How to give Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' new meaning

Actor Samuel West gives four interpretations of 'To be or not to be...'

John Simm of Life of Mars fame is the latest actor to take on one of drama's defining roles, Hamlet. But how can anyone bring new meaning to the most familiar six words in literature, "to be or not to be..."?

Start Quote

John Simm

It's probably the greatest role ever written”

End Quote John Simm (above, as Hamlet)

Talk about pressure.

There are more than 1,500 lines to learn, and the words have already been immortalised by theatre greats like Olivier, Gielgud, Burton, Jacobi, McKellen, Branagh and Russell Beale.

The character of Hamlet is possibly the most challenging in drama, and therefore one of the most alluring, with John Simm the latest to join what amounts to a hall of fame for classical actors, as he treads the boards at the Crucible theatre in Sheffield. Olivier award-winner Rory Kinnear continues the tradition at the end of the month in London's National Theatre.

As well as taking on one of the most complex characters ever created, there is the small matter of trying to bring something new to the most quoted lines in literature: "To be or not to be..."

The famous passage comes in Act III Scene I, when Prince Hamlet is trying to establish his uncle's guilt in murdering his father and usurping the Danish throne. This scene, in which he appears to be talking to himself, is a deep philosophical reflection on life and death.

Choose your own Hamlet

Derek Jacobi
  • 1600s: Richard Burbage - "cried"
  • 1820s: Edmund Kean - "dazzling"
  • 1936: Sir John Gielgud - "sensitive"
  • 1948: Laurence Olivier - "ballsy"
  • 1964: Richard Burton - "virile"
  • 1975: Albert Finney - "turbulent"
  • 1979: Derek Jacobi (pictured) - "extraordinary"
  • 1989: Daniel Day Lewis - "Oedipal"
  • 1990: Mel Gibson - "animal spirits"
  • 2000: Angela Winkler - "mesmerising"
  • 2008: David Tennant - "funny"

Source: Various reviews

"The challenge is to make the audience listen to what Hamlet is saying, rather than drift into a hazy memory of school days," says Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington, who has seen about 50 Hamlets over the years.

"They need to sit up and listen to this man who is debating whether to kill himself or not to kill himself and why by the end he decides not to."

For him, the most memorable rendition was by Sir John Gielgud, who brought "breathtaking intensity and intelligence" to the passage, although it wasn't in the context of the play but Gielgud's Ages of Man anthology in the 1950s.

Given the familiarity of the lines, many directors and actors like to try something new.

Samuel West, who spent a year playing Hamlet to wide acclaim in 2001, says there are multiple ways of doing the speech, four of which can be seen in the video above, including a "gameshow" version.

Interpretations can differ, he says, depending on how much you think Hamlet is suicidal or philosophical.

There is also a choice between introspection and engagement, he says. When he acted the part for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the stage lights came up, he strode out towards the audience and looked them in the eye.

"Whether you do soliloquies to yourself or do them to the audience is a decision you'll make with your director.

"You might think 'I'm a very thoughtful, philosophical person and I'm very private, therefore I want my Hamlet to be alone in existential despair.'

"Or you might, like me, say 'I like being in a public sphere, I like the idea of embracing audience. We shouldn't pretend they're not there and I want to turn the lights on and talk to them as if I want to ask for their help or indeed interrupt.'"

It was important to address them directly because the passage is about death so no-one can say it doesn't affect them, says West, who is currently rehearsing Caryl Churchill's A Number at the Chocolate Factory in Southwark, south London.

Few theatre roles explore the emotional range of humanity as fully in three hours as Hamlet.

That is why, he says, it's impossible to master the part and every actor brings something new, rendering any talk of the "best" or "perfect" Hamlet a nonsense.

The challenge of playing Hamlet

Why is Hamlet, after more than 400 years, still seen as the ultimate test for an actor? Partly because it's a role of unmatched complexity. Hamlet is intellectually inquisitive, emotionally volatile, physically magnetic. The part places extraordinary demands on an actor who has to be introspective and athletic, bestial and angelic, cruel and compassionate. The role also carries with it an unfair burden of expectation. Any Hamlet who steps on stage knows that he (sometimes "she" since the part transcends gender) is wrestling not just with the text but the weight of tradition.

Michael Billington, The Guardian

"It's a very difficult part but also a very easy part. It's very forgiving of things you can't do. But it brings you up against them very quickly, it brings you up against your limitations as an actor and as a person quite fast.

"You're calling your girlfriend a whore, your father's been murdered, you want to kill your mother, you might want to sleep with her. All of these things. There are no dark corners of yourself that this play won't hold your hands in, if you want to explore them.

"You can't say: 'He's not going there.' He really is. Shakespeare is absolutely interested in those things."

So can a serious acting career ever be complete without Hamlet on the CV?

Start Quote

I think when you're playing a big classical part you should feel like you're taking the crown from somebody, staggering along under it for a bit and then passing it on with gratitude ”

End Quote Samuel West

When Simm accepted the part in December, he said it was probably the greatest part ever written, and one he couldn't turn down.

"When you get asked and you're 40 years old it's probably wise to say 'yes', because I'm probably not going to be asked again to play Hamlet, so this is the last chance saloon."

Many other actors would agree. Sir Ralph Richardson is probably the only big name not to have played the part, says Billington, perhaps because his "robust countenance" didn't fit the bill for the lean, thoughtful Hamlets of the time.

The reason why the role is so important, he says, is because the play is big box office and the part is so challenging.

"The play itself is one the audience crave to see because it contains so much and it's the archetypal Shakespeare play. And secondly, if you're a young actor between 20 and 40, you feel you have to test yourself against it. It's the ultimate acting test for any actor."

