“To Be, Or Not To Be…” – Dissecting Shakespeare’s Masterpiece

To be, or not to be, that is the question.

If you ask the majority of students at any school in general what they think of Shakespeare, it’ll be no surprise if they answer with “Boring.”. Because Shakespeare uses archaic vocabulary in his plays, it’s very hard to comprehend what he’s trying to get across to his modern audience amidst the array of poetic figures of speech. As a result, students say it’s hard to relate to Shakespeare’s plays. Well, unless you break each quote down sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase — like I did in English class yesterday, of course you won’t understand how it’s supposed to relate to you. So get ready, because you and I are going to have some fun with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.

Before we begin dissecting the soliloquy, however, I should give you some background information on the events leading up to this famous quote, regardless whether or not you read the play. So, basically, young Hamlet wants to seek revenge for his father’s death. Earlier, in the play, he had met whom he presumed to be his father’s ghost, as it pinpointed Hamlet’s uncle, the incestuous King Claudius, the King of Denmark. Meanwhile, his relationship with Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter, had just been officially dissolved by Polonius.

Two other characters come into play as they try to get answers from Hamlet himself as to why he’d been acting seemingly insane lately. Queen Gertrude admits her guilt saying that it may be because she’d married Claudius too hastily. Hamlet asks the actors to act out the Battle of Troy, and a particular story from that battle. In this story, it is said that Queen Hecuba watched her husband, King Priam, get slaughtered and cried incessantly.

After they finish, he further requests one of the actors to add in ten lines to the act. Hamlet, talking to himself, reveals that he wants those ten lines to be of his uncle murdering his father to see his uncle’s reaction. Also, another important thing to note, Queen Gertrude only mourned the death of Old Hamlet briefly before quickly marrying King Claudius, whereas Queen Hecuba mourned her husband constantly. Sound interesting? You should read it. Again, yes, it uses the Old archaic English vocabulary, but it’s still a fun read once you actually understand the plot. Anyway, because this is where Hamlet starts his famous soliloquy, here comes the dissection.

To be, or not to be, that is the question.

The first sentence of Hamlet’s quote, translated from the footnotes of my book, simply implies that Hamlet is contemplating suicide. “To be, or not to be” is really “To live or not to live”.

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.

Again, Hamlet is trying to decide whether or not living life is worth it or not. The “slings and arrows” he refers to is are the pains he’s had to endure in his life, whether it be knowing that his uncle married Queen Gertrude or that his uncle killed his father or that young Hamlet himself is trying to cope with the fact that the relationship between he and Ophelia, the girl he has a crush on, is over. Does that last part sound familiar? You see, obviously we all have had bad days in our lives. We all have arrows shot into our hearts, literally speaking to represent emotional and mental pain. Anyway, Hamlet then says “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles”. So basically he’s trying to decide whether or not to continue to whine and suffer his pains in life or to actually do something about it, or take revenge against King Claudius. Of course, “opposing end” would refer to… you guessed it… his uncle, King Claudius.

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.

If Hamlet kills himself, he’ll end all the pains in his life.

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—

As he continues to contemplate suicide, he reasons that dreams come to us during sleep. Because “rub” in this context means “obstacle”, we can probably guess his dreams are quite uncomfortable. He goes on to compare sleep with death. He infers that if death is sleep exacerbated, then it’s possible that dreams in death are also likely to be intensified. If he commits suicide, he’ll have gotten rid of the turmoils he faces.

there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

Just thinking about his situation makes him miserable.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Here, he starts a poetic five-line list of what makes his life such a burden.

Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

Both the “oppressor” and “proud man” refer to King Claudius’ wrongful acts, but “oppressor” also refers to Queen Gertrude’s decision to marry Claudius, young Hamlet’s uncle. This ties into one of “Hamlet”‘s themes, Decay & Corruption.

The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,

Young Hamlet infers that Queen Gertrude did not and still does not care about his father and former King, Old Hamlet. He believes that his uncle is corrupting the laws of the political system in Denmark.

The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,

As Prince of Denmark, he has to endure the insults of his uncle’s, King Claudius’, disturbing acts.

When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?

Hamlet feels he’s been mistreated.

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,

Again, he mentions having to deal with such dreadful events in his life that he does not want to deal with, but he’s afraid killing himself because he doesn’t know where he will end up if he commits suicide.
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?
Going off from the previous three lines, he once again contemplates suicide, but is faced yet again with what will happen after death. He then expresses mixed emotions while mentioning the descent towards Hell and ascending to Heaven.

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

Here, Young Hamlet tells himself that just sitting there whining about his problems isn’t going to solve anything. He’s thinking too much.

And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

He decides to continue on with his plan of vengeance for his father, Old Hamlet.

I hope all that information was not only helpful to you to better understand what he’s trying to say, but also enjoyable. As you can probably imagine, if we translated the whole soliloquy into Modern English with modern daily comparisons, we wouldn’t get the same poetic rhythm and dynamic, archaic English vocabulary that Shakespeare delivers in his plays. Every day, we deal with problems in our lives, whether it be our parents lashing out at our decisions and actions or a bad break-up. Our emotions can obviously get the best of us, but if we think our decisions through before we act, obviously we probably wouldn’t do what we originally intended.

EDIT: On the last day of school before Winter Break, I was getting close to memorizing the entire soliloquy, when something hit me when I read starting from “Who would fardels bear…” to “no traveler returns”. I realized I had analyzed that part incorrectly, and I had intended to fix it “later” (usually meaning later that day because wordpress.com is blocked on the school computers). But I had forgotten over the course of three or so days during the early days of the holiday break. So, because I do not like to mislead people, I apologize for not editing it soon enough. I hope it makes even more sense to you.




10 thoughts on ““To Be, Or Not To Be…” – Dissecting Shakespeare’s Masterpiece

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