To be or not to be – original text, translation, analysis, facts and performances

To be or not to be, that is the question’. Read Hamlet’s famous soliloquy by Shakespeare below, along with a modern translation and explanation of what ‘To be or not to be’ is about. We’ve also pulled together a bunch of facts about the famous soliloquy, and have the 5 most famous film performances of ‘to be or not to be’.

‘To be or not to be’ is the most famous soliloquy in the works of Shakespeare – probably, even, the most famous soliloquy anywhere. That is partly because the opening words are so interesting, memorable and intriguing but also because Shakespeare ranges around several cultures and practices to borrow the language for his images, and because he’s dealing here with profound concepts, putting complex philosophical ideas into the mouth of a character on a stage, communicating with an audience with a wide range of educational levels.

‘To Be Or Not To Be’: Original Words Spoken by Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 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 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,
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? 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?
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.–Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.

‘To Be Or Not To Be’: Translation

The below translation of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy is taken from the NoSweatShakespeare Hamlet ebook.

The question for him was whether to continue to exist or not – whether it was more noble to suffer the slings and arrows of an unbearable situation, or to declare war on the sea of troubles that afflict one, and by opposing them, end them. To die. He pondered the prospect. To sleep – as simple as that. And with that sleep we end the heartaches and the thousand natural miseries that human beings have to endure. It’s an end that we would all ardently hope for. To die. To sleep. To sleep. Perhaps to dream. Yes, that was the problem, because in that sleep of death the dreams we might have when we have shed this mortal body must make us pause. That’s the consideration that creates the calamity of such a long life. Because, who would tolerate the whips and scorns of time; the tyrant’s offences against us; the contempt of proud men; the pain of rejected love; the insolence of officious authority; and the advantage that the worst people take of the best, when one could just release oneself with a naked blade? Who would carry this load, sweating and grunting under the burden of a weary life if it weren’t for the dread of the after life – that unexplored country from whose border no traveller returns? That’s the thing that confounds us and makes us put up with those evils that we know rather than hurry to others that we don’t know about. So thinking about it makes cowards of us all, and it follows that the first impulse to end our life is obscured by reflecting on it. And great and important plans are diluted to the point where we don’t do anything.

What do you think of the modern translation of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy above? Let us know in the comments below.

‘To Be Or Not To Be’ Analysis

The first six words establish a balance. There is a direct opposition – to be, or not to be. Hamlet is thinking about life and death and pondering a state of being versus a state of not being – being alive and being dead.

The balance continues with a consideration of the way one deals with life and death. Life is a lack of power: the living are at the mercy of the blows of outrageous fortune. The only action one can take against the things he lists among those blows is to end one’s life. That’s the only way of opposing them. Death is therefore empowering: killing oneself is a way of taking action, taking up arms, opposing and defeating the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Living is a passive state; dying is an active state. But in order to reach the condition of death one has to take action in life – charge fully armed against Fortune – so the whole proposition is circular and hopeless because one does not really have the power of action in life.

Death is something desirable – devoutly  to be wished, a consummation – a perfect closure. It’s nothing more than a sleep. But there’s a catch, which Hamlet calls a rub. A ‘rub’ is a bowls term meaning an obstacle on the bowls lawn that diverts the bowl, so the fear of the life hereafter is the obstacle that makes us pause and perhaps change the direction of our thinking. We don’t control our dreams so what dreams may come in that sleep in which we have shuffled off all the fuss and bother of life? He uses the word ‘coil,’ which is an Elizabethan word for a big fuss, such as there may be in the preparations for a party or a wedding – a lot of things going on and a lot of rushing about. With that thought Hamlet stops to reconsider. What will happen when we have discarded all the hustle and bustle of life? The problem with the proposition is that life after death is unknown and could be worse than life. It’s a very frightening thought. That’s the obstacle on the lawn and it diverts his thoughts to another direction.

