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‘To Be or Not to Be’ is an extract taken from the play ‘Hamlet’ written by Shakespeare. This text is thus not a poem but rather, a soliloquy delivered by Hamlet himself in Act III, Scene I of the play.
About the Poet (Playwright):
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an eminent English playwright, named ‘the Bard of Avon’. He is said to have shaped English Literature in itself. Famous works of his include ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, and ‘As You Like It’.
The theme of this soliloquy is existential crisis. Hamlet debates over whether to live or not with his speech that is both directed towards himself and the audience.
The structure of this text, as said before, is a soliloquy. It consists of 33 lines and is written in blank words with iambic pentameter. It does not follow a rhyme scheme.
Explanation of the stanza:
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, Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of th'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 undiscovere'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 doth 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.
The soliloquy begins with a question raised by Hamlet. He ponders whether it is better to live or to die. He wonders whether it is nobler to suffer mentally or fight against the problems life had created for him head on and end them. His thoughts shift here to death, how the eternal sleep would put an end to all problems and sufferings in life.
However, his thoughts shift again. He thinks about how what comes after death is an unknown mystery, how the uncertainty lying beyond is something all humans fear. They fear it so much so that they are willing to rather bear the sufferings that accompany life such as a tyrant oppressor, the vanity of a proud man, the pangs of love, delayed justice, the mundaneness of a routine job and the merit one unworthy claims. Humans would rather live this weary, dreary life than face death and its frightfully undetermined realms.
Hamlet thus declares that this conscience is what results in cowardice to explore the undiscovered, to derive courage to take one’s own life.
This is a rather dark soliloquy as Hamlet thinks about taking his own life and death in general. Although death is not told as the conclusion to problems in life, the tone and the language used here is very depressing.