Hamlet's To Be Or Not To Be Soliloquy: Meaning & Overview

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  • 0:01 Hamlet & Soliloquies
  • 1:00 Meaning
  • 3:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shamekia Thomas

Shamekia has taught English at the secondary level and has her doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

'To be or not to be' is one of the most popular lines in English literature. It is the beginning of a soliloquy by Hamlet in the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Learn more about Hamlet's soliloquy in this lesson.

Hamlet & Soliloquies

What do you do when you feel overwhelmed and stressed out? Do you take a break until the feeling passes or do you try to relax and find ways to reduce your stress? For some, their feelings become so overwhelming that they think about the state of their life.

In William Shakespeare's popular play Hamlet, the main character, Hamlet, experiences deep feelings of grief and loss following the death of his father. This is a coming of age story about a young man overcoming the growing pains of life. Hamlet's behavior after his father's death is disturbing to those around him, including his mother.

At one point, Hamlet gives a soliloquy, speaking his thoughts aloud even though he is alone. His speech, which begins with the phrase 'To be or not to be', has become one of the most popular soliloquies in all of literature. There are a number of different interpretations of Hamlet's speech but the basis of the message remains the same. In his speech, Hamlet questions the need to live or die.


Hamlet's mother Gertrude and his uncle Claudius are concerned about his bizarre behavior following the death of his father. In order to determine Hamlet's course of thinking, Claudius has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of his workers, try to determine what is wrong with Hamlet. He also asks Ophelia, Hamlet's girlfriend, to try to determine what is bothering Hamlet. Polonius, Ophelia's father, believes Hamlet's behavior is the result of being in love with his daughter Ophelia.

In Act III Scene 1, Hamlet utters the famous lines, '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'(lines 59-61). When Hamlet speaks these lines he is thinking that death is an option for his life. He believes men typically have hard lives and states, 'The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' contrasts with a life which consists of a 'sea of troubles' (lines 62-63). Hamlet is so conflicted after the death of his father that he weighs the benefits and drawbacks of living and dying.

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