To Be or Not to Be: Expert Analysis of Hamlet’s Soliloquy for Teens

June 7, 2023

From Calvin and Hobbes to Star Trek to The Simpsons, Hamlet’s soliloquy “To Be or Not To Be” is one of the most commonly cited lines of Shakespeare. But beyond the evocative first line, what is the underlying meaning and analysis? We will dive into an analysis of Hamlet’s soliloquy shortly but first some brief context.

Hamlet Summary – Putting “To Be or Not to Be” in context

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, more often referred to simply as Hamlet, is one of the English playwright William Shakespeare’s most well-known plays. It was written likely between 1599 and 1601. The play centers on Prince Hamlet, who is distraught with grief around his father’s murder. At the start of the play, Hamlet is confronted by his father’s ghost who informs him that the king was murdered by the king’s own brother (Hamlet’s uncle), Claudius, who has inherited the throne and married his widow (and Hamlet’s mother), Gertrude.

While at first singularly committed to avenging his father’s death, Hamlet’s contemplative nature causes him to oscillate between the desire to act immediately and melancholic reluctance, rageful vengeance, and existential despair. This context helps us understand the tense conundrums expounded upon in this soliloquy. However, as one can see from its widespread citation, one can also perform an analysis of Hamlet’s soliloquy “To Be or Not To Be” on its own.

What is a Soliloquy?

A soliloquy is a specific kind of monologue. It entails a single character speaking for a period of time while alone. In other words, the character is talking aloud to themselves. (For more examples and explanations of “soliloquy”, check out this link!). Now let’s walk through the text itself.

Hamlet’s Soliloquy – Meaning & Analysis

He begins with that well-known line:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question.” Already the stakes are high. Hamlet is essentially asking whether to choose life or death, being or not being, endurance or suicide. He goes on to say “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?”

This elaborates and complicates on the binary of life or death set up in the first line. He wonders if would be more honorable to endure the suffering he faces due to his terrible and painful “fortune” or to end both his life and troubles in one fell swoop. Take note as well of the military figurative language peppered throughout his personal monologue, such as in words like “noble,” “take arms,” and “the slings and arrows.” As a prince embroiled in royal drama, his intimate woes are entangled with the national politics. Often, this means bloody war. Furthermore, the metaphors signal that there is a war within his own mind due to his agonizing situation. While desiring relief from life’s suffering, he is not totally resolved to die.

He turns to contemplate death, saying:

“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.”

He equates death to sleep, where suicide is framed not as violent but as a restful space that ends the “heart-ache” and pain he endures in wakeful life. The isolation of “No more” is emphatic and multifaceted. It signals both no more life and no more suffering. He also emphasizes the many forms of pain he desires respite from. There is the “thousand natural shocks” that, through the word natural, evoke an inevitable yet immense pain and then there is the “heart-ache” that appears more intentional and singular in the specific murder of his father. His father’s death and his princely position is further invoked through the word “heir,” given that he is the heir to his father’s crown. Death is a desired (“devoutly…wish’d”) ending (“consummation”) to these manifold sufferings.

“To Be or Not to Be” Soliloquy- Meaning & Analysis (Continued)

The poetics surface through the use of anaphora—repetition of a word or phrase at the start of a line. Hamlet repeats the lines “to die, to sleep,” emphasizing the equation between death and sleep, while also using repetition in a lullaby-like fashion through the songlike refrain. He proceeds to say:

“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 the agonizing  Prince, life (“this mortal coil”) is equated to “calamity” while death is equated to dreaming. But this portion is not merely repetition of his previous aspiration for relief through death. He is beginning to hypothesize why people continue to live in spite of such agonies. In this section, he conjectures that people might continue to suffer “so long”  because they don’t know “what dreams may come” on the other side of life. In other words, people might rather suffer than risk the unknown.

He continues to contemplate why people endure suffering:

”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?”

“To Be or Not to Be” Soliloquy- Meaning & Analysis (Continued)

He wonders how people can “bear” myriad injustices, ranging from the more general “whips and scorns of time” to oppressive acts to difficulty in love to the inaction of the law, and so on. Note again how the most personal matters (“the pangs of despised love”) enmesh with broader structural failings (such as “the law’s delay”). Hamlet sees pain and injustice at every scale—the personal, the political, the individual, and the societal. Hamlet views himself as the victim of legal and personal corruption. Of course, the two are heightened and enmeshed; his father’s murder by his uncle lives at the intersection of both.

It is an open-ended question for the reader/audience as to whether Hamlet is accurately assessing his life’s misfortunes or if he is exaggeratedly framing himself as a victim. Is Hamlet totally at the mercy of unjust forces or does he have agency to change his fortune? Can Hamlet access agency from within grief and despair?

“To Be or Not to Be” Soliloquy- Meaning & Analysis (Continued)

Following this litany of life’s woes, Hamlet shifts from the desire to escape suffering to the fear of the unknown. He asks:

“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?” He essentially argues the no one would grunt through such burdens (“fardels”) if it were not for a fear of what happens after one dies. Death, while an unknown, is a final place from which “no traveller returns.”

The choice to live is framed as something that “puzzles the will,” derived from the pressures of “dread” at the uncertainty of what comes after. In some ways, he is arguing the choice to live arises from adherence to the age old maxim “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” This confounds typical narratives and philosophies around the will to live. Endurance of suffering is not framed as a valiant force of the will prevailing against larger forces. It is instead framed as submission to fear of the unknown. Even the word “fly” implies a sort of agency and freedom in death. The choice is not quite between life and death but between the known and the unknown.

