An episode from 8/12/22: Everybody knows the most famous soliloquy in all of drama, or at least the first line of it: “To be or not to be, that is the question,” from act three of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Tonight, I delve into the speech and try to figure out why it works so well not just as poetry and drama, but why it has leapt beyond literature entirely to become a cultural touchstone.
Along the way, we look at alternate versions of the speech, and consider the evidence which suggests that, unlike the other soliloquies in Hamlet, it has very little to do with the plot, and might be a speech Shakespeare wrote separately from any play.
Throughout the episode I include the performance of this speech from modern actors: the first is by Paapa Essiedu, and the second by Andrew Scott. The very last, to give a sense of what the original pronunciation of the speech would have sounded like, is performed by Ben Crystal. A larger compilation of nine different versions can be found here, and a YouTube search provides even more.
The books read from in this episode are Ben and David Crystal’s Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companion, Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All, and Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: The Biography.