And now Hamlet reflects on a final end. A ‘quietus’ is a legal word meaning a final definitive end to an argument. He opposes this Latin word against  the Celtic ‘sweating’ and ‘grunting’ of a living person as an Arab beneath an overwhelmingly heavy load – a fardel, the load carried by a camel. Who would bear that when he could just draw a line under life with something as simple as a knitting needle – a bodkin? It’s quite a big thought and it’s fascinating that this enormous act – drawing a line under life – can be done with something as simple as a knitting needle. And how easy that seems.

Hamlet now lets his imagination wander on the subject of the voyages of discovery and the exploratory expeditions. Dying is like crossing the border between known and unknown geography. One is likely to be lost in that unmapped place, from which one would never return. The implication is that there may be unimagined horrors in that land.

Hamlet now seems to make a decision. He makes the profound judgment that ‘conscience does make cowards of us all,’ This sentence is probably the most important one in the soliloquy. There is a religious dimension to it as it is a sin to take one’s life. So with that added dimension the fear of the unknown after death is intensified.

But there is more to it than that. It is not just about killing himself but also about the mission he is on – to avenge his father’s death by killing his father’s murderer. Throughout the action of the play he makes excuses for not killing him and turns away when he has the chance. ‘Conscience does make cowards of us all.’ Convention demands that he kill Claudius but murder is a sin and that conflict is the core of the play.

At the end of the soliloquy he pulls himself out of this reflective mode by deciding that too much thinking about it is the thing that will prevent the action he has to rise to.

This is not entirely a moment of possible suicide. It’s not that he’s contemplating suicide as much as reflecting on life, and we find that theme all through the text. In this soliloquy life is burdensome and devoid of power. In another it’s ‘weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,’ like a garden overrun with weeds. In this soliloquy Hamlet gives a list of all the things that annoy him about life: 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. But there’s a sense of agonised frustration in this soliloquy that however bad life is we’re prevented from doing anything about it by fear of the unknown.

Facts About ‘To Be Or Not To Be’

1. The first performance of Hamlet was by the King’s Men at the Globe theatre between 1600 and 1601.

2. The first actor to perform the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy was Richard Burbage (1567-1619), the famous Elizabethan tragic actor, for whom Shakespeare wrote most of his tragic roles.

3. The first American performance of ‘to be or not to be’ was by Lewis Hallam, who played Hamlet in The American Company’s production of the play in Philadelphia in 1759.

4. The ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy is 33 lines long, and consists of 262 words. Hamlet, the play in which ‘to be or not to be’ occurs is Shakespeare’s longest play with 4,042 lines.

5. It takes four hours to perform Hamlet on the stage, with the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy taking anywhere from 2 to 4 minutes.

6. There is evidence that William Shakespeare played the ghost of Hamlet’s father in the play.

7. Hamlet is the most frequently performed play around the world.  It has been calculated that a performance begins somewhere in the world every minute of every day.

8. Edwin Booth, the older brother of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, performed ‘to be or not to be’ for one hundred nights in his role of Hamlet at the Winter Garden Theatre, New York, in the 1864/65 season.

9. The castle, Elsinor, where ‘to be or not to be’ is spoken, really exists. It is called Kronborg Castle and is in the Danish port of Helsingør. It was built in 1423 by the Danish king, Eric of Pomerania.

10. The opening line of the soliloquy, ‘to be or not to be, that is the question,’ is the most searched for Shakespeare quote on the internet.

11. More than 200 women have performed ‘to be or not to be’ in the role of Hamlet on the professional stage.

12. The first woman to have performed ‘to be or not to be’ on the stage was Sarah Siddons, the toast of Dury Lane, and famous in her time for her Lady Macbeth. She first played Hamlet in 1776.

13. The ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy has appeared in over 50 film adaptations of Hamlet since 1900.

14. The storyline of Disney film The Lion King is based on Hamlet.

15. Tom Stoppard’s  acclaimed play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, features two minor characters in Hamlet.

