What Does “To Be Or Not To Be” Mean ? 5

After a lifetime of watching Hamlet performed in several languages I still find myself wondering what does “to be or not to be” mean? Yes, I realize that Hamlet is pondering suicide. But could he have asked a better question that would have yielded a better result?

what does to be or not to be mean (hamlet fan art)

It doth confound the sense. Of all the plays in the world, why does Hamlet has such a hold over me? Each time I watched it performed I gleaned a new shade of meaning. With each movie rendition, I am dazzled by nuance. And yet despite the repeated viewings spanning a life time, I continue to feel that its true meaning eludes me.

Everybody dies in the end. Not even a joke. Even for a tragedy …. it is over the top tragic. What could Hamlet have done differently to alter the outcome when he asked “to be or not to be?”. Should he simply walk away. start his soliloquy with

“Be and let be.
I have no questions.”

That answer seems unsatisfying.

Perhaps he should seek mindless revenge, instead of “to be or not to be?” she should have said.

“I be. You don’t have to be.
I will ask questions later.”

Somehow, that doesn’t feel right either. Surely that can’t be the answer.

And what’s up with Polonius? Is he a fool? Or is he a wise man. He has one of the most wise lines ever written. Ever.

“This above all: to thine own self be true.”

Yet he constantly makes one wrong decision after another. Is he a fool pretending to be wise? Or a wise man pretending to be a fool? Or is he simply going senile? I can’t make up my mind.

My fascination started at age 8. The Kuwaiti TV broadcast a black and white Russian movie of Hamlet with Arabic subtitles. I wasn’t able to read the subtitles fast enough, so my mother explained to me the summary of the plot. With nothing but the outline of the story explained to me, I was totally mesmerized. Each scene earnest. Complex. Little did I know that I would be captivated for life. The 1964 Grigori Kozintsev production remains my favorite Hamlet movie to this day. And I have seen them all. At least all that I could get my hands on. The Russian version of the “to be or not to be” soliloquy is the best of all of them.

What is it that fascinates me so much? Is it the fact that there is a play within a play? A literary device from the Arabian nights. Is it Ophelia? —the least devout of Shakespeare’s love interest female personas. Or is it those fantastical mommy issues that Hamlet suffers from?

So here I am. At this moment a giant rumbling pause is looming. I am filled with doubt. I wish I was certain. Although, I have never asked myself The Question. I have many other questions. How can I know that I did the right thing? How can I know that I am on the right path?

A few years ago, I attended a Hamlet production in a small intimate venue. The seat next to me was empty. Right in the scene where Hamlet is pretending to be crazy and having a conversation with Polonius. The part where he says :”words, words, words”. Hamlet sat in the seat next to me. Tapped my hand with his finger to get my attention and spoke staring right into my eyes. No it wasn’t the actor playing Hamlet speaking to me. It was Hamlet. Only Hamlet speaking directly to me. Chills went up and down my spine. Wow! Hamlet spoke to me.

The attached image was assembled with Cauliflower, fresh spinach, fresh parsley, canned white beans in tomato sauce, unpeeled onion and red peppers cut in half.


What does “to be or not to be” mean to you? Do you have a suggestion for a better alternative to “to be or not to be?” I would love to hear it.

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5 thoughts on “What Does “To Be Or Not To Be” Mean ?

  • kim

    Hi Elen: I love your writing, as always.
    I don’t know Hamlet very well, but you make me want to.
    I have to write because I’ve been reading a book for several years on balance between work and life, hard to explain, to do it justice. In there, he uses Hamlet as an example, and analyses the overall story in terms of archetypes – major internal forces that all or most humans have to grapple with and most of us only ever do this subconsciously. I find it fascinating how people trained in the field of psychoanalysis and deep imagery see really pertinent meaning in stories like this, it is kind of like mythology. Maybe his take would be of interest to you. The book is Creating the Work you Love, by Rick Jarow, the section on Hamlet is in the chapter involving the third chakra and the use of will. Highly recommend the book, even if you are not trying to create work you love.

  • Pam Gramlisch

    I do like the picture, its really creative. I am not really a Shakespeare aficionado so I can’t give you any positive feedback on it. I’ve seen movies of different plays of his and though interesting they are not in my keeper collection.