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

Why stop at word tastings? That’s like filling your cupboards with food but never cooking it. Here’s a sentence tasting, which is really using a sentence as an excuse to explorations. It’s a long read.

The year is anno domini 1600, or perhaps 1601. We are across the river from London, in the middle of watching a play. Richard Burbage, a short, stout, utterly entrancing thirty-two-year-old actor, walks onto the stage of the Globe Theatre. The ground and galleries of the open wooden O are full of people, but Burbage takes the front of a broad, nearly empty rectangle jutting into it and claims the heart of a zero, a full nothing – or, depending on how you look at it, a Q.

There are three other people on stage, though Burbage seems not to see them: in the alcove in the back are two actors, playing a king and his adviser, present as an absence, and over to one side, kneeling as if praying, is a boy dressed as a young woman to play the paramour of the prince Burbage portrays. The two hidden men, according to the plot of the play, are using the young woman in hopes of drawing out the protagonist’s secrets. They expect professions of love, confessions of plans, the revelation of what is rolling around in the locked box of his head. They are about to be disappointed. Nobody – characters or audience – will get what they see or see what they get.

Burbage, who is holding perhaps a book, perhaps a weapon, perhaps nothing, but definitely not a skull (not in this scene), starts speaking towards the audience, who in the world of the play are not there but are in fact the entire reason this is even happening. He says words written by his friend and business partner, the successful 36-year-old actor and playwright William Shakespeare. His first line will become one of the most famous lines in the English language:

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

It’s as famous as the opening notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and in much the same way. It’s famous for being famous. Most people who know it don’t know where it goes from there or why this simple statement is supposed to be so profound. It’s just a Mona Lisa for the ears; we don’t know why we’re supposed to like it, but we’re sure we do.

But at least with the Mona Lisa you have something solid. With these words you have passing vibrations in empty air. And signifying what?

Ten words in two phrases, six and four, of which only one word has any firm meaning, and that meaning is a deficit of meaning. The same verb appears in two different forms and means two different things, and though it presents itself as the most essential of verbs, some other languages don’t even have a way of saying it. Half of the words are simple function words, without substance, required only to join other words – and not truly essential at that – and of those, two look different but were once the same, and another has two different possible meanings. And all these words are written as they are to fit a rhythm that they don’t exactly fit.

Burbage continues speaking alone as Hamlet for another 32 lines, weighing the pros and cons of life and death, inaction and action, before finally taking notice of Ophelia. But we’ll stop here and look at just those first 10 words of this soliloquy, his fourth of seven, shortly after the start of the third act, the very ridgepole of the play.


What verb is more basic, more clear, more essential, than to be?

Almost any.

Like being itself, be – we’ll get to the to soon enough – is varied, elusive, mutable; it presents itself in mutually unrecognizable forms (am, are, is, was, were, be); it serves several functions different enough that they could be served by different verbs, and when we look at how other languages handle those functions, we see that there is only one of them that can’t be replaced with the conjugation of another verb or with nothing at all… and that remaining one is untranslatable into many languages.

If I say “I want to be,” what do you think? Probably you think “What do you want to be?” It’s a hall of doors: I want to be a prince, I want to be happy, I want to be getting revenge – three different uses, and not one of them is Hamlet’s.

“I want to be a prince” is the same function as “I am a prince”: what linguists call the copula, and what we think of as an equals sign. Hamlet = prince. It joins two entities together and says they are the same thing, or at least that one is a subset of the other: there are many princes, and Hamlet is one. Some languages have a different word for the copula than for other things be means; in Irish, “I am a prince” is “is prionsa mé,” while the other uses of be would mostly be expressed with “.”

But Hamlet is not wondering whether to be or not to be a prince. He is one, and that’s part of his problem.

“I want to be happy” is not exactly the same function as “I am a prince”; it is the same function as “I am happy” or “I am Danish” or “I am solid.” We may want to write Hamlet = solid, but if we do we’re wrong: there is no entity solid like there is an entity prince. This is, rather, joining the subject to a quality. And in some languages, you use a different verb depending on whether the quality is seen as intrinsic or transient: in Spanish, for instance, “I am Danish” is “soy danés” but “I am happy” is “estoy feliz.” Once a Dane, always a Dane, but once happy is just happy once.

