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The meaning and origin of the expression: To be, or not to be, that is the question

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

Meaning

Is it better to live or to die?

Origin

To be or not to be is probably the best-known line from all drama or literature. Certainly, if anyone is asked to quote a line of Shakespeare this is the one that first comes to mind for most people. It is, of course, from Shakespeare's play Hamlet, 1602 (Shakespeare's actual title is - The tragedie of Hamlet, prince of Denmarke):

HAMLET:
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,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the 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 undiscover'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 does 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.--Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd.

What Hamlet is musing on is the comparison between the pain of life, which he sees as inevitable (the sea of troubles - the slings and arrows - the heart-ache - the thousand natural shocks) and the fear of the uncertainty of death and of possible damnation of suicide.

Hamlet's dilemma is that although he is dissatisfied with life and lists its many torments, he is unsure what death may bring (the dread of something after death). He can't be sure what death has in store; it may be sleep but in perchance to dream he is speculating that it is perhaps an experience worse than life. Death is called the undiscover'd country from which no traveller returns. In saying that Hamlet is acknowledging that, not only does each living person discover death for themselves, as no one can return from it to describe it, but also that suicide os a one-way ticket. If you get the judgment call wrong, there's no way back.

The whole speech is tinged with the Christian prohibition of suicide, although it isn't mentioned explicitly. The dread of something after death would have been well understood by a Tudor audience to mean the fires of Hell.

The speech is a subtle and profound examining of what is more crudely expressed in the phrase out of the frying pan into the fire. - in essence 'life is bad, but death might be worse'.

See other phrases and sayings from Shakespeare.