“To Be or Not to Be”: The Iconic Speech’s Origins, Interpretations, and Impact

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

The opening line of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy is theater’s most iconic, most referenced quote. What’s less known is the famous speech’s history, with Hamlet’s earliest publications offering varying versions of its language. Also questioned is its meaning—is Hamlet contemplating suicide or is he weighing the consequences of murder? Though definitive answers are unlikely to arise, the questions “To be or not to be” asks have kept audiences, scholars, and actors engaged for centuries.

Hamlets "To be or not to be" speech as it appears in the three original editions of the play. Photo by Georgelazenby. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The first edition, or First Quarto (Q1), of Hamlet was published in 1603. Because the text is much shorter than later editions and its language is less poetic, it is nicknamed the “Bad Quarto” by scholars. “To be or not to be” in Q1 reads as:
To be, or not to be—ay, there’s the point.
To die, to sleep—is that all? Ay, all.
No, to sleep, to dream—ay, merry, there it goes
The soliloquy occurs in the play much earlier—in Act Two, just after Polonius arranges for Hamlet and Ophelia to meet—than in the later, more familiar editions of Hamlet which feature the speech in Act Three, scene one. Scholars have theorized that this Bad Quarto might have been produced based on the inaccurate memory of a Hamlet actor who sold the words to a publisher. Others believe that it was Shakespeare’s first draft or was an abridged version used for touring productions.

Both the Second Quarto (1604–05) as well as the First Folio (F1)—which was published seven years after Shakespeare’s death in 1623—present the versions of the text that we know today. Directors usually choose between Q1 or F1 for the script, and make additional cuts as needed. For A.C.T.’s production of Hamlet, director Carey Perloff is working with Q2 using some F1 edits, and has “To be or not to be” where it appears in Q1 in Act Two.

Possibly more confounding than the soliloquy’s origins are its variable meanings, which have inspired much debate. Some actors and scholars interpret this speech as an exploration of life, death, and suicide. Finding himself in a world that he no longer recognizes and burdened with the task of avenging his father’s murder, Hamlet considers taking his own life. He is stopped in this thinking by the fear of what may come after death: “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause.” Others argue that Hamlet is considering the consequences of killing his uncle, an action that could result in his own death. “Conscience does make cowards of us all,” he says; knowing the consequences of this act, Hamlet hesitates.

Alluded to in everything from algebra jokes (“[2b | !2b] That is the expression.”) to children’s potty-training books (Linda Johns’s To Pee or Not to Pee), Shakespeare’s words can be found everywhere. Though it’s been heard time and time again, whether in-context or not, actors still manage to bring their own spin on the dramatic speech. Below are some of our favorite interpretations to prepare you for John Douglas Thompson’s “To be or not to be” at The Geary later this month.

In The King's Speech (2010) Colin Firth as King George VI recites the soliloquy as an exercise for his speech therapy.

Kenneth Branagh acts and directs in this rendition of Hamlet (1996). 

Prince Charles performs the opening lines of "To be or not to be" alongside actors Paapa Essiedu, Tim Minchin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dame Harriet Walter, David Tennant, Rory Kinnear, Sir Ian McKellen, and Dame Judi Dench for the Royal Shakespeare Company's 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death celebration, Shakespeare Live!

Hamlet opens September 20 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. To learn more about the evolution of Shakespeare’s iconic soliloquy, read Dramaturg Michael Paller’s writing in Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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