"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."

Some say that Hamlet is not contemplating suicide, because it would not make dramatic sense for him to. If he wanted to suicide, he would have done it in the beginning, not waiting until the middle of the play. He knows too much about the murder of his father, and Claudius's guilt to want to die. Hamlet's intentions were probably more to contemplate whether or not he will follow the ghost's words, as he will most likely damn his own soul if he does go through with the revenge plot. He knows that he may be damned, so whether to be damned or not to be damned, could be another viewpoint. My English teacher argued this one in class, and this is the conclusion we came to.

Arguably the most famous phrase in the English language, used, and abused, almost since the moment The Bard composed them.

Hamlet is the archetypal intellectual: he is unable to do, only to be. In so many ways, this soliloquy sums up the drama of the play.

Hamlet is caught between the cycles, and waves of a tradition that requires him to avenge the murder of his father--who has no name--by his Uncle Claudius. This is represented by the low, menacing repetition of "Remember Me," beneath the floor boards by the ghost of Hamlet, Sr., for lack of a better name.

The duration of the play is the duration of Hamlet's deliberation, as a good university student, and intellectual. This is the "not to be".

Ultimately, he succumbs to the tides of history--this is the "to be".

Clearly, the reason this play, if not most of Shakespeare is not popular, and is considered boring--how many people think, or think enough to fight what instinct, and eveyone around them, tells them what to be?

Hamlet's famous soliloquy, in Act III, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's play Hamlet (for full scene, see Hamlet 3:1)

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 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,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despis'd 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? who would these 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?
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.

A very good movie by Ernst Lubitsch made in 1942, about a troupe of actors in Poland just after the Nazis have invaded the country. Their theater is then closed, but they become involved in espionage, and have to put their skills to a good use.

This movie is witty, though it is dark humor that makes us laugh. Lubitsch proves that yes, it is possible to laugh about concentration camps. It was Carole Lombard's last movie, she died in a plane crash before its release. A remake was made in 1983 by Mel Brooks

"To Be or Not To Be" was also a British TV series in the 80s. It was shown on ITV.

The main theme is anorexia and the way it affects families. The series opens with a girl aged about 17 coming home from boarding school - she claims this is so she can revise for a major Latin exam, but in fact she asked to come home to get away from the lack of privacy at school. Her name is Lizzie, short for Elizabeth, and she is her mother's favourite, head girl at her school, and has a place at Cambridge (the best university in Britain, except Oxford - if you're aiming for the top, people say you'll go to "Oxbridge") - in short, the perfect academic achiever. It is indicated that she used to be an outwardly pleasant, hardworking and happy person, but throughout the series she alternates between shy, closed in evasiveness and sudden outbursts.

Her elder sister, Maggie, short for Margaret, is taking a mechanics course that her mother disapproves of as she considers it unladylike. She is easy going and doesn't understand the change in her sister. She is the first to suggest anorexia as the cause of the change and critizes her mother for pressuring Lizzie into working do hard.

Their mother, Mrs Robertson, is a well-meaning but often misguided woman, seemingly unable to accept Maggie's choice of career. She is very concerned and confused at the way Lizzie keeps her distance, and outraged when in one of Lizzie's outbursts she claims "You never loved me, either."

There is one more character, Andrew, who used to be friends with Lizzie before her mental illness began. He is an entirely decent person (Mrs Robertson wholeheartedly approves of him, and invites him round without telling Lizzie in advance in the hope he will be able to get through to her.) He is as lost as Maggie and Mrs Robertson are by the new Lizzie.

Her illness is clear to the viewers, since there are scenes showing Lizzie measuring her waist with a tape measure, binging and throwing up. The series ends with Lizzie and Mrs Robertson returning from a doctor who has diagnosed Lizzie with anorexia. There follows an emotional scene in which Mrs Robertson expresses her frustration and fury at Lizzie's earlier claim that her father (who left them when they were young) was the only one who'd ever loved her. Lizzie begs her mother to help her recover and says "It's not about dad". Hugging and crying finally end the series.

The screen play is available with three others in a book called "Challenges". It's near-impossible to do on stage without altering some of the props, scenery and so on (how are you meant to get a car on stage?) but it can be worked out quite nicely.

