To be or not to be, that is the question: meaning in Hamlet

George Alvarez 18-10-2023
George Alvarez

The phrase " To be or not to be, that is the question". is a Shakespearean quote known and referenced all over the world. But, paradoxically, many people don't seem to know its true meaning. Although Shakespeare is the author of the phrase "to be or not to be" , it didn't actually come from Shakespeare's mouth Did you know that?

The person who quoted the phrase was Hamlet, the protagonist of the play of the same name, in which the character gives a monologue. However, the quote, which has become a universal reference in literature and dramatic art, invites the question: what is the deep meaning behind this phrase? To find out, continue reading and check out the meaning of being or not being in Shakespeare.

To be or not to be Hamlet

The story told in Shakespeare's work takes place in the 16th century. It tells the story of Hamlet, prince of Denmark. Hamlet finds out from the ghost of his father that his brother, Claudius, poisoned him to become king.

As if this were not enough, only two months after the murder, Claudius married Queen Gertrude (his mother), which is unacceptable to the young prince. Doubts, however, take over Hamlet's thoughts: did he really see his father's ghost or was the vision a figment of his imagination?

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If it is true, will he avenge his father and become an assassin? Or is it more dignified to provoke his own death than to kill his uncle? With all these questions that occur during the plot, the prince finds himself confused and thinks about taking his own life. This is where the quote in monologue three comes from: "to be or not to be".

Meaning of to be or not to be

Overall, Hamlet's meaning of to be or not to be refers to life. In the face of all events, Hamlet asks himself, "To be or not to be, that is the question." In other words it means: To continue existing or to end life? To live in the adversities of existence or to meet death and abandon yourself to nothingness?

At this early point in the text, it is clear that Hamlet is thinking about the benefits and drawbacks of ending his own life, but later on he recognizes that suicide is a crime in the eyes of God.

Further, Hamlet wonders about the nature of his death and thinks for a moment that it may be like a deep sleep. This idea seems acceptable at first, until he speculates about what will come in such a deep sleep.

Hamlet's reflection on death being like sleep

Hamlet compares death to a kind of sleep, and seen this way, it does not seem so frightening. But he comes to these questionings precisely because he is a very reflective person. However, facing situations with a philosophical attitude, he wonders what could be after death, after eternal sleep.

This is how, in the second part of Hamlet's reflection, he focuses more on the innate fear of every human being about death. It is the place from which no traveler has ever returned. In this way, Hamlet fears the pains that the afterlife can bring.

Since there is no certainty that there will be a relief from his earthly sufferings through death, he forced himself to question death once again. Soon he gave up committing suicide and was stuck in the doubt: "To be or not to be, that is the question"?

Hamlet through the eyes of psychoanalysis

The theme of the individual who places himself as the sole judge of his death or life is a theme considered "modern," far ahead of Shakespeare's time. It will be for texts like Hamlet that Shakespeare will be (centuries later) remembered:

  • by the authors of Romanticism as being a romantic avant la lettre ;
  • by the Enlightenment as an inspiration to what is valuable in the human, which should not be subordinated to beliefs, nor limited to social rules dictated by other people.

Without Hamlet, without Shakespeare, without Romanticism and the Enlightenment, it would be difficult to think the dimensions of talent, human freedom, and the movements made by the inner psychic life fundamental aspects for psychology and psychoanalysis.

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There is also the issue of internal psychic forces This aspect would be a foreshadowing of the pulsional energy and the unconscious, aspects so important to understand what psychoanalysis is.

The phrase "to be or not to be" in Shakespeare, uttered by Hamlet, has served as an object of study for great psychoanalysts. In the book "Interpretation of Dreams", Freud postulates the theory that dreams are manifestations of unconscious and repressed desires.

Thus, he further states that male children often have an unconscious Oedipal desire to kill their father and replace him with their mother. In this way, Freud mentions that In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the title character experiences this desire and it manifests itself in various dreamlike ways.

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In other words, since his uncle Claudius has already performed the actions Hamlet himself desired, Hamlet struggles with anger. Moreover, while struggling with jealousy and confusion, he tries to suppress these feelings and come to terms with them.


The conflicting desires of the character Hamlet, manifest themselves in strange behavior that they take as madness. In this way, Hamlet's dreamlike experiences take on various forms.

However, as his subconscious takes over, Hamlet's repressed desires manifest themselves. For this reason, the first instance of this is the appearance of his father's ghost and Hamlet's discussion with this ghost.

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Whether or not the ghost is a real ghost, In other words, the ghost is able to say things that are suppressed in Hamlet's subconscious, so he is unable to admit them to himself until the ghost says them out loud.

Shakespeare's Formative Influence on Freud

Before finishing reading, it is worth noting that Shakespeare's plays occupied a significant place on Sigmund Freud's bookshelf for most of his life. The psychoanalyst started reading Shakespeare when he was only eight years old.

In addition, Freud quoted the plays in letters to his friends, colleagues, and his beloved. During his reflections on theories, he used Shakespeare's plays to help him understand difficult issues in his life. In particular the phrase "To be or not to be, that is the question" made Freud reflect on failure and death.

In general, Shakespeare's plays are part of the raw material from which Freud built psychoanalysis. The psychoanalyst's intertextual relationship with Shakespeare took many forms, including quotation, allusion, and literary interpretation.

Final considerations to be or not to be, that is the question

I hope you have enjoyed knowing the meaning of to be or not to be in Shakespeare. If you want to deepen your knowledge of the human psyche, especially that of the character Hamlet, we have an invitation for you to enroll in our 100% distance learning online course on clinical psychoanalysis!

Our Clinical Psychoanalysis course prepares you to enter the job market as a psychoanalyst or bring the knowledge acquired to your current occupation. Through remote classes, you can also study Shakespeare's works to enhance your interpretive skills. In addition, this is a great opportunity to deepen your understanding of psychic conflicts. Take theyour registration to learn more!

George Alvarez

George Alvarez is a renowned psychoanalyst who has been practicing for over 20 years and is highly regarded in the field. He is a sought-after speaker and has conducted numerous workshops and training programs on psychoanalysis for professionals in the mental health industry. George is also an accomplished writer and has authored several books on psychoanalysis that have received critical acclaim. George Alvarez is dedicated to sharing his knowledge and expertise with others and has created a popular blog on Online Training Course in Psychoanalysis that is widely followed by mental health professionals and students around the world. His blog provides a comprehensive training course that covers all aspects of psychoanalysis, from theory to practical applications. George is passionate about helping others and is committed to making a positive difference in the lives of his clients and students.