'To Be, or Not to Be:' Exploring Shakespeare's Legendary Quote

Why is this Shakespeare speech so famous?

To be, or not to be

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Even if you have never seen a Shakespeare play, you will know this famous "Hamlet" quote: “To be, or not to be.” But what makes this speech so renowned, and what inspired the world's most famous playwright to include it in this work?

Hamlet

“To be, or not to be” is the opening line of a soliloquy in the nunnery scene of Shakespeare’s "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark." A melancholy Hamlet is contemplating death and suicide while waiting for his lover Ophelia.

He bemoans the challenges of life but contemplates that the alternative—death—could be worse. The speech explores Hamlet’s confused mindset as he considers murdering his Uncle Claudius, who killed Hamlet's father and then married his mother to become king in his place. Throughout the play, Hamlet has hesitated to kill his uncle and avenge his father’s death.

Hamlet was likely written between 1599 and 1601; by that time, Shakespeare had honed his skills as a writer and learned how to write introspectively to portray the inner thoughts of a tortured mind. He would have almost certainly seen versions of "Hamlet" before writing his own, as it pulls from the Scandinavian legend of Amleth. Still, the brilliance of Shakespeare’s take on the tale is that he conveys the protagonist's inner thoughts so eloquently.

Family Death

Shakespeare lost his son, Hamnet, in August 1596, when the child was just 11 years old. Sadly, it was not uncommon to lose children in Shakespeare’s time, but as Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet must have forged a relationship with his father despite him working regularly in London.

Some argue that Hamlet’s speech of whether to endure the tortures of life or just end it could offer insight into Shakespeare’s own thinking in his time of grief. Perhaps that is why the speech is so universally well-received—an audience can feel the real emotion in Shakespeare’s writing and perhaps relate to this feeling of helpless despair.

Multiple Interpretations

The famous speech is open to many different interpretations, often expressed by placing emphasis on different parts of the opening line. This was demonstrated comically at the Royal Shakespeare Company's 400-year celebration performance when a range of actors known for their work with the play (including David Tennant, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Sir Ian McKellan), took to instructing each other on the best ways to perform the soliloquy. Their different approaches all exhibit the different, nuanced meanings that can be found in the speech.

Why It Resonates

Religious Reforms

Shakespeare’s audience would have experienced religious reforms where most would have had to convert from Catholicism to Protestantism or risk being executed. This throws up doubts about practicing religion, and the speech may have posed questions about what and who to believe when it comes to the afterlife.

"To be a Catholic or not to be a Catholic" becomes the question. You have been brought up to believe in a faith, and then suddenly you are told that if you continue to believe in it you may be killed. Being forced to change your belief system can certainly cause inner turmoil and insecurity.

Because faith continues to be a subject of contention to this day, it is still a relevant lens through which to understand the speech.

Universal Questions

The philosophical nature of the speech also makes it appealing: None of us know what comes after this life and there is a fear of that unknown, but we are all also aware at times of the futility of life and its injustices. Sometimes, like Hamlet, we wonder what our purpose here is.