"To Be or Not to Be": Is That Really the Question?
Hamlet's famous question is limited and misleading.
Posted June 29, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
The famous line that begins Prince Hamlet's soliloquy in Shakespeare's Hamlet, "To be, or not to be, that is the question" is probably the most cited statement in all classical drama. Hamlet's question concerns suicide: He considers whether "to be," that is “in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or, alternatively, "not to be," that is, “to die, to sleep … and by a sleep, to say we end the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”
I suggest, however, that Shakespeare's rendering of the issue is wrong and unhelpful. "To be or not to be" is in fact, not the question. It is the wrong question.
Claiming that a question is wrong may sound odd. Surely, answers can be wrong. Likewise, suppositions, views, claims, and assertions can be wrong. But can questions be wrong?
In fact, questions can be wrong in several ways. An important one is this: questions are wrong when what they presuppose is wrong.
All questions include two elements: something unknown, and something presupposed. If there were not something unknown, about which we inquire, there would be no questioning; we would have nothing to ask about. However, if there is also not something presupposed, on which we base the question, again there would be no questioning. For example, if I ask you what the time now is, I presuppose in this question, among other things, that you have a watch, that you know to read time, and that there is such a thing as time. If I ask whether you got to work today on time, I presuppose that you have work and that you need to get there by a certain hour. If I inquire about the cause of cancer, I presuppose that there is such a disease and that it has a cause.
The presupposed component of a question may be correct or incorrect. If I asked at what hour you robbed the bank, I would wrongly presuppose in this question that you robbed the bank. Likewise, if I asked why you hate me, I would wrongly presuppose that you hate me. When questions are based on wrong presuppositions, the questions are wrong. Not only answers, views, and claims, then, can be wrong; questions can be wrong as well. Getting our questions right is very important, since wrong questions lead to wrong replies. However, since the presuppositions in questions are often implicit, it is easy not to notice the wrongness of some of the questions we ask.
I think that Hamlet's "to be or not to be" question is also a wrong question. One wrong presupposition in it is that we can choose only between these two options: either to commit suicide or to continue to suffer the "slings and arrows" of fortune. In fact, however, there often is also a third option that needs to be thoroughly explored: to improve life by changing the actions or circumstances that bring about the suffering.
The third option, then, is to continue living while decreasing suffering. In other words, it is to diminish or stop the suffering not by ending life but by altering it (even fundamentally, if needed). One decreases suffering by improving life rather than destroying it. One can lessen significantly or even discontinue one's overall suffering in various ways, such as dealing with the causes of suffering, moving away from them, making oneself less sensitive to suffering, dealing with one's perfectionist tendencies, or compensating for the suffering there is in life by creating and augmenting joyful or worthy aspects of life.
To return to Shakespeare's metaphor, in order not to suffer slings and arrows it is sometimes sufficient, for example, to move out of their way. It is tragic that some people prefer to destroy their lives completely rather than to try to alter them in some of the many ways that it is possible to do so.
In Shakespeare's Hamlet, too, there are more options than either to kill oneself or to continue to suffer. But this is a fictional tale.
When reading it, while noting again how narrowly Hamlet conceived his options, I am often reminded of a historical case of a real prince who committed suicide. Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria (1858-1889), was a son of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austro-Hungary (1830-1916), and heir to the throne. He was married, for political reasons and following his father's wishes, to a Belgian princess whom soon he found he did not love at all. However, his father and social conventions disallowed a divorce and marriage to a woman he did love, and who loved him back, Marie Vetsera. This was not the type of life he wanted. Rudolf chose to commit suicide rather than to continue living like that. Vetsera agreed. They were found dead, together, on 30 January, 1889.
Now that was an odd decision. If Rudolf's life was indeed too bad to continue as it was, perhaps there was a way of discontinuing that way of living rather than discontinuing life altogether. For example, Rudolf could have left the court with his beloved Marie, traveled somewhere, learned a profession, worked, and lived with and loved Marie.
Of course, doing this would have shaken the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But his suicide also shook the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Leaving the court would have also caused much sorrow to his parents. Yet his suicide also caused much sorrow to his parents. Moving to, say, France, learning a trade, and working would have surely been a big change. Death, too, however, is a big change. Instead of erasing his old life and turning it into death, he could have erased his old life and molded it into a new type of life. It may be difficult, but facing difficulties is sometimes a good thing. And if he indeed loved Marie Vetsera so much that he couldn't live without her, this option would have enabled them to live together.
Note that I am not claiming here that it is certain that Rudolf would have found the first alternative way of living he would have tried out as sufficiently good. But I suggest that it is amazing that he did not even try any alternative before opting for death. Moreover, if I found my present way of living unbearable, and an alternative one would have also been unsatisfactory, I surely would have tried out several other alternatives as well; perhaps if things did not turn out well in the first option they would have turned out quite well in a second or third try. Yet Rudolf didn't try even one option. He and Marie Vetsera noted only the two options Hamlet recites: continuing life as it is, or dying. The possibility of a third option, that of changing life and thereby trying to improve it, seems not to have even entered their considerations at all.
I suggested above that people can often take action and change the condition in which they are. That was a third option, besides either suffering or suicide. There are more options, however. For example, a fourth option that is sometimes useful is just to wait. Sometimes there is no need to actively change conditions because they change by themselves. Life is often dynamic; just as it has changed in the past it is likely to change also in the future.
Often, people think of suicide when they are in a crisis. A crisis is defined as a temporary low between two plateaus; it does not continue forever. The trick is to persist through it. Those who make it to its end are much relieved when it's over, and those who can't contain it sink. But the difficulty is that within a crisis it is hard for people to identify that they are in one and that eventually there will come a future in which they'll just look back at it, since in a crisis people often lose perspective. It is all too easy, within a crisis, to fall into feeling that this is the way things will continue on forever, that from now on things will always be bad.
I have recently talked with new parents of a 3-month-old baby. They are good parents, but they told me in tears that they feel that their lives have been taken away from them; they felt that they would never enjoy again an uninterrupted, good night’s sleep; would never return to reading, jogging, or sex; and would never have time for themselves. I was surprised by their surprise when I pointed out that, with time, the baby, like all babies, will grow up, will busy himself with his friends, and they will have difficulties in waking him up to go to school. Many things are temporary, including our condition or mood now, even if, when in it, we find it hard to believe that this is the case.
To be or not to be, then, is not the question. It presents only two alternatives to choose from when, in fact, there are more. It is important to consider all plausible alternatives before making a choice. The "to be or not to be" question is infelicitous in overlooking, even ignoring, some such significant and worthwhile alternatives.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1.