To be or not to be

Act 3 Scene 1 – Key Scene

Hamlet is in a state of shock and grief as he has discovered that his father has been murdered by his uncle. Throughout this soliloquy, which happens at the start of Act 3 Scene 1, he thinks about whether he should face life’s hardships head on or end them by dying. Hamlet is alone on stage as he asks these questions about his purpose and life.

You can take a look at an extract from this scene and watch it in performance here. Using these steps, remember to look at it line by line and if you’re looking at the speech for the first time don’t worry if you don’t understand everything at once.

  • Look

    Take a look at the scene. Is Hamlet using prose or verse? Actors at the RSC often put the language into their own words to help them understand what they are saying. We’ve added some definitions (in green), questions (in red) and paraphrased some sections (in blue) to help with this. You can click on the text that is highlighted for extra guidance.

    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 heartache and the thousand natural shocks
    That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wished - 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,
    Th’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 th'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 undiscovered 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 pitch and moment
    With this regard their currents turn awry
    And lose the name of action.

    The question is: Should I live or should I die? Is it more noble to face up to life’s hardships or to fight them head on and ultimately put an end to them.

    Hamlet uses the phrase ‘to die, to sleep’ twice in this speech. Why do you think he uses the images of death and sleep at the same time? What does this reveal about Hamlet’s attitude to death?

    To die. To sleep. To sleep and perhaps dream. Ah there's the problem. In death who knows what kind of dreams we might have after we’ve left this life. That's something we have to consider. All this thinking makes us stretch out our sufferings, making our life feel longer.

    Life’s humiliations - abuse from bosses, insults from arrogant men, pangs of unrequited love, a broken law system, rudeness of people in power, good people receiving mistreatment from bad people.

    A dagger.

    Who would carry burdens, that make them grunt and sweat through an exhausting life unless they knew that life after would be worse.

    Hamlet calls life after death 'The undiscovered country' but what do you think he believes exists after death? Is he thinking about killing himself here or could he also be thinking about the consequences of his own actions?

    Our conscience makes us fear death and that fear means we don't act fast enough on our instincts.

    Hamlet is questioning whether or not fear of death or consequence can make us slow to act. How might he relate to this in terms of his own life? What has he been slow to act upon?

    (Text edited for rehearsals by Simon Godwin)
  • Listen

    Read the speech aloud. Are there any words or lines that really stand out?

  • Watch
    Take a look at Paapa Essiedu performing this speech. How does the character come across in this version?
  • Imagine
    Explore some images from past versions of Hamlet at the RSC. Which sets and staging choices for this scene feel right to you?