But Hamlet, though he has complained that his flesh is too, too solid, is not now wondering whether to be or not to be solid. Or Danish. Or happy.

“I want to be getting revenge” is not either of the above. It’s the same function as “I’m getting revenge” or “I’m leaving” or “I’m dying.” It’s an auxiliary, and it serves the aspect of the verb after it. English makes heavy use of a progressive aspect that many other languages use rarely or don’t have at all. If I say “I get revenge” you might wonder “How often?” because we mostly use the simple present to talk about habitual actions or about states or qualities. (“And what do you do, Mister —?” “I get revenge.” “I see. Does it pay well?”) We also use the present sometimes to talk about the future. (“What’s on your calendar for tomorrow?” “Tomorrow I get revenge.”) But for an action happening right now, it’s typically “I am getting revenge.” And while we more often use a simpler construction for past and future (“Yesterday I got revenge; tomorrow I will get revenge again”), we can use the progressive then too (“Yesterday at this time I was getting revenge; tomorrow at this time I will be getting revenge again”). In some languages, this distinction is not made – in French, “je meurs” covers “I die” and “I am dying.” In some, it’s made occasionally but with a different verb – in Italian, “I am dying” is not “sono morendo” but “sto morendo,” using a verb that on its own translates as “stay.”

But although Hamlet may be wondering whether to be getting revenge, or – more to the point – to be killing himself instead, that is not what this “To be, or not to be” is about. You just can’t have the auxiliary be without something after it, at least clearly implied (“Are you getting revenge today?” “No, but tomorrow I will be”).

All three of those functions are grammatically essential in standard English. And all three of them are eminently replaceable with a suffix or even nothing at all… even in some versions of English (“You a fool.” “He dead.” “You going?”). And certainly in many other languages.

Hamlet, we all know, is pondering existence. Or, rather, Richard Burbage – or whoever it is you may see in our own times – is portraying Hamlet, who does not actually exist, pondering existence. And the actor is speaking not on his own behalf but is saying lines written by William Shakespeare, who no longer exists now either. When you see it onstage or on the screen, the actor is not being himself. But he is being.

He is being in the same way as God said to Moses, “I am.” He is being in the same way as Mother Mary supposedly said to Paul McCartney, “Let it be.” And he is wondering whether to be, in that way, or not to be, in that way.

And if you think there is nothing more essential than being, not everyone agrees with you, and not every language agrees with you either. Having a verb for the very act of existence may seem like a hand trying to grasp itself. Or it may seem like a river trying to dam itself. Or it may seem like a beam of light trying to reflect itself. Or it may just seem… unnecessary. Underspecified.

Chinese and Japanese both give good examples of this conundrum.

There are several commonly used translations in Chinese (I owe for these and the Japanese ones below): 生存还是死亡 (Shēngcún háishì sǐwáng) means “Survival or death”; 生存还是毁灭 (Shēngcún háishì huǐmiè) means “Survival or destruction”; 死后是存在,还是不存在 (Sǐ hòu shì cúnzài, háishì bù cúnzài) means “Does it exist after death or does it not exist”; 做,定唔做 (Zuò, dìng wú zuò) means “Do it, do not do it.” In every case, it’s a paraphrase of what the translator considered to be the key point of Hamlet’s dilemma.

It’s not that Chinese doesn’t have a verb that translates to “to be.” It does – or I should say it has one that translates as “is” or “am” or “are” or… It’s 是 (shì). But it’s not this to be; it’s the transitive kind, the first three uses I covered. In Exodus 3:14, where English Bibles have God saying “I am who I am,” in Chinese you get 我是自有永有的 (Wǒ shì zì yǒu yǒng yǒu de), roughly “I am forever”; that 是 you see in there is because the sentence structure is more like “I am an eternal one” (please don’t ask me to explain Mandarin syntax right now). And if you’re looking back at the translations of Hamlet’s line and seeing that 是 in all of the versions, it’s just there as part of 还是 (háishì), which translates as “or” (which we will get to below).

