“To Be Or Not To Be; that is the question.” To be precise, that is the line – the single most famous line in Shakespeare and probably the single most famous line in all of literature, the one cited, quoted and even parodied in almost every art form, from classic works of literature, art and music, such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Millais’s portrait of the drowning Ophelia and Haydn’s Symphony No. 65 (parts of which may have originally been written as music for a production of Hamlet), to popular films, television programmes and musicals, including Star Trek, The Simpsons and The Lion King. Indeed, it is the line of Shakespeare most often quoted even by those who do not profess to be particular admirers or exponents of Shakespeare or literature, such as Bart Simpson himself. But why has “To Be Or Not To Be” taken on a life of its own, a life almost independent of the play, Hamlet, in which it appears?
Its success, or at least its fame, cannot have been instantaneous, as proved by its famous misquoting in the first copies of Hamlet that were ever printed, the so-called bad quartos. In the first quarto of 1603, which would have been published less than 18 months or so after the play was first performed at The Globe, the first half of the line is captured correctly but the second half is horribly wrong: “To be, or not to be, eye there’s the point.”
It is proof of the inexactness of the first quarto, which, like most of the quarto copies of Shakespeare’s plays, was probably an illegal rip-off by a printer hoping to cash in on the success of Shakespeare. However, it also showed that the line itself had not immediately fixed itself in the public consciousness: if it had, surely even a rogue or maverick printer would have got it right.
The line’s widespread fame was to come later, after Shakespeare’s death. The Romantics, who did so much to popularise Shakespeare first in England and then throughout the world, seized on “To Be Or Not To Be,” regarding it as the epitome of Enlightenment thought (even if it had been written nearly 200 years earlier) in its combination of philosophy, self-analysis and poetry. In his book, Wordsworth, The Sense of History, Professor Alan Liu argues that Wordsworth so closely identified himself with Shakespeare and with Hamlet in particular that: “If Wordsworth’s sonnets were a soliloquy, they would begin, ‘To be or not to be English.’”
Nearly a hundred years after the Romantic period, Sigmund Freud was similarly fascinated with Hamlet and his most famous utterance, using it as evidence of Hamlet’s morbid self-obsession, which (Freud posited) was caused by his suffering from the Oedipus complex that Freud first identified as him wanting to kill his father (or at least his new stepfather, Claudius) and marry his mother, Gertrude (whose sexuality he seems to be preoccupied by). Thus, Hamlet’s influence, including that of his most famous line, extended from literature itself and became part of modern psychiatry, indeed a symbol of the human condition itself. As Reginald A. Foakes, the renowned author, critic and co-founder of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford on Avon, put it: “No other character’s name in Shakespeare’s plays, and few in literature, have come to embody an attitude to life…and been converted into a noun in this way.”
The meta-life of Hamlet, the life beyond the play, and his most famous line continued in the 20th century, as the influence of Shakespeare’s writing extended beyond the theatre and into the other popular dramatic and narrative art forms of the time – film and television. In the theatre, particularly in England, it was the great age of the actor-manager, as Shakespearean stars such as Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud took Hamlet to the masses, not only in productions of the play itself but in their own adaptations and modifications of Shakespeare. For example, the legendary Guardian theatre critic, Michael Billington, has always maintained that the greatest rendition of “To Be Or Not To Be” that he has ever heard was that of Gielgud in his “Ages of Man” anthology, performed in the 1950s.
Gielgud’s rendition of the line may be lost to us, but fortunately Olivier’s rendition in his 1948 film of Hamlet is not. With Olivier’s Hamlet standing on top of Elsinore’s castle walls and contemplating his fate as the waves crash below him, what is most stunning is not so much Olivier’s delivery, powerful and sensitive as it is, as the cinematic imagery used to support and supplement Shakespeare’s poetry. As the camera closes in on the back of Hamlet’s head, as if actually going into his head, there is, for just a split second (it is almost subliminal), an actual image of a human brain, divided into its separate hemispheres, which looks uncannily like the rocks below. It is the perfect cinematic depiction of Hamlet’s mind and the suffering within it.
However, it was not just the films and television productions of Hamlet itself that helped to bring awareness of the play, and in particular its most famous line, to a wider, indeed, worldwide audience but the numerous adaptations, spin-offs and stories “inspired” by Hamlet, most of which made great play of the “To Be Or Not To Be” line. The absolute exemplar of this is the classic 1942 Ernst Lubitsch comedy, To Be Or Not To Be, which not only takes its title from the opening of Hamlet’s most famous speech but is in large part about it; the plot revolves around the time it takes the actor playing Hamlet (in the film, the brilliant Jack Benny) to deliver the accompanying soliloquy, which is time enough for the actor’s wife to effect a romantic assignation with her lover. In this way, arguably the greatest and certainly the most famous celebration of the “To Be Or Not To Be” line is also a sly, subtle undercutting of Hamlet’s self-importance, in a way that I cannot help but think Shakespeare himself would have approved of.
