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. Arin Dogan
    Arin Dogan says:

    I have recently made a translation of the soliloguy to Turkish for my blog, thank you for gathering the performances which helped greatly. I have to suggest Derek Jacobi’s performance. I think he deserves to be in top five with Tennant and Olivier.

  2. anonymous
    anonymous says:

    There’s a sort-of modern, off-beat production of hamlet going in NYC that’s slightly different from the original (I believe?) called Sleep No More.

  3. Dakota Guerre
    Dakota Guerre says:

    I dont know about anyone else, but ive been waiting to see Arnold’s adaptation of Hamlet since i saw it in the Last Action Hero. Looked pretty good to me.

  4. Kiyoshi Wada
    Kiyoshi Wada says:

     The other day I read To be or not to be (Shakespeare) –From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2012 / 05 / 23) which I had happened to print out. It says in Interpretation that the third main point of disagreement about this speech is what the apparent theme of endurance vs. action (“ to suffer..or..take arms ”) has to do with being and nonbeing, and is further elaborated as follows, “Whether
    ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer…Or to take arms…” seems clearly to ask whether it is better to be stoically passive to life’s troubles or heroically active against them. The trouble is how this relates to ‘to be or not to be’ …
    There is a considerable disagreement over the very question presented here in Interpretation ( how the theme of the whether clause relates to ‘to be or not to be’), and I do not think that this quite reasonable question is attached as much importance as it should be.
    The following is my interpretation of the first few lines of Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy, (To be, or not to be: that is the question:/ Whether ’tis nobler ~/And by opposing end them? [ To die: to sleep; / No more;]).
    I would appreciate it very much if I could have any comments on it.
    First of all, I assume that ‘to be’ means ‘to live, to exist, to be alive, or to continue to exist’ and ‘not to be’ ‘to die, to cease to exist, or to commit suicide’ and that in this soliloquy Hamlet uses ‘to be’ to allude to life and action and ‘not to be’ to death and inaction, though he is not talking directly about himself and thinking more generally about life or death; and I discuss the question on the premise that this assumption is correct.
    The whether clause, which is most probably an amplification, seems generally thought to have much the same meaning as a common Japanese translation of this part: ‘Which is nobler, to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?’ But it is unreasonable and I do not agree, because ‘To be, or not to be: that is the question.’ and ‘Whether ’tis nobler ~to suffer ~ , or to take ~?’ are then two different questions that have different meanings, and the whether clause does not function as a consistent elaboration on the question of whether to continue to exist or not. I will give a supplementary explanation below.
    In my judgment, the “or” in line 1 does not parallel the “or” in line 4, and to suffer ~ and to take ~ are two contrasting examples used to explain ‘to be’, and there is little doubt that Hamlet uses ‘to be’ to allude to life and action and ‘not to be’ to death and inaction (like killing himself with a bare dagger)(ll.20-21).  ‘Not to be’ does not imply life and action as some think it does, much less heroic action (like taking arms ~and end them)(ll.4-5); it means death without doing anything.
    Besides, as is clearly shown by a certain Japanese translation ( Which way of life is nobler, to suffer ~, or to take arms ~ ? ), to suffer ~ and to take arms ~ are both ways of life –courses of action open for Hamlet in his present difficult situation, though noticeably different from each other, stoically passive vs. heroically active. Thus the question of whether to continue to exist or not is again totally different from the question of which is nobler of the two ways of living – two courses of action; there is no logical connection between the two.
    My (grammatical) interpretation of the whether clause is as follows. Although the pronoun ’it’ in ’tis indicates to suffer ~ and to take arms ~ , the whole clause does not mean ‘Which is nobler, to suffer ~ , or to take arms ~?’ It means ‘Is to be nobler (than not to be)?’, that is to say, ‘ Is to suffer ~, or to take arms ~ ( no matter which ) really nobler ( than to die )?’ Taken literally, ‘to take arms ~’ obviously implies life and action, and that heroic action, (“though perhaps with the loss of life”) and does not equal ‘not to be’ as some think it does. So the equivalence is between ‘to be’ and ‘to suffer ~, or to take arms ~’ and between ‘not to be’ and ‘To die’ (l.5), which is the other alternative not expressed but understood in the whether clause. Thus I do not think, as some do, that Hamlet, without any sort of transition, suddenly starts to contemplate death. He merely begins to talk about the other alternative of nonbeing after talking about the alternative of being; and therefore the whether clause and ‘To die: to sleep; / No more;’ fit together well and logically and they form a united whole.
      I think this is the only way to make the whether clause a more consistent elaboration on the question of whether to continue to exist or not, and that “Shakespearean grammar” would permit this explanation.

    • David Kim
      David Kim says:

      Very interesting notion. That seems to make more sense in grammatical point of view.
      In that interpretation, Hamlet should be contemplating three options to take: 1. To be passively and to suffer…., 2. To be actively and to take arms…., 3. To commit suicide.
      But in the whole context of the soliloquy, to be (alive) or to die (as a consequence of action) seems to be two ways of options to decide on.
      So how to live whether in nobler way or not is out of question here, in my opinion.
      I guess Shakespeare in fact meant for “which is…” by “Whether it is….” in more elegant expression.

      About a part of TRANSLATION in the main article, “That patient merit of the unworthy” meant the plain & ordinary people’s virtue of being patient (of spurns or whatever), in my opinion.
      Please correct me if I am wrong. In fact, I memorized the whole soliloquy as my usual habit with other impressive and memorable poems.

    • Kiyoshi Wada
      Kiyoshi Wada says:

      Thank you very much for your comment of June 26, 2015.
      You say Hamlet should be contemplating three options: 1) to suffer…, 2) to take arms…, 3) to commit
      suicide, but that to be or to die seems to be two options to decide on.
      Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer …Or to take arms … seems to ask which is nobler to suffer …or to take arms… But I think it means ‘Is to be nobler (than not to be)?’, that is to say, ‘ Is to suffer ~, or to take arms ~ ( no matter which ) really nobler ( than to die )?’ and so to suffer …or to take arms…
      is one option instead of two options.

      As for ‘the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy take’, I think it means ‘the insults that deserving people have to take from powerful inferiors’ (take of the unworthy) of = from

  5. john
    john says:

    Nice Job!

    I’ve always loved this soliloquy, and have memorized it. The very act of memorizing this forces one, I believe, to appreciate the nuances of the struggle that Hamlet is enduring at this point.

    As an aside, I would make it clearer that the “opposing” Hamlet had in mind was that of plunging the dagger into his own heart. As for the rest, well done, indeed!

    • Andy
      Andy says:

      I always loved this passage too, John, and the first nine lines have been in my head for ages. I’m going to follow your example and memorize the rest. Thanks for the tip!

  6. Jerry Serwas
    Jerry Serwas says:

    Shakespeare speaks rhetorically through Hamlet (soliloquy) of an
    unknown ethereal post mortem state. There is no legitimate answer
    to the living. No doubt Shakespeare paused in deep thought more than once to have been confounded and frustrated between gross disparity set betwixt life and mortality. “To Be Or Not To Be” does not represent a
    real problem for Hamlet/Shakespeare. The real entity comes through a
    state of being in a present tense “is” instantly becoming defacto usage for death and finality. The truth ? Only Shakespeare can define his work.

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