16. At least two films have been named after quotes from the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy – 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (line 24, “The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn“) and 1998’s What Dreams May Come (line 11 “For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come“)

17. In a 1963 debate in Oxford, Malcolm X quoted the first few lines of the ‘to be or not to be’ to make a point about “extremism in defence of liberty.”

Any ‘to be or not to be’ facts we’re missing? Let us know in the comments below.

Classic Film Performances of ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ Soliloquy

As per the above facts, there have been over 50 film adaptations of Hamlet, featuring some of the world’s finest actors. Below in no particular order) we’ve picked out five of the top performances of Shakespeare’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy from the silver screen:

Lawrence Olivier (1948)

Kenneth Brannagh (1996)

David Tennant (2009)

Mel Gibson (1990)

Ben Crystal – in original pronunciation

Richard Burton (1964)

John Gilegud (1948)

Ethan Hawke (2000)

Arnold Schwarzenneger (1993)

Patrick Stewart

What do you think of these soliloquy interpretations? Anyone else who should have made the top five?

92 replies
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  1. sy
    sy says:

    Actually, it can be argued by two views. Yes, Hamlet could be contemplating suicide, but also whether to take action for his father’s murder. It depends on how you really view and understand Hamlet. During the play, he gives no sign of depression, in which if he did have, would not try avenge his father’s death, or set up the play for Claudius and his mother. If he was truly depressed, he would not do any of that, he would not care about anything. In the play, it does not suggest suicide. It can be argued, but I’m just throwing another opinion out there because it depends on how you configure his soliloquy.

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      Sy, your logic is false due to your assumption that suicide necessarily comes from a state of depression; this is a false premise. For contemplative, philosophically minded people living is necessarily a choice which must be made again and again; living (‘to be’) is not a default position. Depression is a psychological disorder which implies a fundamental imbalance in the individual which is disconnected from reality; however, contemplating taking one’s life in the wake of a personal tragedy is quite normal for a thinker, for there is no mental taboo that circumvents such areas. Furthermore we belong to an era wherein action is lauded and reflection is undervalued; all emphasis is placed on ‘hard sciences’ and ‘facts’, and, recognition is given to neither the genesis of such fields of knowledge, nor, to the nature of human knowledge. All science is born from philosophy; each field of knowledge breaks away from its parent when it becomes mature. The context and genesis, or ‘nature of human knowledge’ is that it is borne of human perception, which in turn comes from our senses. The information we receive from our eyes, for example, is filtered through our brains prior to seeing, thus we literally modify reality according to our individual predilections and fears; after which we further individualize our perception further by processing this information with deductive and inductive inferences, or, we jump to familiar conclusions (conditioned by society, family etc.). Our world-view changes what we perceive and decides how we may respond to our perception. Your interpretation, completely modifies the meaning of this text and illustrates how our world-view molds our everyday perceptions.
      From a Christian perspective, these fundamental questions have been answered; this necessitates total acceptance of the validity of the Bible and the faithfulness of the God depicted therein; therefore asking rather, ‘God, how may I best serve you?’, ‘what is Your will?’ This is incredibly difficult as the Christian’s yardstick is a bronze-age text from a very different culture from our own with a totally different set of assumptions. Shakespeare is far easier to understand in context, though not without difficulty if done thoroughly.
      Shakespeare’s language in this soliloquy is limpid and can in no way be taken to be a reflection of which action to take regarding his father’s murder; he is simply questioning the point of it all, the absurdity, the unbearable lightness of being. Therefore he must decide ‘to be, or, not to be’ before he decides whether or not he should take action.
      I have thought exactly the same thoughts myself (less beautifully expressed) on many occasions since the time I started to think for myself and question the myriad assumptions our factual conclusions are based upon. This soliloquy truly is a beautiful rendition of fundamental metaphysical questions that the flesh is heir to; we are, after all, human beings and not human doings.

      • denny
        denny says:

        That was absolutely brilliant! You have indeed summed up what this means to me. Thank you for putting it in such an excellent light.

      • john
        john says:

        Nice job, Chris. Thoughtful, very thoughtful. And useful as well.

