Analysis of Shakespeare's "To be or not to be", from Hamlet

Analysis of Shakespeare's "To be or not to be" 
from Hamlet 
by Mohamed Zayed, a Linguist 

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

This is the most quoted piece of literature in all English literature. This soliloquy is said by Hamlet. It is said to be the most famous lines ever written in the history of English literature. This soliloquy is said in Act 3, scene 1 after Hamlet had met with the Ghost of his late murdered father,  Old Hamlet. The Ghost told Hamlet the most shocking news that his uncle Claudius is the murder of his father and that he, Hamlet, must take revenge for his father. Hamlet is beginning his soliloquy with the logical question of whether his uncle is truly the killer or not, “to be or not to be”. 

It is Hamlet's third soliloquy in the play. Hamlet is confused and contemplating death. He is wondering whether life, or death, is preferable; whether it is better to allow himself to be tormented by all the wrongs that he considers 'outrageous fortune' bestowed on him, or to arm himself and fight against them, bringing them to an end. If he were to die, he feels that his troubles, his 'heart-ache', would end. Death is still something that he finds appealing, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished'. Yet even death troubles him, as to die might mean to dream and he worries about the dreams he might have to endure, 'in that sleep of death what dreams may come'.

He is still contemplating suicide and considers how, by taking one's own life, dagger, one might avoid 'whips and scorns' and other hard-to-bear wrongs. However, he refers to death as 'the dread of something' in the 'undiscover'd country', and this shows that he worried about how his soul might be treated in the afterlife.

He decides that his fears concerning the puzzling and 'dreadful' afterlife, together with the conscience, cause people to bear the wrongs inflicted during their life on earth, rather than commit suicide and risk offending God. The fear of arriving somewhere unknown and frightening—possibly the torments of hell—is proof that 'conscience does make cowards of us all'. People, he concludes, tend to think things over, lack resolve and do nothing.

When Hamlet is remarking on such people, he is actually talking about himself. He believes that his uncle is wicked and deserves to die. He believes that it is he who should end his uncle's life. But he is afraid of going to purgatory, as the spirit claiming to be his father has done. He is afraid of risking hell by committing suicide. He is afraid of doing the wrong thing, and is inactive, partly because of his conscience. He is afraid of consequences that his religious upbringing—an upbringing that would have been the norm—have instilled in him.

Hamlet continues to feel frustrated and angry in his grief, and his feelings of impotence have returned. Although Claudius's response to the play indicated guilt, Hamlet still does not know what the right thing to do is—right in the eyes of God, that is.

As we can see through the lines, the major theme in these lines is the theme of reason and clarity of thought in Hamlet’s character. Hamlet proves to be a man of reason. In this soliloquy, it is shown how reason and the rules of clear thought are applied to Hamlet’s character. Hamlet is trying to establish a balance or a scale between life and death. He is naming the consequences of life and the ones of death and what happens after death. Hence, he is represented in these lines as a philosopher. He is a man of logic because he did not give in to emotions; instead he is considering his next move. He is considering the possible consequences of his actions to follow. 

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