Japanese is unrelated to Chinese – it uses characters borrowed from Chinese as part of its writing, and it has noticeable influence by proximity, but Japanese culture is very different from Chinese culture and the languages are as unrelated as English and Swahili. But it faces the same issue. Common translations of “To be or not to be” into Japanese include 生きるか死ぬか (Ikiru-ka shinu-ka), “To live or to die”; このままでいいのか、いけないのか (Konomama-de īno-ka ikenaino-ka), “If it is okay to go on as it is or not”; and 存ふるか、存へぬ (Nagarauru-ka nagaraenu-ka), “To survive or not to survive.” The issue is similar to in Chinese. Japanese uses です (desu) all the time to express existence: 私は作家です (Watashi wa sakka desu) means “I am a writer.” But that’s the transitive be. Japanese does, though, also have a verb that translates to “exist” – or “become” or “achieve” or “be completed” or “be created”; it’s なる (naru). But it doesn’t work when you want to translate “not to be.” To express the opposition, it is necessary to give more of an interpretation.

Before we can sort out to be or not to be, shouldn’t we have a clearer grasp of what it is that is or is not? As Bill Clinton said, it depends on what the meaning of “is” is. But that turns out to be about as easy as marking the location of a rainbow on a map.


And then there’s this to. It’s not “Be or not be,” though many other languages handle it that way – “Ser o no ser” (Spanish), “Sein oder nicht sein” (German), “Lenni vagy nem lenni” (Hungarian) – and though English could too. But the English infinitive includes the word to, you see, and…

No it doesn’t.

I know you learned in school that it does. You see that even in many respected references. It’s a habit to include the to, and it has the advantage of making clear that you mean the infinitive. But the to, though it’s often seen with the infinitive, is not its conjoined twin. It’s not even its personal butler. It’s just a sometimes-needed assistant, a complete nonentity only there for formal reasons… and history.

Let’s start with where it came from. Old English (which means the English of Beowulf, not the English of Hamlet – which is Early Modern English – or even the English of Chaucer – which is Middle English) didn’t use to with normal infinitives. Infinitives were one word, and had an infinitive ending, like German has -en in essen (‘eat’) and French has -er in manger(‘eat’) and so on. The Old English word for “eat” was etan, and -an was the suffix making it an infinitive. So, for instance, “he ongon etan” means “he began to eat.” The infinitive form for “be” was beon. “To be, or not to be” would have been “Beon oþþe ne beon.”

But there were some places where they wanted to express purpose, obligation, or something similar – things we often cover with a noun or noun-like form (e.g., a gerund such as eating) in Modern English. So if they wanted to say something was good for eating, it would be not “god etan” but “god to etanne,” as in “Þa geseah þat wif þat þat treow was god to etanne,” which in the King James Bible is “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food” – i.e., that it was good to eat. (By the way, that þ stood for what we now spell as th – a useful character we lost because of the influence of continental European languages.)

What happened next, over the course of several centuries and a couple of invasions of England and lots of international trade in goods and language, was that most of the many inflectional suffixes of Old English got worn off, and that includes the -an and the -anne of the two infinitive forms – along with most of the endings that showed a conjugated verb as conjugated, leaving just the -s for the present third person singular and -ed for the past (and of course irregular forms for irregular verbs). So the verb forms got harder and harder to tell apart. Which helped the use of to to spread a bit farther.

But it still didn’t spread everywhere. We now write “he began to eat,” but we can write “help me to eat” or “help me eat,” and we definitely don’t write “I should to eat.” There are many words and grammatical structures that require a tobefore the infinitive, but it’s not the infinitive that’s putting the to there, it’s the phrase before. See for yourself: we say “Do you want to?” “Want to what?” “Do it,” and (generally) not “Do you want?” “Want what?” “To do it.”

So this to in “To be, or not to be” is the emptiest of empty words. At most, it is like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.


Do you think it unfair that I say not has no firm meaning of its own? Well, then, go use it on its own and see.

A few people primly insist that it is nonsense to speak of the meaning of a word, because words only have meaning in the context of a sentence. This is silly, of course, but there is a kernel of truth in it: we interpret words in the context of utterance. All speech is action intended to produce a result, and we don’t have any idea of what result it’s intended to produce until we have a context for it. If you see “TIGER” or “RUN” on an otherwise blank piece of paper in an empty room you have just entered, you don’t know why they were put there.

But on the other hand, if the piece of paper is hastily taped to the wall of the room and you hear a low growl from behind the closet door, you’ll have some idea how to interpret it. And if someone in the hallway shouts “Quick” or “Here,” you’ll take action.