        I never thought that Hamlet was depressed. But he was presented with a seemingly insoluble situation since the deck was so stacked against him. As he was so completely blocked from doing the honorable thing, he was having this internal discussion about what was the nobler course. I think he would have preferred “hitting the light switch” – but for his fear that wouldn’t have done the trick. So he chose toughing it out, but not because it was the nobler course – he simply couldn’t accept the consequences of the uncertainty of the alternative.

        I recite this periodically – it never ceases to bring me to tears.

    • hlo
      hlo says:

      In my opinion existential depression or existential crisis cannot considered as depression. The person going through existential crises will question the meaning, the purpose and the value of life however he/she does not necessarily have to show major symptoms of depression. There was this guy in Turkey called Mehmet Pişkin who committed suicide because he was in a point in his life where he realized that life had no meaning and everything he did was meaningless. He recorded a video right before he killed himself and said that he wasn’t in a depression what so ever and wanted to end his life because he couldn’t find joy in living. Therefore I believe Hamlet is going through an existential crises and is considering suicide.

  2. Mr. Foutch
    Mr. Foutch says:

    Nicely done. Just what I need to help w/this weighty piece of lit. I’ve an MA in English Literature. I couldn’t/wouldn’t have abbreciated the speech any other way. Thanks.

  3. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    Strikes me the language of Shakespeare is pretty permanent.Hamlet’s main speech in its original form/s remains probably the most powerful and eloquent in the English language and certainly not hard to understand, especially when you start to hear its music. .Some language, like good grammar and speliing, which boosts clarity and understanding is indeed permanent.

  4. Gerald Sherman
    Gerald Sherman says:

    I can perhaps see the desirability of translating some of Shakespeare into modern English. Words change meanings over time, and things which may have made sense a few centuries ago no longer do. Look at the King James translation of the Bible, and compare it with a version that uses modern English.
    At the same time, I find some modern grammatical errors appalling. People use “it’s” as the possessive form of “it”. The correct spelling here is “its” – “it’s” is a contraction of “it is”. Maybe I notice some of these things because I am actually from England, although I have spent most of my life in Canada. In addition, I took classical Latin at university, and tend to take a somewhat analytical view, from a language viewpoint, of anything written. Incidentally, I am on the wrong side of 70 years old, but this doesn’t mean my brain has turned into a fossil or that my memory is “absent without leave”, to use the military expression.

  5. Samantha
    Samantha says:

    I believe that even though people today may not know how to read Shakespeare, at least they care enough to try and understand what it is he was trying to convey. I know that he is now infamous for his beautiful language. The message is most important.

  6. Ipomoe
    Ipomoe says:

    It is written in English, yes. But clearly not in the easiest to understand for anyone who wasn’t born in an English-speaking country. I’m French, and reading the appalling translations of Shakespeare I was given at school, I decided to read only the original text. And frankly, I thank whoever “translated” this, because if it isn’t a replacement to the subtleties in Shakespeare’s words, it’s a nice way to help me to understand the idea, and at the same time to improve my English.

    PS : Apart from that, I completely agree with donna, the level of students is really low these days, and I fear it isn’t only in America.

  7. Meg
    Meg says:

    Be happy that you study English in America or wherever. Here in India we can spot errors in our english text books. Spellings, grammar and the teachers teaching us. Haha.

  8. donna
    donna says:

    I am completely failing to understand why there are so many requests for “translations” of Shakespeare’s work when it is so very clearly already written in English.

    Tis a truly sad comment on the education system in America at today. I see comments on countless websites and/or blogs and read assignments written by college students in the local American Sign Language interpreter program that would seem to indicate that the average American college student cannot discern the differences between “there,”: “their,” or “they’re.” “Your” and “you’re” as well as “lose” and “loose,” “allowed” and “aloud,” and “affect” versus “effect” all seem to be completely lost to students these days. I would never have been allowed out of my public elementary school without knowing these things, and, at the risk of having sounded like my own parents, it really wasn’t all that long ago. I have a friend whose (not who’s) thirteen year old daughter goes to a private school in northern Virginia that costs more per year than many of Virginia’s state colleges and universities. Even as she prepares to enter high school, the poor kid is very nearly functionally illiterate. That said, she is completely comfortable composing a Facebook page where she can show the world just how wonderfully her expensive private school education has prepared her thus far.

