Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, April 11, 2013


To be, or not to be: that is the question… -Hamlet (Act III, Scene One)

An email from the Nashville Shakespeare Festival for Shakesbeer 2013 started out with these lines: “To brew or not to brew, that is the question. After all; the empty vessel makes the loudest sound. Can one desire too much of a good thing? Of course not, and as good luck would have it, there are friends, Romans, countrymen who have lent us their beers!”

That’s clever advertising. In modern America “To be, or not to be…” (or variations on that theme) has become one of the most popular lines Shakespeare ever wrote. Even people who never read Shakespeare have heard “To be, or not to be…” Why is this line so popular with American audiences? For one thing, it’s concise; just the right size for an age used to getting news and philosophy in crisp little sound bites. There are six words in this phrase and they’re all short, easy words; none of them is more than three letters. This is what we nowadays call a second- or third-grade reading level. Virtually anyone can understand what these words say. But how many of us know what they mean? There are two sides to that question: what do the words mean for us, and also what did they mean to Hamlet? So, let’s move on to consider the first part: what do the words mean for us?

Maybe one reason Americans like this phrase so much is because it gives us a choice. And we’re a consumer-centric society: first class or coach? Chocolate or vanilla? Would you like to supersize that order? To be, or not to be? Having a choice is a good thing. But too much of a good thing may not be good. Too many choices can be overwhelming sometimes. Maybe Hamlet isn’t really mad (or crazy) after all. Maybe Hamlet’s real problem is that he’s simply overwhelmed with too many choices: his dad’s ghost, his mom’s remarriage, his feelings for Ophelia. Can Hamlet choose “not to be” Hamlet? Can he choose to ignore the influence of his father (or his father’s ghost)? Can he choose to ignore that his mother is in bed every night with his uncle? Can he choose to walk away from his romantic and erotic attraction to Ophelia? These are the kinds of questions that appeal to educated post-Freudian Americans. But they aren’t the questions that Hamlet was pondering in this play.

For Hamlet “To be, or not to be…” is to be taken literally. In the end is life worth all the troubles we have to endure? Not only will time eventually ravage our bodies and our minds as we grow old. Long before that happens we’ll have to put up with a whole host of embarrassing or infuriating problems. Powerful people will often treat us badly. We will be disrespected by many. We may be spurned by lovers who lose interest. Or unjustly accused of crimes we didn’t commit. Sometimes it seems as if our lives are created more by chance than by choice. Is life worth all this trouble? Hamlet wonders if it wouldn’t be better to die, to sleep. To sleep peacefully would be the final relief from this world of woe. But on the other hand, Hamlet ponders, what if that sleep isn’t peaceful after all? What if it’s even worse than this world we’re trying to leave behind? What if it’s like hell? What if it IS hell? Ay, there’s the rub (another famous Shakespeare phrase). To use an old American phrase, for Hamlet to take his own life may be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. So Hamlet chooses “to be.” Despite all its troubles, his own troubled life is the role Hamlet was meant to play. This is the hand he was dealt; this is the hand he will play.


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