“To Be or Not to Be” Soliloquy- Meaning & Analysis (Continued)

Hamlet’s speech forces the listener to contend with existential questions by reversing typical narratives that yoke life to agency and death to passivity. Instead, he prods at the theory that to live is to be passive in the face of human fear of randomness and chance at the unknown of death. This does not mean that he is bluntly choosing death over life, but interrogating the terms of life and death from within a space of grief and betrayal. His grief and betrayal dismantles his trust in the justice of personal, political, and legal systems. This forces readers to ask whether he is expanding his personal misfortunes to a falsely universal level or if these experiences have opened his eyes to extant and entrenched corruption abound.

Following this string of rhetorical questions, he says: “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.” One could interpret the adage-like phrase “conscience does make cowards of us all” to mean that conscience’s fear of death turns all into cowards. However, another interpretation based on the previous rhetorical questions could expand to mean that it is rather the fear of the unknown that reduces everyone to cowards. By virtue of saying “all,” Hamlet includes himself in this category, thus revealing that he has chosen life. Nevertheless, he frames the choice of life as the cowardly choice.

“To Be or Not to Be” Soliloquy- Meaning & Analysis (Continued)

The lack of virtue in his choice is underscored through the phrase “the native hue of resolution / is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” He depicts his resolution or thought process as sickly and pale. His thoughts render him weak. He loses “the name of action” and becomes swept up, indecisive, and ineffectual. Indeed, the form of the soliloquy mirrors its content. The soliloquy “To Be Or Not To Be” seems to frame the question increasingly inwards around Hamlet’s own desire to live or to die. He is solo and he is in many ways thinking mostly about his own decision to take his life or continue forth.

Yet the theme of life or death also extends toward his potential actions. Were he to kill Claudius, his uncle who he believes slaughtered his father, and Hamlet believes that life is cowardly suffering, then is it a gift to give death to his uncle? Even though it is fraught, Hamlet ultimately decides to continue to live and continue his plot to seek vengeance upon his uncle.

He then notices his conflictual love interest, “The fair Ophelia” approaching. This ends the soliloquy on the level of plot, because he is interrupted, and on the level of form, because he is no longer alone.

“To Be or Not to Be” Soliloquy- Meaning & Analysis (Continued)

The speech forces us to question the idea of agency in life, within Hamlet’s perspective and beyond. Is it more cowardly to live or to die? Do we access agency more by living amidst suffering or by choosing death? This theme intersects with and diverges from what later would come to be termed Existentialism, a branch of philosophy associated most closely with 19th and 20th-century European thinkers. Existentialism typically contends with whether life itself has inherent meaning or is essentially random. Hamlet questions life’s value and significance, and ultimately assigns life neither meaning nor lack thereof but rather a position of passivity, struggle, and powerlessness. Hamlet views life as a known entity of struggle while it is death that contains randomness and chance.

Furthermore, by highlighting the way Hamlet uses metaphors of war to describe his internal turmoil and comingled grievances of the state and of the intimate, we can see how the speech is making an argument potentially about politics and individual power. If the state is corrupt, do individuals have the power to change that corruption? Or do individuals lack the power to do anything but suffer under endlessly corrupt systems? Would it be more willful to endure or to exit the system entirely? Hamlet’s role as a Prince collapses the personal and the political. He simply cannot separate his personal relationships (father-son, lovers, uncle-nephew, et cetera) from their political valences (king, prince, queen, et cetera).

“To Be or Not to Be” Soliloquy- Meaning & Analysis (Continued)

Hamlet’s own ability to reason is thrown into question. In addition to his pretend madness, this speech thematizes how his utter grief and despair affect his ability to reason. The repetition of sleeping and dreaming connotes a relation between death and peacefulness, while also evoking the underlying surreality that penetrates waking life. Is Hamlet’s view of reality clear and rational? Or is his reality clouded by how the nightmarish circumstances have affected his ability to be reasonable? In this way, a central theme of the play/soliloquy is the struggle to determine what is truly real. What is reality, what is belief, what is madness, what is dream?

Hamlet’s soliloquy also makes us ask how we decipher fact from fiction, reality from performance. The play and this soliloquy in particular make use of the theatrical fictive frame. Hamlet has decided to act as if he has gone mad as part of his plan to exact revenge and extract information. Yet clearly his suicidal ideation makes us wonder if his grasp on reality has been actually shaken.

“To Be or Not to Be” Soliloquy- Meaning & Analysis (Continued)

The central part of his plan involves staging a play that contains a similar murder plot as the one he believes Claudius commited against his father. Hamlet intends to observe Claudius’ reaction to determine his guilt. These elements of a ‘play within a play’ structure and the fictive character of Hamlet deciding to intentionally put in a ‘fake’ act within the already existing performance of an actor make us question what is reality and what is a performance. Is Hamlet’s character actually mad or is he acting mad?

To Be or Not to Be – Parting Thoughts

We, as readers, are put in the hot seat. In our analysis of Hamlet’s soliloquy “To Be Or Not To Be” we are reading the words for an actor pretending to play Hamlet pretending to go mad. Where do you, as a reader, stand? A rich exercise to go even deeper is to listen to several performances of the soliloquy after analyzing the text. This will allow you to see how different actors interpret “To Be Or Not To Be” through their performance!

Additional Resources

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