"To be, or not to be": Why is this Shakespeare Quote so Famous?

To be, or not to be
To be, or not to be. Vasiliki Varvaki/E+/Getty Images

Even if you have never seen a Shakespeare play, you will know this famous Shakespeare quote from Hamlet: “To be, or not to be”.

But what makes "To be, or not to be" such a famous Shakespeare quote? 

Hamlet

“To be, or not to be” is the opening line to 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 love Ophelia.

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

Hamlet was written around 1599-1601, by now Shakespeare had honed his skills as a writer and he had learnt 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, but the brilliance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is that he conveys the protagonists inner thoughts so eloquently.

Family Death

Shakespeare lost his son, Hamnet, in August 1596. Although Shakespeare wrote some comedies after his son's death, he can’t have been unmoved by his son’s passing.

Sadly, it was not uncommon to lose children in Shakespeare’s time but Hamnet was Shakespeare’s only son and at age eleven he must have forged a relationship with his father despite him working regularly in London.

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 and perhaps that is why the speech is so universally well received in that an audience can feel the real emotion in Shakespeare’s writing and perhaps relate to this feeling of helpless despair?

Multiple Interpretations

For an actor, the "To be, or not to be speech" is a defining one and as demonstrated at Shakespeare’s 400 year celebrations performance at the RSC by a range of actors (Including Benedict Cumberbatch) who had performed the role, the speech is open to many different interpretations and different parts of the line can be stressed for different emphasis.

Perhaps it is the philosophical nature of the speech that is so 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 and we wonder what our purpose here is.

Religious Reforms

Shakespeare’s audience would have experienced religious reforms and most would have had to have converted from Catholicism to Protestantism or risk being executed.

This throws up doubts about the church and 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 that is 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. This certainly calls in to question your loyalty to a certain doctrine of beliefs and then would make you question the new set of rules brought in for you.

Faith continues to be a subject of contention to this day.

For all these reasons, and more that we have not touched on, Hamlet’s speech will continue to inspire audiences and challenge them as well as the actors performing the lines.