Outstanding performances have launched stellar careers, he says. When the gangly, 24-year-old figure of David Warner shuffled on to the stage in Stratford in 1965, dressed like a student in a red scarf, he appeared to speak for a generation.

Jude Law on Broadway Jude Law's Hamlet was warmly received on Broadway

And nearly 40 years later, Ben Whishaw was the same age when his performance at the Old Vic ignited his stardom.

Strangely, the reverse doesn't seem to apply. A poorly received Hamlet has rarely dealt a fatal blow to acting aspirations.

Billington thinks that's partly because it's difficult to fail in a role which is so adaptable. It will always coincide, he says, with the actor's personality and strengths.

As West puts it, you can fail. But only in an interesting way.

A selection of your comments appears below

I have just been part of an Amature production of Hamlet. The way we did it was that Hamlet began the speech in darkness and when he says "and by opposing, end them" Hamlet is instantly revealed in a strong spotlight, pointing a gun to his forehead. This gained a large gasp from the audience. Hamlet then continues the speech, and after almost shooting himself twice then puts the gun down and continues to ponder his situation. Even though I had seen this many times, it always felt very powerful.

Debbie, Swaffham, Norfolk

The last rehearsed reading I directed, I suggested my Hamlet contemplate 'the meaning of life': "To be or not... to BE, that is the question."

Roger Worrod, Lausanne, Switzerland

I chose the Hamlet soliloquy to 'top and tail' my graveyard shift on top of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square last September, replete in Elizabethan costume for part of Antony Gormley's "One and Other" project. I've seen Russell Beale, Branagh and Tennant, and all gave a unique and convincing portrait. But I murdered the part, and so the professionals need have no fear. It will, however, forever be 'my Hamlet'.

Mark Gleaves, Stratford

They've got it all wrong! The speech is not about suicide, it is about whether to commit murder!

Robert Mansell, London

If new ways of saying the old line are wanted, I can do no better than to suggest it is treated as an anagram. When rearranged, the letters in "To be or not to be, that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" can be rearranged to read "In one of the Bard's best thought of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten". I would like to be able to take credit for it but, alas, I cannot and nor can I shed any light on the identity of who actually did. But whether in the original form or as an anagram, it's damn good piece of work!

David Abbott, Seascale, Cumbria

I think the question ought to be "to be or not to be... JUDGED... (to be in the the light of day or remain hidden in the dark, behind the shadows)."

Chris Skurkey, North Olmsted, Ohio

Derek Jacobi, David Tennant, John Simm, all Hamlets and have all been in Doctor Who. Perhaps John Barrowman or Noel Clarke can be considered future portrayers?

Rachel, Winnipeg, Canada

My take is that Hamlet doesn't know that what he's saying is this monumental thermonuclear killer line in theatrical history. He's just trying to work some things out. So I'd play it a) like it was being said for the first time and b) like he doesn't know where he's going with it.

Nimrod Gently, Launceston

The two best Hamlets I ever saw were David Warner and Ben Whishaw. Both brought an intensity and breadth to the part. I've seen other actors, but for me they remain the best. I think Trevor Nunn is correct in his view of Hamlet as a very young man not a 30 year old. I would like to see a production with Mark Strong as Claudius I think he'd be terrific

Teresa Murphy, Brighton

I agree completely with Mr. Mansell and Mr. Nicolas - it is a speech about to act or not to act (considering Hamlet's personality, which was anything but a man of action like his father or is uncle, it is not only a masterpiece of literature but also a proper consideration for a man who preferred to study in Wittenberg rather than conquering lands for his Country) - and anyway, sorry but I humbly define DT version everything but "funny" ....

Germana Maciocci, Rome

You've got it all wrong. Hamlet's dilemma in these first four lines is obviously not: shall I SUFFER fate or BEAT it (as "by opposing end them" is usually interpreted). What kind of a dilemma would that be? The question "which is nobler" only makes sense when the choice is: either you surrender to the slings and arrows-and die, or you fight them AND YOU DIE JUST THE SAME. So the real meaning of line 4 is: "and end (i.e. DIE) by opposing them." A very simple case of prosody-driven word order change, as happens very often in his plays. Read Brian Jenkins in the Arden and you'll understand why your traditional misreading of this most famous passage is absolutely untenable.

Frank Albers, Antwerp

Mark Gleaves makes a good point: while the latter part of this speech is about suicide, the first few lines are not. The opening is (as it says) about whether it is more noble to endure your misfortunes silently, or to take active steps to change your situation (in Hamlet's case by committing murder): "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to SUFFER The slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune Or to TAKE ARMS AGAINST a sea of troubles And BY OPPOSING, END THEM." After that there is a marked change of tone, and much of the rest of the speech is indeed about suicide. To my mind the biggest mistake actors (especially less experienced actors) make when performing Shakespeare in general (and Hamlet in particular) is simply to speak too slowly! The four lines quoted above, for example, form a single sentence, and a single thought; if you inject "significant" pauses into the middle of it you disrupt the sense to the point where the audience can't follow the meaning of the lines any more. I remember seeing a one-man-show with Alec McCowan some years ago in which he suggested that Hamlet should enter reading a letter containing a philosophical essay by one of his colleagues at Wittenberg university; he would eventually scoff in disgust at the suggestion in the letter about what the most important question to think about is, tear it in pieces, throw them in the air, shake his head and exclaim "To be or not to be - THAT is the question!" That seems as good an approach as any....

Nicolas Bryant , Walthamstow

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