The influence of all these films, theatrical productions and adaptations of Hamlet continues to this day. As I said at the outset, there are references to “To Be Or Not To Be” in innumerable modern comedies and dramas, ranging from The Simpsons (where Bart famously contemplates, “To Bart Or Not To Bart”) and South Park to the superbly funny Hamlet 2, in which Steve Coogan’s desperate high-school drama teacher writes a sequel to Hamlet that will incorporate elements of time travel, so as to save the main characters, including Hamlet himself, from death, thus opening up the possibility of the line being completely reworked: “To be or not to be…and to be again!”
Perhaps the best example of how the line “To Be Or Not To Be” has taken on a life, or rather after-life (after the initial production of the play in the early 17th century), of its own is in a classic episode of Frasier. The episode, “The Question”, opens with Frasier’s brother Niles asking him directly if he thinks he and his wife, Maris, from whom he has been long estranged, are “meant to be together.” Typically, Frasier, who is as eternally self-questioning as Hamlet himself, is driven to paroxysms of frustration as he contemplates what answer to give his brother. Finally, he takes to the streets in desperation, walking the late-night empty boulevards of Seattle and receiving endless reminders of the impossibility of answering Niles’s question honestly, most tellingly a movie-house proudly announcing a screening of To Be Or Not To Be. From Hamlet to Jack Benny to Frasier (immortalised by Kelsey Grammer), and from drama to comedy, “To Be Or Not To Be” is the ultimate unanswerable question.
Indeed, it is the fact that it is unanswerable that makes Hamlet’s question, “To Be Or Not To Be,” so enduring and so powerful, the poetic equivalent, as it has become, of the essential human question: to live or die? There cannot be anyone alive (at least, not anyone thinking) who has not asked themselves that question, and the fact that Shakespeare has his most famous creation, Hamlet, ask it of himself is the ultimate proof of his universality – his ability to articulate the thoughts and fears of almost every human being who has ever lived, or ever will live. In fact, it is tempting to conclude that Shakespeare is articulating not only Hamlet’s thoughts and fears but his own.
Hamlet is for many people (myself included) Shakespeare’s most autobiographical play. It is surely no coincidence that Shakespeare chose to adapt an ancient Scandinavian story whose title bore a remarkable proximity to the name of his own son – his only son – Hamnet, who had died in 1596, probably from the plague. In many ways, Hamlet the play and Hamlet the character are the idealised creations of a grieving father, who mourned the loss of a beloved son and attempted to compensate, in some small way, for that most brutal of losses by giving life to a magnificently complex and incredibly human young man, who, like his own son Hamnet, would die too young and before he could fulfill his destiny: in Hamlet’s case, to become King of Denmark; in Hamnet’s case, to inherit the Shakespeare family name and fortune.
It is in this context that “To Be Or Not To Be” assumes its universal relevance. In effect, it is not just Hamlet questioning the meaning of existence but Shakespeare himself. And there is a particular similarity, even symmetry, between Shakespeare’s fate and that of his most famous creation. By the time he wrote Hamlet, probably in about 1601 or 1602, Shakespeare was, by any definition, a success: a wealthy playwright who was the first to form his own company, alongside his close friends and colleagues, so that he could determine the course of his own career. And yet that must have all seemed relatively empty and meaningless in comparison with the loss of his son. Similarly, Hamlet is the appointed heir to the throne (even Claudius acknowledges as much, especially as he does not have children of his own, and Gertrude is probably too old to give him an heir), but that too is almost meaningless in comparison with the loss of his beloved father – especially when he learns that his beloved father was murdered by the man who replaced him on the throne.
It is this endless questioning – “To Be Or Not To Be; That is the question” – that unites both Shakespeare and Hamlet. On the surface, both are successful and enjoy worldly fame and fortune, or at least the prospect of inheriting it, but that is as nothing when set against what they have lost: in Shakespeare’s case, a son who he literally saw as his future; in Hamlet’s, the father who embodies his past. It is the ability to encompass the universal human quest for meaning and significance in a phrase of remarkable simplicity that perhaps best explains the enduring appeal of Shakespeare’s most famous line.