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To Be or Not To Be by Smrithe Rajesh

TW: Mentions of suicide and death

To be, or not to be, that is the question.” I’m sure everyone is far too familiar with the following soliloquy from William Shakespeare’s famous play “Hamlet.” You probably had to read the play as a part of an English course unit and even if you didn’t learn it from “Hamlet,” the phrase itself is still very commonly used in today’s pop culture and media, forever marking its place in the House of Fame for memorable lines in Literature. However, what I wanted to discuss today is what exactly does “To be, or not to be” even mean? What was William Shakespeare trying to say within 6 words of a phrase and why is this one line so popular to begin with? Well, in order to approach this question, we need to begin with context. Who even is Hamlet and what was he doing in the scene when he delivered the all too infamous soliloquy that countless professionals continue to dissect to this day?

Hamlet is a tragic tale about the son of the ghost of Denmark who tells him to avenge his death by killing the new king who just so happens to be his uncle (yikes on bikes indeed). As he battles with his conscience and drives himself mad, it becomes rather evident throughout the story that after his father’s death, Hamlet becomes extremely infatuated with the idea of death, even at times thinking about taking his own life as he vows to take revenge for his late father’s demise. Since the play is almost entirely based around mortality and what happens after we all die, many of the lines delivered in the play have to do with that particularly theme, especially Act 3, Scene 1, where the beloved line “To be, or not to be” is first introduced. To sum up the entire 35 lines of text, Hamlet is deciding whether or not if it is preferable for him to commit suicide and end his own suffering right then and there instead of continuing to go on with the pain and suffering that living brings upon his being. The “to be '' is very blatantly indicated to represent living or life as he contemplates leaving all his troubles in the living world through the sweet release of death. At the beginning of his rant, he seems to lean more on the side of death, even comparing the act of dying as a “peaceful sleep” however, he quickly changes once he realizes that nobody knows what happens after death, that realization alone convincing him to put a pause when it comes to ending his own life.

Although when reading it through a first timer's perspective you might think that Hamlet is far too angsty and over dramatic of a character and in some cases, I would argue that you would be right. After all, he had spent so much time convincing himself and the audience that death is the best way to escape the hardships which are presented in life but the more you look into how human’s react to the concept of death, the more you start to understand how natural Hamlet’s conclusion truly was. As humans I believe that we aren’t afraid of the concept of death itself but rather, the unfamiliarity which results from death. Unfamiliarity is scary since it forces us to adapt and there is really no understanding as to what happens after we die. Of course, we have our speculations which we can confine in but at the end of the day, for humans, the possibility of death being worse than life will always manage to render them immobile even if you are Hamlet himself. So no matter how many times this single line is thoroughly studied and examined years after Shakespeare has been laid to rest, it still manages to make you think a little, for it is not one of those questions where there is a definite answer laid within the fine pages of a textbook, because for a man like Hamlet, the question is a means between both life and death, with the line getting thinner as time and hardships progress along within his life. Afterall, to be or not to be, that is the question that we all ought to ask ourselves.

Smrithe Rajesh (she/her) is a 15-year-old rising Sophomore currently residing in the United States. Her work has appeared multiple times in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and she has had her work published in the Incandescent Studio and other notable publications. She enjoys reading and eating ice cream in her free time.

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