For most nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, it’s possible to come up with a situation where a person might say just that word, with no other words being spoken for minutes on either side, and yet it will be understood and responded to. On the other hand, “To” or “At” are very hard to imagine such a case for. How about “Not”? There are millions of cases where we would – and do – say “No,” but not begs for other words much more.

Not is supposedly an adverb. It modifies verbs and adjectives, right? But adverbs are a messy catchbin of a word class. All they have in common is that they adjust the sense of what they modify in some way; an adverb plus a verb or adjective could as easily just be a different verb or adjective (and just about any verb or adjective other than the most basic can easily be described as a more basic word plus an adverb). But not doesn’t adjust; it reverses the polarity. It cancels. It takes away. We establish that there is a set of things, actions, or qualities that we are referring to, and we name a specific point that is among the infinity outside of that set. We also, of course, imply in so doing that there was some question of that thing, action, or quality being inside the set.

But there’s also more than one way of cancelling. There is a difference between denying a positive and affirming a negative, just as “not good” does not automatically mean “bad.” If Hamlet is unsure about murdering his uncle, I could say “You can not kill him,” meaning “You have the option of not killing him,” or I could say “You cannot kill him,” meaning “You do not have the option of killing him.”

Add to this the fact that there is actually no such thing as splitting an infinitive (see above: to is not part of the infinitive, and the “rule” against “splitting infinitives” is a superstition confected by some people who found the practice untidy and did not appreciate the difference between, for instance, “really to do it” and “to really do it”), and you have a difference between “not to do” – a denial of the positive committing of an act – and “to not do” – an affirmation of the negative abstention from the act.

That, mind you, is a nuance available in English but not in many other languages. Hamlet could have said “To be, or to not be” (I don’t say that he should have), but in Italian is has to be “Essere o non essere,” in German “Sein oder nicht sein.” And some languages merge the negative right into the verb to make an actual new verb with opposite polarity, just as I suggested: Czech “Být či nebýt,” Turkish “Olmak ya da olmamak” (ya da means ‘or’; the -ma- is the negative). In other words, not need not be a word at all (which is not to say that it needs to not be a word!).

And some languages prefer a different way about it. Irish, although it has an equivalent of not (), gives Hamlet’s gambit as “Béon nó gan béon,” using the word normally translated as “without”: gan. We have already seen what Mandarin Chinese and Japanese do when dealing with concepts that, for them, do not have simple reversible polarity.

There’s one more thing to look at: If Hamlet had been speaking Old English – the language of Beowulf, spoken between about AD 600 and AD 1000 – he would have said “Beon oþþe ne beon”; the usual word for “not” was ne. So how did we get not?

It’s actually just naught trimmed down. Naught, as you probably know, means “nothing,” i.e., not aught (where aught is “something”). Both not and naught trace back to nawiht (also spelled nowiht), where awiht (or owiht) means “anything,” from a (“ever”) plus wiht (“thing, creature”; its modern descendant is wight, somewhat narrowed in sense). Effectively, this more emphatic word than the simple ne took over for reasons of clarity and, I suppose, emphasis. The same thing happened in German (nicht) and Dutch (niet). Apparently the negative was at risk of vanishing in speech, as it sometimes is today, when you can’t always tell if someone just said “I can’t do it” or “I can do it.”

And as it pretty much has in French – handing its baton to another word. The original negative in French was ne, just as in English. To qualify and emphasize the negation, other words would be added: aucun (to make “not any”), jamais (to make “not ever” or “never”), rien (to make “none” or “nothing”). And pas, which usually means “step” (as in pas de deux, which does not mean “not of two”), got tacked on, as for instance “Je n’y irai pas,” “I won’t go there a step.” For clarity and emphasis, its use spread. And now almost no one actually says the ne and not everyone writes it: “Je ne sais pas” (“I don’t know”) is said, and often written, as “Je sais pas.” Meanwhile in English, we have bundled not into don’t in many instances, and we reduce that in speech so that “I don’t know” is often written “I dunno” but often reduced further in speech to “I’n’no.”

So to some extent this sign of subtraction is self-subtracting. And it could always not be a word – or at least be not a word (i.e., be an affix instead). It’s easy to imagine an English where “To be or not to be” was just three words: “Be or not-be.” After all, Czech does it.


Or why not just two words? Why not present the opposition as “Be? Not-be?”

