To be, or not to be: that is the question:

AFAIK, that's the correct punctuation in modern editions of Hamlet.

Someone (I think it was Orson Welles) suggested an alternate, and "better" (in his opinion) rendition as:

To be or not, to be: that is the question:

I'm not fluent in English enough to understand why this could be an improvement on the original. Please discuss and enlighten me.

Tags: hamlet, shakespeare

Views: 534

Replies to This Discussion

What does AFAIK mean?

In this instance I don't see how changing the comma, and therefore changing the inflection, makes too much of a difference in meaning in this particular instance. It seems to me that the first example is pretty straight forward. The question is: should we live or should we snuff it (by our own hand)?

The second example only offers a slightly different potential meaning, but not one I would have picked up on if you hadn't posted this discussion. It seems to me the second option is implying: To be or not [to be] (as a statement) (pause) But "to be" or to exist, that is the important question of life. What does it mean to be in existence. That is the real question. THE question is not do we live or snuff it, but rather, what does IT mean "to be" alive? That's how I might take it.

I think the second example is really a forced and unnatural interpretation of the sentence. If WS had meant to question the nature of existence itself, I am certain he would have said so.

Like all languages, inflection changes the meaning. In MacBeth, while they are plotting Duncan's murder, MacBeth asks his wife, roughly, "What if we fail?" She replies "We fail." In the text that is a sentence. Almost an exclamation. Some actresses read it as an exclamation, as if to say "Well then, we fail, and we'll just have to deal with it and cross that bridge when we come to it."

Other actresses have delivered the line like a questions: We fail? As if to say, "What, the two of us fail at something? Impossible. Don't even think that could happen."

So I think that that is what this punctuation debate is about: delivery and meaning.

There really are a lot of ways the meaning of a sentence can be changed by altering inflection. Example:

I loved Ophelia.
I LOVED Ophelia.
I loved OPHELIA.

The different inflections change the focus and meaning of each sentence. The first could almost be a question or uttered in amazement (like a sudden realization of his emotions), as if the speaker was suprised that he could ever love anyone, including Ophelia. The second emphasizes the emotion: I loved her as opposed to being indifferent to her or disliking her. The third implies that Ophelia was the focus of the love, as opposed to any other woman.
THE question is not do we live or snuff it, but rather, what does IT mean "to be" alive? That's how I might take it.

That's how I understood it as well, but then WS would probably have worded it differently (in a less contrived or convoluted way). Would it help to try to interpret it from Orson Welles' perspective?

(AFAIK = as far as I know)
Would it help to try to interpret it from Orson Welles' perspective?

If you think you can, I guess. Is that what you are getting at?
Arg, hit by the language barrier again. Let me rephrase:

Would YOU interpret the alternate writing differently, taking into account the fact it was submitted by a modern author (presumably Orson Welles)?
Well, just in the way I described above. That's what I thought he was maybe getting at. But it's just a guess.
I am new on the site, so sorry if I am repeating points already made. I have always thought that the whole speech is about two things "to be or not to be" in the context of what he knows will happen if he avenges his father (death) -and he is famously delaying that - and "to be or not to be" in the context of what happens after death - that is, dream or no dream: "Ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause."

I have always loved the "ay, there's the rub." Christianity, of course, focuses the Christian believer firmly, with pinpoint precision on that dreadful, full-stop "rub." An atheist is wonderfully free of that particular "rub" and can focus on this one life now.


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