What does to be mean

This is a quote from William Shakespeare's "Hamlet". The protagonist, Hamlet, speaks this line when he is contemplating committing suicide--basically, the question was "Do I want to live or die?". The rest of the monologue from which this quote is taken involves Hamlet deciding the possibility of life and punishment after death make suicide an unattractive option, despite the known hardships of remaining alive.

He is defining Hamlets Dilemma through Hamlets eyes. Basically the Pains of Living Vs. the unknowing of what death may hold for him. Hamlet is not very content with his situation at this point in "The Tragedy of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark". He is wondering if it is worth it face the "Slings and arrows" or better to die even though he is unsure of what death brings, and the possibility of damnation.

It means "Shall I kill myself or not?"

Another Answer

The above is the conventional wisdom, however, there is really no time in the play when Hamlet appears to be anywhere close to killing himself. And if he truly took the idea seriously, of killing himself, he simply could, at any time.

In the course of the actual play events, when Hamlet enters the room, he is expecting Claudius to be there soon, so his line is more sensibly interpreted as Hamlet contemplating killing Claudius.

When Hamlet enters the room and looks around, he doesn't see Claudius, so he naturally takes it that Claudius isn't there yet, for their scheduled meeting. We are supposed to understand the characters as being like natural people.

If you were summoned to a meeting with somebody, but didn't see the other person when you entered the room and looked around, you would think the other person just wasn't there yet, of course. Anybody would think that. The audience knows Claudius is there, but there's no reason to imagine Hamlet knows that.

So, the sensible conclusion, based on the behavior of real people, is that as Hamlet says his "To be or not to be" speech he is waiting for Claudius to arrive, not knowing Claudius is already there, hiding. The thought behind the speech is whether Hamlet can bring himself to kill Claudius, when Claudius arrives.

So, "To be or not to be" means, is Hamlet's revenge to be carried out, when Claudius arrives? Hamlet is thinking about whether he'll be able to kill Claudius in just a few minutes. The speech is thematic on the point of Hamlet's Revenge, which is the driving force of the entire play.

As to "Hamlet's Dilemma," his dilemma is not on the point of his own life or death, but rather on the point of Claudius's life, or death at Hamlet's hands.

"To be or not to be" means, "Will I be able to carry out my revenge now, or not?"

Another Answer

Hamlet is not faced with suicide - in fact there's only one suicide reference in the play (Act 1, Scene 2). This is about a general theme within the play - the power of the mind over the passions. Can Hamlet out think the sea of death that is before him, or should he, as he says in Act IV, Scene 5, should he simply let his "...thoughts be bloody". He does not say, "let my actions be bloody." Claudius, the man of business (the mind) is clearly outwitted by Hamlet time and again. That's because Hamlet is the best of both mind and body - careful thought with swift execution. By the time this part of the play comes, the thought of suicide does not exist for Hamlet. He's bent on revenge. "To be..." should be read "to be conscious"; or aware enough to succeed.

Another Answer

The quotation is about suicide but Hamlet is not seriously considering it. He knows or guesses that Claudius is listening in so he talks about suicide to give the impression that he is depressed. Nobody who had seen his father's ghost could seriously talk about death as "the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns.