To be or not to be," Hamlet's Famous Quote?

Adam enjoys reading and writing about poetry, prose, and authors.

Derek Jacobi as Hamlet. Hamlet doesn't study any skulls during his famous soliloquy but both incidents in the play highlight Hamlet's concern with death.

Derek Jacobi as Hamlet. Hamlet doesn't study any skulls during his famous soliloquy but both incidents in the play highlight Hamlet's concern with death.

Hamlet's Speech

"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 in 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 is "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.


CalamityBane on June 02, 2018:

Who is the director of this 'acclaimed Russian film version' I would like to see how the director actually put the 'to be or not to be' soliloquy at the beginning?

john on April 02, 2018:

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I have the same questions as hamlet. guess i'll have to read this book.

jeff on January 22, 2018:

thank you , really helped

mufassal abbasi on December 19, 2013:

Thanks for commenting:-D

yeah! on December 16, 2013:

im doing my homework by using helpful interpretation

Adam Kullman (author) from Texas on November 28, 2012:

I am glad to hear it! Thanks for commenting :)

useful on November 28, 2012:

doing this for school. Helpful! thanks

Adam Kullman (author) from Texas on July 23, 2012:

Your welcome and thanks a lot for the comment and for the vote!

Prakash Dighe from Dallas, Texas, USA on July 23, 2012:

I enjoyed reading your interpretation of this famous expression (I have not read Hamlet). Even more, thanks for explaining the difference between a soliloquy and a monologue. Voted up!

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