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Posted: 30 December 2014
Updated: 12 December 2017

“To be, or not to be”: he speaks of three paths, not two

There are at least three famous phrases from Hamlet’s speech:

  1. To be, or not to be, that is the question
  2. To sleep, perchance to Dream
  3. The undiscovered Country

Despite how well known these phrases are, few people understand the depth of Hamlet’s angst. The most obvious problem is that he faces impossible tasks that will cause him great suffering and he knows that an alternative is to escape by killing himself. But Hamlet is not questioning whether he should “quit”; he weighs the subtleties of the two options with sophistication and insight.

The less obvious dilemma that Hamlet ponders is that death is an undiscovered Country: he might be freed of his current problems but run into the arms of a greater beast.

There are many people who believe that suicide and self-harm are cowardly acts. Those people have not fully contemplated an insurmountable and dangerous situation or the complex questions and uncertainty of life and death. To sling the insult of cowardice is to reveal one’s own ignorance–ignorance of misery, ignorance of despair, ignorance of integrity, ignorance of uncertainty, ignorance of fallibility.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare, Act 3, Scene 1

To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveler returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,
And thus the Native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action. Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia. Nymph, in all thy Orisons
Be thou all my sins remembered.

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