(Personally, this play annoys me hugely, because I have to act Lizzie and she gets lines like "I mean, do I really exist or am I just something you've all made up?" and "I love you.. I love you all.. I just hate me.. the way I am.." that I can't do convincingly, because I just can't see into her mind. I'm also meant to have a ocncave stomach, and I'm thin but not -that- thin. Aside from my personal grudges though it's not a bad play and probably made a good series.)

(Also - My apologies for the lack of detail on who originally acted in it, who wrote it etc - it wasn't a huge success and I haven't found much information on it, but I will find out more about it when I get a copy on Monday.)

The speech is actually fairly surprising if you parse it line by line. Chunks of the following analysis are cribbed from On The Value Of Hamlet by Stephen Booth, which is also the best essay on the play that I have ever come across.

To be, or not to be,--that is the
question:--


So far so good. two distinct ideas, cleanly deliniated.

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?


Already the speech has begun to undercut expectations and to push stock ideas of life and death out of their usual contexts. Living -- "to be" -- is here reduced to mere suffering, a passive activity. This action is also rendered passively ("in the mind to suffer"),  while death (via suicide) is presented as a heroic action, in active language. The distinction of the speech's first line is already beginning to blur, with active life rendered as a kind of inertia and passivity, while the achievement of death, the cessation of all action, is rendered as passionate activity.

In addition, the somewhat garden path construction of "whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer / the slings and arrows" adds another layer of difficulty for an audience member attempting to interpret the speech.  Is this phrase contextualizing "to be or not to to be" as a question of which is the more noble only in the mind? No, "in the mind" is actually the first clause of the idea of "to be," and attaches to the idea of suffering slings and arrows, ultimately underscoring the passive nature of existence that the speech presents by further reducing it to mental activity alone.

A mind encountering the portion of the speech bolded just above is likely, then, to have a somewhat contrary response. On the one hand, it fulfills the "A or B" logic that "To be or not to be" delineates - it begins a comparison of two ideas in the order originally outlined. But it does so in ways that subvert the easiness of that distinction and that work to press the two ideas together rather than distinguish between them.

In general, we will see that the speech repeatedly conflates opposites into single ideas.

--To die,--to sleep,-- No more;

These six words actually do a lot of work. One gloss for them is that "to die is to sleep never again," a reinforcement of the original contrast of "to be or not to be." On the other hand, this phrasing also means its own opposite -- that "to die is nothing more than to sleep," a continuation of activity rather than its completion. Once more, the opposite ideas of being and nonexistence are being conflated, and the original logic of the speech is being subverted.

A word on the sleep metaphor: popular literary convention in Shakespeare's era used it both for states of life approaching death as well as for death itself, with the afterlife represented as a kind of dreaming. This particular speech will get a lot of mileage out of the fact that it can therefore be used to represent both living and its opposite simultaneously. 

and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,

1. "Heir": introduces an idea of continuity from generation to generation despite individual mortality that the speech will get a lot of mileage out of.

2. "Heir": a word that is of particular importance to Hamlet's character, since his thwarted inheritance is one of the primary items that motivates him.

3. "the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to": introduces a Christian ethos the speech (i.e. human beings, "flesh," are heir to the curse of Adam)...

--'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd.


3. (cont) ...which is immediatedly recast ironically in "devoutly to be wished," which reconsiders the blasphemous act of suicide in a specifically religious light. Additionally, note the heavy lifting that "consummation" does here, simultaneously accenting ideas not only of conclusion, mortality and Christian perfection, but also of sexual completion -- a final meaning that lightly re-contextualizes "flesh" after the fact and essentially doubles down on the ironic and blasphemous nature of this brief aside.

To die,--to sleep;--

A minor variation on an earlier phrase ("--To die,--to sleep,-- No more") that again contextualizes the subsequent passage in terms both of contrast between and conflation of the ideas of "sleep" and "death" (which will be further accented by "sleep of death" below).

