To be, or not to be… What is the question?


The phrase “To be, or not to be” is the opening phrase of a soliloquy in the “Nunnery Scene” of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. It is a popular soliloquy in the works of Shakespeare – probably, even, the most famous soliloquy anywhere. The phrase is truly intriguing as Shakespeare deals with insightful thoughts and complex philosophical ideas to communicate with an audience with a wide range of intelligence and emotional quotients.

In the speech, upon being spurned in love, “a despondent or feigning Prince Hamlet”(sic) contemplates death by suicide. He bemoans the pains and unfairness of life but acknowledges that “the alternative might be still worse.”(sic) as he is unsure about what death would bring or whether there is life after death (that he would then surely spend in hell since suicide is a cardinal sin).  Shakespeare urges the reader to contemplate whether it is better to simply endure and suffer life passively in the face of adversity and crisis rather than actively trying to end that suffering.

Wikipedia states that “‘To be, or not to be…’ is one of the most widely known and quoted lines in modern English, and the soliloquy has been referenced in innumerable works of theatre, literature and music.”(sic). Most of us would vouch for the popularity of the phrase and it is very likely that we have found ourselves using the phrase at various junctures in our lives.

Delving a bit deeper in to the origin of the phrase requires us to understand Shakespeare’s frequent use of soliloquies in his writings. It is generally accepted that Shakespeare used soliloquies to convey some of his deepest insights in to the human mind specifically the way in which we deal with our inner conflicts under pressure, often failing to perceive the flaws in our own reasoning.

This article, however, is neither about Shakespeare’s writings nor about the various insights that he gathered in his studies of the human mind. Instead, we shall try to focus on just one aspect of this “inner conflict” highlighted by the words “a despondent or feigning Prince Hamlet” in the paragraph above. Shakespeare leaves it to the reader to determine for themselves the sincerity of Prince Hamlet in dealing with his inner turmoil and therein lies the true entertainment value of his works. Subsequently, the question that we will explore is whether we are fooling or indulging ourselves by engaging our mental faculties in trying to resolve the myriad inner conflicts that we typically are confronted with in our lives. The instinctive response would be “It depends…”.

First and foremost it depends on the context in which the conflict has arisen. For instance, suppose that a person has a boss who he believes is a tyrant. He may delude himself into thinking that he is the injured party and is wronged by having to work for a tough boss.  Whether his boss is truly a tyrant or not is something that is his perspective and may not be correct. So it may happen that while this person considers his boss to be a dictator another colleague may feel this same boss is not only professional and easy to work with but also friendly and approachable. Office politics and a demanding boss makes the first person wonder whether it is better to change his job and probably opt for a less lucrative option. Or he may wonder if it is better to simply keep his head down, put up with a demanding boss, and continue with his present job. 

Let’s see another example where one is confronted with inner turmoil and conflict. Suppose that a particular woman is suppressed and harassed for dowry in her martial home. What should she do? Put up with the harassment or face social stigma of being a divorced woman? The fear that she would be socially looked down upon as she is a divorcee is her perception and may not really be true. In such a situation she would often ask herself whether it is better to live a life of torture or a life where she is looked down on for being a divorcee.

Ironically, these days, most of us tend to lead dual lives, our physical lives where we encounter face to face interactions with people as well as a life on social media such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and the like. So, we may encounter conflicts while interacting with people face to face or while we are online. Many of us also might feel a bit conflicted every time we need to post or share something on social media. Like, for example, you got that Best Performer award at work! So what do you do? Should you post a status update on Facebook, boasting about the same? Or do personal and professional ethics force you to play down your professional achievements on social media?

From the examples above we can all agree that the context determines the severity of the impact of the conflict, possibly on our very existence. If the consequences of the actions to be taken to resolve the conflict can make a difference of life or death then it is safe to say that we are neither fooling nor indulging ourselves and the resolution process demands our complete and total attention. So for the sake of this article lets exclude such conflicts from our consideration.

But it is equally important to realize that in certain situations we have a preconceived notion of the “morally” or “politically” right choice but somehow we are unable to proceed with making that “right” choice for various “selfish” reasons. Maybe the choice of the word “selfish” is unwarranted at this juncture and, borrowing from Shakespeare once again, we can consider the case of Brutus from his play Julius Caesar whose character is best described as “a self-critical and honest man struggling to do what’s right in unpropitious circumstances”. So let us give ourselves a bit of a concession in this regard and proceed with conflicts the resolutions for which could be across the entire moral spectrum between white and black, with possibly some other colors thrown in for variety.

To summarize, with the constraints and assumptions stated above, the question being asked is whether there is a fine line between fooling versus indulging ourselves while agonizing over certain conflicts or can we establish “suitably rigorous” guidelines to help us choose our battles against our inner demons. Furthermore, given the social animals that we are, energies devoted to our inner struggles do deprive others around us of the same. Hence, it behooves us to be cognizant of the consequences of our actions at all times especially whilst giving in to our indulgent desires.

So where how do we proceed from here? Should we fool ourselves in to thinking that we can find the answer or should we indulge ourselves in some Sunday morning rumination in to philosophy and psychology? That is the question!


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