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To Be or Not to Be: Approaches to the Question

"To be or not to be, that is the question." But what is the question? To live or to die? To kill or not? To act on your motives or stay put? “To be”, is as wide as the sea can get, and “not to be”, is wider than the cemetery can get. Thus, what did Shakespeare intend by such a theory? Shakespeare starts his Hamlet play with the most famous soliloquy, leaving us questioning it until today. The play consists of revenge, when the ghost of the king of Denmark, tells his son Hamlet to murder his uncle, so as to avenge his death. With such a mission to bear, Hamlet is left with the decision of either being dead or alive. The opposite of each. Should he kill himself, or kill his uncle? In both ways, one should act. “To be”, is to act. “Not to be”, is not to act. But if one took his own life, does not that mean he acted on something? This contradicts what Shakespeare meant by "not to be". So, what is the real meaning behind this soliloquy? Especially since the question is addressed to everyone, and not just to himself, there is more behind this simple but complicated question.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Ghost. (2021). [Illustration].

In the traditional approach, Hamlet is thinking about whether he should end his own life or take the life of his own uncle instead. In his own eyes, death is much more enjoyable than life, much like a peaceful sleep.

And by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to” - Shakespeare

Hamlet is trying to find a purpose for himself after being laid with a heavy fact, with an act of revenge he cannot take or understand. He is uncertain in a world where he is thinking that ending his own life would end the whole misery. He is not strong enough to kill his own uncle, but is he strong enough to kill himself?

In the selfish approach, Hamlet debates the idea of killing his uncle. Is it worth his happiness? He thinks of himself more than he thinks of his father. Should he risk everything for someone already dead? Should he forget his father’s dying wish and continue his life? The question here is whether the death of Hamlet’s selfishness or not. He is thinking of the motive, whether it is worth himself or not.

To kill my happiness, or not to kill. This is the question.

In the philosophical approach, Hamlet addresses the question to everyone and not to himself only. It is a philosophical question that debates sheer existence. A dilemma that we all must question at some point in our lives, as it is the problem of humanity. By this question, Shakespear intended to “humanize” Hamlet, to bring him closer to the audience’s soul and mind. Thus, the audience will sympathize with Hamlet, and will not feel the strangeness of the situation, because what if they were to question the same thing?

“To be” in the rhetorical approach is “to act”. Hamlet takes a pause, thinking about whether he should act or not. This rhetorical question would add poetic suspense to the play, move the plot, and portrait the image of life and death. Should he act on his father’s wishes, or not act? This is the question that he asks himself, that he should continue the play with.

In the psychological approach, Hamlet is debating if he should show his true self to the audience, or not. To tell them that all his odd behavior before has been coming from a personal conflict inside of him. Whether to rid of this true self, to leave this lunatic attitude aside, or not. Death in this approach means the death of this lunatic self, and the birth of a normal self.

To show my true self, or not to show.

The death in the last approach, the heroic approach is the death of Hamlet and Claudius together, not of Hamlet himself. It is either to be the son of his father or not to be.

In Hamlet’s first edition, the "to or not to be” verse was as the following:

What is the point? Hamlet seems to delay, afraid of the consequences, whatever the intention was. Afraid of death or revenge. He seems not sure, not able to make a real decision. Whatever was the real intention in his mind, Hamlet wanted to deliver it correctly. This soliloquy is a blank verse. But the question here remains, on what word should we stress?



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