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In the speech, a despondent or feigning Prince Hamlet contemplates death and suicide. He bemoans the pains and unfairness of life but acknowledges the alternative might be still worse. The speech functions within the play to explain Hamlet's hesitation to directly and immediately revenge his father's murder (discovered in Act I) on his uncle, stepfather, and new king Claudius. Claudius and his minister Polonius are eavesdropping: the speech dashes Polonius's hopes that Hamlet was suffering from "neglected love" for his daughter Ophelia and worries the king. He had already sent for Hamlet's college friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: following Hamlet's murder of Polonius, he subsequently dupes them into an attempt to ferry Hamlet to England for a distant execution.
At the end of the soliloquy, Hamlet addresses his former lover Ophelia directly. The scene and Ophelia's subsequent distress are resonant with her own later death or suicide in Act IV, but it is unclear in the script whether or not he was aware of her presence during his lines.
This version of the speech preserves most of the First Folio text, with updated spelling and four common emendations introduced from the Second Quarto (italicized).
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 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 thy Orisons
Be all my sins remembered.
The first edition of Hamlet in print, the 1603 "First Quarto" printed by Valentine Simmes for Nicholas Ling's bookshop, has a shorter and more direct version of the speech. Some have argued that it represents a bad quarto (essentially, a theatrical knock-off) rather than a first draft or touring copy of Shakespeare's script.
To be, or not to be, I there's the point,
To Die, to ſleepe, is that all? I all:
No, to ſleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes,
For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an euerlaſting Iudge,
From whence no paſſenger euer retur'nd,
The vndiſcouered country, at whoſe ſight
The happy ſmile, and the accurſed damn'd.
But for this, the ioyfull hope of this,
Whol'd beare the ſcornes and flattery of the world,
Scorned by the right rich, the rich curſſed of the poore?
The widow being oppreſſed, the orphan wrong'd,
The taſte of hunger, or a tirants raigne,
And thouſand more calamities beſides,
To grunt and ſweate vnder this weary life,
When that he may his full Quietus make,
With a bare bodkin, who would this indure,
But for a hope of ſomething after death?
Which puſles the braine, and doth confound the ſence,
Which makes vs rather beare those euilles we haue,
Than flie to others that we know not of.
I that, O this conſcience makes cowardes of vs all,
Lady in thy orizons, be all my ſinnes remembred.
The Second Quarto presented a form closer to the one in present use. Major changes to the presentation of the scene include moving King Claudius and Polonius's decision to confront Hamlet with Ophelia earlier in the play and the addition of "Soft you now", suggesting that Hamlet has not (or is feigning having not) seen Ophelia thus far during his speech.
Other sections of the text were also much expanded from the First Quarto edition. In a new passage closely paralleling the opening of Hamlet's soliloquy, one of the watchmen Barnardo tells Horatio concerning the ghost they saw, "I think it be no other, but enso; well may it sort that this portentious figure comes armed through our watch so like the King that was and is the question of these warres" between Denmark and Norway, to which Horatio replies, "A moth it is to trouble the mindes eye".
To be, or not to be, that is the queſtion,
Whether tis nobler in the minde to ſuffer
The ſlings and arrowes of outragious fortune,
Or to take Armes againſt a ſea of troubles,
And by oppoſing, end them, to die to ſleepe
No more, and by a ſleepe, to ſay we end
The hart-ake, and the thouſand naturall ſhocks
That fleſh is heire to; tis a conſumation
Deuoutly to be wiſht to die to ſleepe,
To ſleepe, perchance to dreame, I there's the rub,
For in that ſleepe of death what dreames may come
When we haue ſhuffled off this mortall coyle
Muſt giue vs pauſe, there's the reſpect
That makes calamitie of ſo long life:
For who would beare the whips and ſcorns of time,
Th'oppreſſors wrong, the proude mans contumly,
The pangs of deſpiz'd loue, the lawes delay,
The inſolence of office, and the ſpurnes
That patient merrit of the'vnworthy takes,
When he himſelfe might his quietas make
With a bare bodkin; who would fardels beare,
To grunt and ſweat vnder a wearie life,
But that the dread of ſomething after death,
The vndiſcouer'd country, from whose borne
No trauiler returnes, puzzels the will,
And makes vs rather beare thoſe ills we haue,
Then flie to others we know not of.
Thus conſcience dooes make cowards,
And thus the natiue hiew of reſolution
Is ſickled ore with the pale caſt of thought,
And enterpriſes of great pitch and moment,
With this regard theyr currents turne awry,
And loose the name of action. Soft you now,
The faire Ophelia, Nimph in thy orizons
Be all my ſinnes remembred.
Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, published by Isaac Jaggard and Ed Blount in 1623 and better known as the "First Folio", includes an edition of Hamlet largely similar to the Second Quarto.
To be, or not to be, that is the Queſtion:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the minde to ſuffer
The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune,
Or to take Armes againſt a Sea of troubles,
And by oppoſing end them: to dye, to ſleepe
No more; and by a ſleepe, to say we end
The Heart-ake, and the thouſand Naturall ſhockes
That Fleſh is heyre too? ’Tis a consummation
Deuoutly to be wiſh’d. To dye to sleepe,
To ſleepe, perchance to Dreame; I, there’s the rub,
For in that ſleepe of death, what dreames may come,
When we haue ſhufflel’d off this mortall coile,
Muſt giue vs pawſe. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of ſo long life:
For who would beare the Whips and Scornes of time,
The Oppreſſors wrong, the poore mans Contumely,
The pangs of diſpriz’d Loue, the Lawes delay,
The inſolence of Office, and the Spurnes
That patient merit of the vnworthy takes,
When he himſelfe might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would theſe Fardles beare
To grunt and ſweat vnder a weary life,
But that the dread of ſomething after death,
The vndiſcouered Countrey, from whoſe Borne
No Traueller returnes, Puzels the will,
And makes vs rather beare those illes we haue,
Then flye to others that we know not of.
Thus Conſcience does make Cowards of vs all,
And thus the Natiue hew of Resolution
Is ſicklied o’re, with the pale caſt of Thought,
And enterprizes of great pith and moment,
With this regard their Currants turne away,
And looſe the name of Action. Soft you now,
The faire Ophelia? Nimph, in thy Orizons
Be all my ſinnes remembred.