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;


4a. "shuffled off this mortal coil": 'cast off the turmoil of this life' -- "not to be"
4b. "shuffled off...coil": an act that rejuvenates a snake -- "to be"

In line with earlier metaphors, the shuffled coil here also represents its own opposite, further reinforcing the earlier presentation of life as a kind of suffering, while also presenting the action that concludes life through an image that itself suggests life's continuity, as with "heir" above.

(A similar image that represents simultaneous continuity and conclusion is available in Claudius's speech to Hamlet in the play's second scene. The King, attempting to pull his nephew back to the land of the living, perversely presents "death of fathers" as a "common theme" of life, essentially urging young Hamlet to get over it. In doing so, he simultaneously emphasizes both generational continuity and individual mortality).

5a. "makes calamity of so long life": 'makes a calamity of such great length'
5b. "makes calamity of so long life": 'turns a long life into a calamity'

This phrase underscores the living-as-suffering idea presented in the speech's opening lines, and though its multiple meanings compliment rather than conflict with each other (both equate life with lengthy suffering), the phrase's elision of simple interpretation nonetheless contributes to an additional degree of confusion. 

Also note that the idea of the afterlife as unknown is touched upon here, but only euphemistically  ("what dreams may come"); the speech will return to this idea later.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despis'd 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? who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

A relatively straightforward expansion of the "life is suffering" theme, but...

But that the dread of something after death,--
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns,

...this is problematic. The idea of 'no traveller returning' from the dead has already been touched upon in this speech. It is a truism that "no traveller {has yet} return{ed}" from the afterlife in all contexts except within a play where the hero's father has come back from the dead to spur him to revenge. "The dread of something after death" is especially daring in this context, since it introduces the ideas both of the afterlife and of eternal punishment, ideas that should -- but do not -- call to mind Hamlet's earlier encounter with the ghost of his father.

Additionally, though "bourn" in this instance obviously glosses for "limits" -- a concept that the speech obviously fights against -- that is not its only active meaning. Since the word "whose" denotes a personal possessive, "bourn" also cannot avoid a slight but nonetheless real sense of reference to "birthing," i.e. "whose birth," thereby re-introducing a faint sense of life's continuity into a discussion of its permanent conclusion.

The speech has further paved the way for this meaning, in phrases such as "bare bodkin," "bear the whips and scorns" and "fardels bear," for a subtle emphasis on "bourn." Although "bare" in bodkin here means "naked," and although the latter two examples both mean "endure," Shakespeare's use of these words nonetheless creates a rhetorical context where "from whose bourn / No traveller returns" emerges both as a fresh expression of an implicit theme in the speech and also onto well-paved turf at the same time (Shakespeare, incidentally, loves punning on the word "bear" in many of his plays; when Antigonus exits pursued by a live mammal in The Winter's Tale, it is after the play has been riffing on "bear," "bore," "born," "bare," and so forth for nearly three acts).

This phrase thus participates variously in the larger context of conclusion vs. continuity that the larger speech presents, for instance in the succession, coil-shuffling and death-as-sleep metaphors, at the very moment that it is attempting to clearly deliniate the idea that death is final. I suspect (but have no way to prove) that this is why one generally elicits a note of surprise when one points out the italicized contradiction above -- it is surprising because the micro-level tug in this speech between conclusion and continuity helps to paper over the much larger issue of plot discontinuity.

The rest of the speech behaves as though it has been riffing on a coherent idea throughout; as Booth notes, it also describes the action of hearing the speech itself:

--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 pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said something along the lines of how the mark of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold contradictory ideas simultaneously. I submit that the "to be or not to be speech" in Hamlet, Hamlet itself, and indeed most of Shakespeare's plays are all vehicles for the production of great minds.

This speech starts by out by presenting "to be" and "not to be" as two simple opposites to be evaluated in turn, then launches into a series of examples that complicate and subvert and contradict the idea that they are, in fact, opposites at all, then finally comes out of the whole mess with a single idea as though nothing strange has happened. In truth, however the minds of an audience to the speech have effortlessly reconciled a small cascade of irreconcilable ideas: for instance, that death is both a cessation of life and its continuation. This speech gets away with this largely without notice because Shakespeare's rhetorical skills are so subtle; indeed, the speech does a great deal of complex, obfuscatory work at the same time that it is implicitly suggesting that it is simple and plainspoken.