    To quote the aforementioned thirteen year old, “I’m just sayin’ …”

    • Lindie J
      Lindie J says:

      Well I’M just saying that Shakespeare’s work is pretty hard to understand not because we are illiterate or stupid as you are suggesting. However, because it is apparent that you are living under a rock, I feel the urge to politely point out to you that we no longer live in a time period where we speak in inverse sentence structures, iambic pentameter or basically, Shakespearean language.

      PS: “I’m just sayin’ ”
      PPS: You obviously do not appreciate the wonders of Facebook, so screw you.

      • Ophelia
        Ophelia says:

        As a history major, I would like to point out that there was never a time period during which people spoke regularly in iambic pentameter.

    • Kathleen
      Kathleen says:

      I totally agree. My step-granddaughter starred in The Merchant of Venice in Canada and spoke the King’s English and understood every word. She was in the 4th (fourth, not forth) grade! So much for our education system here. People today lack so much because they stay on social media so much of the time.

    • Sarah
      Sarah says:

      Why, may I ask, are you even on this webpage if you do not want to read the translation? Have you nothing better to do than to search for webpages on which you may rant about the supposed lack of intelligence and stupidity about the young generation?

      • Scott
        Scott says:

        The lady doth protest too much, methinks. Other Comments talk about ignorance and lack of effort. No one is attacking people about stupidity or lack intelligence. It is these subtleties that allow us to appreciate (in my case, struggle through) Shakespeare.

        • Melancholy Jack
          Melancholy Jack says:

          You’ve knowingly or perhaps unknowingly demonstrated the evolution of language with that quote Scott, and argued, more succinctly than anyone, the case for a modern rendering of Shakespeare:
          ‘Protest’ in the Shakespearean usage means ‘to promise’ or ‘declare’. Gertrude was saying the Queen in The Mousetrap was overdoing it with her vow to the king. A reader new to the play, regardless of their level of education or where they come from, Donna, would understand the word to literally mean protest, but of course the lady protests nothing; she promises much.
          Help with Shakespeare is never a bad thing. He deliberately seizes on double meanings with many words for poetic and mischievous purposes. But time was beyond his genius, and has made some extracts of Shakespeare a minefield of language, where he did not intend it to be.

    • Ben
      Ben says:

      There can also be finer points that are lost if not familiar with the language and customs of 400+ years ago. For example, even more recently, the founding fathers of the United states talked about all men being free and equal, the not actually talking about all men or any women.

    • asshole
      asshole says:

      You’re a sloppy sagging piece of foreskin. Just because you took pride in learning traditional English dialogue doesn’t mean every kid in America has to be the same. Kids nowadays are more exposed to media and what not and it’s changing language, you don’t have to add you’re unappreciated opinion, even though it may be accurate. Learn the fact that there is no language that is permanent.

      • Oli
        Oli says:

        Wow. Shakespeare would be proud and I’m sure Oscar Wilde applauded. Why do all internet forums have to devolve into insult and mindless penis insults?

        To those who came here and are now asking ‘why do we need a translation?’ I say this…… Why are you here? If you think a translation is unnecessary, then the only reason you clicked a link for a translation must be to offend those who want one. So it’s a little rich of you to sit and judge people’s transliteration skills when you’re here for a purpose far shallower and base than the others.

        On to the transliteration, I thought it was a fair assessment of the text. It can be shortened much further to ‘ I’m thinking of killing myself as life is full of cruelties but I won’t because I don’t know what will happen after and I’m scared. Surely that’s the reason any of us live. Shh, the mistress is coming and I’m talking to myself’. but I think the much abbreviated version loses the impact a ‘bit’.

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