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To Be, Or Not To Be: Quote Analysis

Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

'To be, or not to be' is one of the most famous quotes in English literature. Where does it come from and what does it mean? Read on to discover the truth behind this renowned quote.

Context

Few lines in English literature are quoted as often as To be, or not to be. The quote comes from William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. These are the opening words in a soliloquy from Hamlet in Act III, Scene 1. By this point in the play, Hamlet, the young prince of Denmark, is facing a significant amount of drama. His mother married his uncle shortly after his father's suspicious death. Why's the death suspicious? The ghost of Hamlet's father visited him and told him the whole thing was shady. What's a young prince to do?

To be, or not to be

All of this turmoil leads Hamlet to the famous quote midway through the play. He begins his speech with, To be, or not to be - that is the question. He contemplates death, comparing it to sleep. This leads to another famous quote: To sleep - perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub!

After this tortured speech, in walks Ophelia. She's Hamlet's love interest and their back and forth dialogue leads Hamlet to another notable quote as he tells Ophelia: Get thee to a nunnery.

Get thee to a nunnery

Meaning

What does it mean? When Hamlet asks about being or not being, it's often read as a debate about whether he should commit suicide. He thinks his uncle murdered his father and then married his mother. And then there's a ghost telling Hamlet to avenge his death. The young man is overwhelmed by the tragic situation.

However, Hamlet isn't necessarily just talking about himself in this quote. He's engaging in a broader philosophical debate about whether it is better to live and be miserable or to just end it all. That's what it means to be, or not to be. The characters in Hamlet grapple with issues of mental distress, depression and suicide, struggles this famous quote exemplifies.

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