Korean does that. Well, you get 죽느냐 사느냐 (Jugneunya saneunya), which literally translates to “Die? Live?” but is how the choice between alternatives is phrased. It doesn’t need an “or” equivalent at all.

Meanwhile, Mandarin uses two words to express the opposition: 还是 (háishì), which translates “or” but can also be translated as “still” or “nevertheless” or “yet,” and is made of parts meaning (roughly) “return” and “is.”

And if you think that makes “or” too complicated, go ask a logician; in symbolic logic, a distinction is made between A ∨B, which is commonly read “A or B” but means “A or B or both,” and A ⊕ B, which can also be read “A or B” but means “either A or B but not both.” In other words, ∨ is what we often call “and/or.” But Hamlet must mean ⊕ – right? How could he be allowing both being and not being? He’s not Schrödinger’s cat! And yet he is both being and not being before our very eyes, an actor who is but who here is not himself, portraying a character who we see and yet who is not. And as the play proceeds, he both lives and dies, though not at the same time. He speaks a lot, and then says “The rest is silence” and rests and is silent.

But that’s our wordplay, and not Shakespeare’s play words. We know that or is descended – in part, at least – from a reduced version of other. (Did you notice oþþe in the Old English version above? It’s like ‘be other not be’. For extra fun, consider that in Mandarin a word that can translate ‘other’ –  別 [bié, a word that derives from a source meaning “divide” or “separate”] – is used to mean “don’t,” as in 別去! [Bié qù!]  “Don’t go!”). So it’s one or the other. Unless you’re a logician, and Shakespeare wasn’t, as far as we know.


So. We have seen that the first six words really require no more than two, and those two are just opposite polarities of the same thing – a thing that is either conceptually the most basic fact of existence or an illusion for which a word is not needed. And yet, somehow, that is the question.

Here’s a question: Why is not to “To be, or not to be, this is the question”?

You know either could work. It’s not like the difference between “Do you want this chair or that one?” Whether “that is the question” or “this is the question,” it’s pointing to the same thing. And yet there’s a small difference.

It’s a little bit like saying, in conversation, with no restaurant in sight, “So went to this restaurant” or “So I went to that restaurant.” If you say this, it’s like pulling it out of your pocket and holding it out: it’s introducing it as a new subject. If, on the other hand, you say that, you’re reprising a topic that’s already established. “What restaurant?” “That one you were talking about last week, with the fish and the statues.”

In Hamlet’s case, he’s not starting by saying “That is the question.” He says the question, then points back at it. But while “To be, or not to be, this is the question” would suggest that the question is going to be held for before us and we are going to hold forth on it after this, “To be, or not to be, that is the question” would allow him to move forward more readily.

But he doesn’t, does he? He proceeds to worry the matter like a dog shaking a new stuffed toy in its mouth. He can do that because that is the default in English. Some other languages that can distinguish whether you’re talking about something near or far default to the near. Italian, for instance, has questo (“this”) and quello (“that”), but Hamlet has to say “questo è il problema” (or “questo è la questione” or “questo è il dilemma” – translations vary), because if he said “quello è il problema” he’d be indicating that it’s over there somewhere. In German, he may say “das ist hier die Frage,” and it’s not enough that it uses das, which we might think means “that” but doesn’t actually point anywhere; it specifies hier, “here” – so “das is hier die Frage” could translate as “this is the question” or, perhaps, “that is the question here.”

And in fact the question here right now is whether das, which can mean “that” or (for neuter-gender nouns) “the,” is related to English that or to English the.

And the answer to that question is “Yes.”

In English now, we have only one definite article, the. But back in Old English, we had quite a few definite articles, because nouns could be masculine, feminine, or neuter, and they could be nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, or instrumental, and singular or plural. So “The man gave the woman on the ship the glove” would have four different words meaning the (Icelandic still does this… so does German… so do Russian and other Slavic languages…). But wait, there’s more! The pronoun could be referring to an entity somewhere else or in an unspecified location, or it could be referring to something present. If it was referring to something elsewhere or not specified, it was – if it was in the nominative, which is the form used for the subject of a sentence – masculine se, feminine seo, or neuter þæt. And if it was referring to something present, it was (in the nominative) masculine þes, feminine þeos, or neuter þis.