Indeed, the whole play is actually kind of like that.

“To be, or not to be, that’s the question: …..”

The first line of Hamlet’s famous monologue about death and its consequences. It is followed by these four lines:

“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. ……………. “

The lines describe the classical choice we have to make when we get into trouble: do we accept our fate because we see the suffering as a just punishment for our sins (mere fatality has no deep roots in western civlization), or, do we put up a fight and try to eliminate the problems and perhaps even those who threaten us. It makes you think of the biblical story about Job’s submission to God’s will. Perhaps it makes you think of how some historians have blamed the Jews for this same passive attitude of submission to their fate which in their view made the holocaust possible, or at least more easily feasible. In their opinion the Jews should have taken “arms against a sea of troubles”.

Certainly in Shakepeare’s day more than in ours this was a real dilemma. The medieval attitude of humble acceptance of suffering seen as God’s will was still considered to be a morally elevated (noble) way of dealing with problems in one’s life.

The fact that this dilemma gets so much emphasis at this point in the play is a bit unexpected. Hamlet has already promised his father “to take arms”, that is, to revenge his father’s murder, hasn’t he? Is he having second thoughts on philosophical or moral grounds, then? The answer is clearly negative, his dawdling mainly results from his hesitation about who or what the ghost really is and whether it tells the truth about his uncle.

The four lines state a moral, a philosophical problem. The funny thing, however, is that Hamlet, distracted by intense emotions of sadness (his father’s death), fear (the confrontation with his father’s ghost) and hatred (his mother’s behaviour and his uncle’s crime), should bring up this philosophical discussion at all. Also, the wording is out of character: commentators have pointed out the stiffness of the language in these lines and the (very much unlike Shakespeare), mixed metaphor (arms against a sea of …. ). The lines just don’t seem to fit in On top of this there is the problem of logical continuity and coherence in the first six lines. I have not been able to find a clear and straightforward explanation, experts give a few more or less acceptable interpretations.

All in all, a confusing business. Maybe, just maybe, a look at a contemporary version of the play, the so-called “First Quarto” of Hamlet can be of some help. Even though this is recognizably the same play, it is radically different. It’s much shorter and some of the names are different. So why look at it? Well, the part with the monologue in it is much like our accepted version. Here are some of the lines from this part of the play in the First Quarto:K

King: See where he comes poring upon a book.
Enter Hamlet

Corambis: And here, Ofelia, read you on this book And walk aloof; the king shall be unseen.
Exeunt the King and Corambis

Hamlet: To be, or not to be; ay there’s the point. To die, to sleep: is that all? Ay all.

Yes, the four lines we have just discussed are missing! And yes, Hamlet appears with a book on the stage here. In the commonly used version his mother mentions his being occupied with a book in the second act.

Well, he is a student, isn’t he. Students use books. But surely this isn’t a time for him to be doing his homework? An explanation could be that he is trying to find advice on how to proceed in the tricky situation he finds himself in in a theological or philosophical work. After all, it is not an unnatural act for a student to try and find answers to problems in books.

Once you accept the possibility that Hamlet is reading a book , a book in which he hopes to find good advice, when he appears on the stage just before his conversation with Ophelia, a new explanation of the first few lines of the monologue offers itself. The problems of coherence and style would vanish if the four lines did not express Hamlet’s thoughts, but were read aloud by him from the book (a philosophical work)he is holding.

Suddenly the passage becomes clear: in his search for an answer to his problems in philosophical literature Hamlet has come across the dilemma of the basic attitudes of acceptance versus resistance in life. Hamlet, however, rejects this dilemma outright. To be or not to be, to live or to die, that is what he sees as the real choice. He rejects the moral/philosophical authority of his book which gives him the choice of passive acceptance or active resistance. That just will not do in Hamlet’s view. The real choice for him, at that point in the play, is the one between life and death, not between two different attitudes in life.

Looking at the text in this way, the first line does not explicitly mention suicide but the idea of suicide is implicitly there, of course. The remaining part of the monologue deals with the consequences of the choice for death.

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