Analysis of the “To Be or Not to Be” Soliloquy in Hamlet by William Shakespeare

The meaning of the “to be or not to be” speech in Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been given numerous interpretations, each of which are textually, historically, or otherwise based. In general, while Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy questions the righteousness of life over death in moral terms, much of the speech’s emphasis is on the subject of death—even if in the end he is determined to live and see his revenge through.
Before engaging in the soliloquy itself, however, it is important to consider Hamlet’s lines that occur before the passage in question. In the first act of the play, Hamlet (full character analysis of Hamlet here)curses God for making suicide an immoral option. He states, “that this too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! / Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!” (I.ii.129-132). At this early point in the text it is clear that Hamlet is weighing the benefits versus drawbacks of ending his own life, but also that he recognizes that suicide is a crime in God’s eyes and could thus make his afterlife worse than his present situation. In essence, many of Hamlet’s thoughts revolve around death and this early signal to his melancholy state prepares the reader for soliloquy that will come later in Act III.
When Hamlet utters the pained question, “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” (III.i.59-61) there is little doubt that he is thinking of death. Although he attempts to pose such a question in a rational and logical way, he is still left without an answer of whether the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” can be borne out since life after death is so uncertain.
At this point in the plot of Hamlet, he wonders about the nature of his death and thinks for a moment that it may be like a deep sleep, which seems at first to be acceptable until he speculates on what will come in such a deep sleep. Just when his “sleep” answer begins to appeal him, he stops short and wonders in another of the important quotes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To sleep: perchance to dream:—ay there’s the rub; / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come” (III.i.68-69). The “dreams” that he fears are the pains that the afterlife might bring and since there is no way to be positive that there will be a relief from his earthly sufferings through death, he forced to question death yet again.
After posing this complex question and wondering about the nature of the great sleep, Hamlet then goes on to list many sufferings men are prone to in the rough course of life, which makes it seem as though he is moving toward death yet again. By the end of this soliloquy, however, he finally realizes, “But that dread of something after death, / The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns—puzzles the will / And makes us rather bear those ills we have” (III.i.81-84). Although at this last moment Hamlet realizes that many chose life over death because of this inability to know the afterlife, the speech remains a deep contemplation about the nature and reasons for death.

The "To Be or Not To Be" speech in the play, "Hamlet," portrays Hamlet as a very confused man. He is very unsure of himself and his thoughts often waver between two extremes due to his relatively strange personality. In the monologue, he contemplates whether or not he should continue or end his own life. He also considers seeking revenge for his father’s death. Evidence of his uncertainty and over thinking is not only shown in this speech, but it also can be referenced in other important parts of the play.

The topic of Hamlet’s soliloquy is his consideration of committing suicide. Throughout the speech, it is obvious that Hamlet is over thinking and wavering between two different extremes: life and death. "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" (3, 1, 56-60). In this quotation, Hamlet wonders whether he should live and suffer the hardships that his life has to offer him or die in order to end the suffering. He believes that life is synonymous with suffering. The "whips and scorn of time, Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of th'unworthy takes" (3, 1, 70-74) are all the suffering he sees in life. Hamlet wonders if living is worth enduring these numerous pains. "To die, to sleep -no more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks...To sleep, perchance to dream" (3, 1, 60-65). Should Hamlet choose to kill himself, all of his heartaches would be put to rest. He would no longer have to watch his uncle reign over the kingdom that he believes should belong to him and his father. He would no longer have to feel obligated to avenge his father’s death. He would also never again have to watch the actions of Claudius and Gertrude, which he believes to be incestuous. Hamlet realizes that in death, his...

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