Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" soliloquy is arguably the most famous soliloquy in the history of the theatre. Even today, 400 years after it was written, most people are vaguely familiar with the soliloquy even though they may not know the play. What gives these 34 lines such universal appeal and recognition? What about Hamlet's introspection has prompted scholars and theatregoers alike to ask questions about their own existence over the centuries?
In this soliloquy, Shakespeare strikes a chord with a fundamental human concern: the validity and worthiness of life. Would it not be easier for us to simply enter a never-ending sleep when we find ourselves facing the daunting problems of life than to "suffer / the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune"? However, it is perhaps because we do not know what this endless sleep entails that humans usually opt against suicide. "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause." Shakespeare seems to understand this dilemma through his character Hamlet, and thus the phrase "To be, or not to be" has been immortalized; indeed, it has pervaded our culture to such a remarkable extent that it has been referenced countless times in movies, television, and the media. Popular movies such as Billy Madison quote the famous phrase, and www.tobeornottobe.com serves as an online archive of Shakespeare's works. Today, a Shakespeare stereotype is held up by the bulk of society, where they see him as the god of drama, infallible and fundamentally superior to modern playwrights. However, this attitude is not new. Even centuries ago, the "holiness" of Shakespeare's work inspired and awed audiences. In a letter dated October 1, 1775, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, commenting on David Garrick's production of Hamlet (1742-1776) to his friend Heinrich Christian Boie, likens the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy to the Lord's Prayer. He says that the soliloquy "does not naturally make the same impression on the auditor" as Hamlet's other soliloquies do,
But it produces an infinitely greater effect than could be expected of an argument on suicide and death in tragedy; and this is because a large part of the audience not only knows it by heart as well as they do the Lord's Prayer, but listens to it, so to speak, as if it were a Lord's Prayer, not indeed with the profound reflections which accompany our sacred prayer, but with a sense of solemnity and awe, of which some one who does not know England can have no conception. In this island Shakespeare is not only famous, but holy; his moral maxims are heard everywhere; I myself heard them quoted in Parliament on 7 February, a day of importance. In this way his name is entwined with most solemn thoughts; people sing of him and from his works, and thus a large number of English children know him before they have learnt their A.B.C. and creed. (Tardiff 19)
Despite the extreme popularity of Hamlet's famous soliloquy, there are some scholars who have criticized its imperfections, and even have been so bold as to say that Hamlet speaks out of character when he delivers the famous words. Tobias Smollett, a major eighteenth-century English novelist, and his contemporary Charles Gildon see the soliloquy as unnecessary in that it does not further the dramatic action of the play. Tobias Smollett writes in an essay dated 1756:
...there are an hundred characters in [Shakespeare's] plays that (if we may be allowed the expression) speak out of character. ... The famous soliloquy of Hamlet is introduced by the head and shoulders. He had some reason to revenge his father's death upon his uncle, but he had none to take away his own life. Nor does it appear from any other part of the play that he had any such intention. On the contrary, when he had a fair opportunity of being put to death in England he very wisely retorted the villainy...