The not quite nihilistic question To be or not to be

Shakespeare1

To be, or not to be, that is the Question:: Whether ’tis Nobler in the minde to suffer
The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune,
Or to take Armes against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to dye, to sleepe
No more; and by a sleepe, to say we end
The Heart-ake, and the thousand Naturall shockes
That Flesh is heyre too? ‘Tis a consummation
Deuoutly to be wish’d. To dye to sleepe,
To sleepe, perchance to Dreame; I, there’s the rub,
For in that sleepe of death, what dreames may come,
When we haue shuffel’d off this mortall coile,
Must giue vs pawse. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life.

These are the first few lines from the First Folio of Hamlet, though in the Folio f is used as s. I changed it for modern readers.

To say Hamlet is depressed is an understatement. He is clearly questioning the futility of living. But though he says dye twice and death once, there are some scholars who suggest he is in no way suicidal; that this musing is just that, musing. And though we could ask them to explain Hamlet’s sudden interest in death, we won’t, because the only person who could definitely answer that is Shakespeare, and he’s been in that “undiscovered country” for four hundred years.

I’ve been thinking about this soliloquy a lot this week. Tomorrow I have the privilege of seeing Benedict Cumberbatch take on the role of Hamlet in a one-night only showing of the play, broadcast live around the world. That alone would make any Shakespeare scholar revisit the melancholic prince of Elsinore, but it is the passing of two people this week that brought about my contemplation of Hamlet’s words. I take stock of my life and my role as an active player. Death always makes me think about life and what it means to be.

What if, like some scholars suggest, we look to the words not as literal statements but as metaphors on how we should live? What if we took these words and asked, Do we live life to the fullest or do we close ourselves off to the word and live in our own dream world?

To be. To be actively engaged with the world: to be in love, to be happy, to be content. These are states that we all long for, yet for many of us, they are never achieved. Why? What makes it so hard for many of us to be in our desired states? When we look inward and ask ourselves this simple question, we find the answer in the next few lines.

Whether ’tis Nobler in the minde to suffer
The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune,
Or to take Armes against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to dye, to sleepe

For many of us, the fear of living; the fear having to suffer life’s slings and arrows is too much, so we oppose them by disengaging. Thus we end them. But yet we dream about the life we would want. Oh, if only life would stop hurting us!

Ahh, now there’s the rub; The Heart-ake, and the thousand Naturall shockes
That Flesh is heyre too.

We close ourselves off, never attempting to be, because of our fears. Fear of heartache, rejection, failure and all of the other emotional shocks we fleshy humans are prone to. It is fear of living that stops us from being.

Many of us, including myself, allow ourselves to hover between being and not being because of this fear. We fear if we try we will fail. We fear we will be rejected, we feel if we try we will suffer wounds and natural shocks that come from being.

‘Tis a consummation
Deuoutly to be wish’d. To dye to sleepe,
To sleepe, perchance to Dreame; I, there’s the rub,
For in that sleepe of death, what dreames may come,
When we haue shuffel’d off this mortall coile,
Must giue vs pawse. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life

Yes, we wouldn’t be asking the question if we could simply cut ourselves off. Ahh, there’s a second rub; for in closing ourselves off and living in our own dream world the dreams that come resemble life. This gives us pause. For in giving up on life we continue to dream about it, and thus, our non-lives can seem long and full of misfortune, or missed fortunes because we dare only dream.

So what is the answer? Do we be or not be? And even if we chose not be, isn’t that a state of being?

The answer as I see it is yes, it is better to be, or at least to be engaged as much as possible. As much as life hurts and can sometimes seem like sheer calamity, ’tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrowes of outragious fortune. For when it comes time to truly shuffel’d off this mortall coile, I want to go out knowing I loved, l tried, that I lived the best life possible. Fear is a poison whose cup I will not drink from anymore.

Cowards die many times before their deaths.

First Folio

Hamlet

Julius Caesar

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

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