You remember that þ = th, right? You might also want to know that æ stood for a more front-of-mouth pair to a – if astood for the sound we now use in father, æ stood for the sound we now use in lather or in that. Which tells us that thatis the modern spelling of one form (nominative neuter) of the word for “the.” And this is the modern spelling of the version of that word for when you specifically meant something present and indicated.

And the? Well, it’s the form of that that got left in the pants pocket when the pants were run through the wash. Much of modern English is worn-down versions of older words. I already told you about what happened to infinitives. Picture about the same kind of thing happening to that. But there’s a bit more about the that I want to tell you. Just not quite yet.


So we’ve just had a big reveal that that and the are long-lost… uh, clones, I guess, originally. Or the is a replicant version of that. They look similar. But they don’t mean exactly the same thing anymore (“that is that question” is clearly a bit different). On the other hand, to be and is do, in fact, mean the same thing, just as applied in different contexts, and yet they don’t look anything alike. That’s because they’re not clones, and they’re not birth siblings. They’re chosen family.

Here’s the deal: our different words for present and past forms of to beam, are, is, was, were – just as in pretty much every other Indo-European language, trace back to not one but two Proto-Indo-European roots, which have been reconstructed as *h₁ésti- (from *h₁es-), which meant “be,” and *h₂wes-, which meant “dwell” or “stay” (as in “stay the night”). (I’m not going into Proto-Indo-European phonetics right now, sorry.) They got merged because they were used interchangeably, because that’s how the world and existence looked to the original speakers of Proto-Indo-European: nomadic herders, from probably somewhere around Crimea (but I’m also not getting into that argument right now, just as I have no time here for debates over whether someone who was not Shakespeare wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays). A similar thing happened with some other words – it’s why the past-tense form of the verb wend (i.e., went) is now the past-tense form for the verb go, leaving the obvious goed as a trap for children who are just discovering what a cruel relationship they will have with the English language.

You don’t have to squint too hard to see is and was in *h₁es- and *h₂wes-. And are also comes from the latter one, due to phonological changes that I’m not going to spend time on here, but look up “rhoticism.” Meanwhile, am came from Proto-Indo-European *h₁ésmi, which was, for (waves hands vaguely) morphological reasons, the first-person singular present form of *h₁ésti-.

And then those two families all got together with be, which is completely unrelated to either one. As I’ve told you above, the Old English one-word infinitive for “be” was beon. Old English got it in turn from a Proto-Germanic root that traced back to a Proto-Indo-European root that has been reconstructed as *bʰuH- and meant “become” or “grow” or “appear.” It seems that being and becoming are a natural association; some philosophers will tell you that being is becoming. The Proto-Indo-Europeans were apparently on board with that too.

A general rule is that the commoner and older a word is, the weirder it is and the more blenderized its origins are. And to be is as common and old as they get… in Indo-European languages. Even if it’s so much more and other than it seems.

So we get is speaking for be as we get Burbage speaking for Shakespeare, or for Shakespeare’s character, who may not be saying Shakespeare’s thoughts. But Hamlet is the title character. Can you imagine the play without him? Is, on the other hand, is not essential. In some varieties of English, we can say “good question, that,” instead of “that is the question.” In Irish, one way “that is the question” can be translated is “sin í an cheist,” which has no verb – sin means “that” and í means “she” or “it” (the word for “question” is feminine), and an means “the.” So, lexically, whether that isis or is not is a question.


Hamlet does not say “that is a question.” For him, there is only one question in this moment, and “To be, or not to be” is the question.

And yet that is a distinction speakers of many languages don’t automatically specify at all.

I already mentioned that in Old English there was no one simple word the. In many languages there’s no word for the at all: for instance, in Polish, “that is the question” is “oto jest pytanie,” in Finnish it’s “kas siinä pulma,” and in Japanese it’s… well, I’ll get to that below. However intuitive we may feel sure the distinction is between “a question” and “the question,” it is not at all intuitive or obvious to people who did not grow up speaking a language that makes the distinction. Native speakers of Slavic languages often have trouble with articles and will use a where you would expect the and vice versa, or will just not use an article at all.

You may think the distinction is simple and obvious, but try to explain why we can say “It’s been quite a day” or “It’s been quite the day,” yet we can say “What a day it’s been” but can’t say “What the day it’s been,” and on the other hand we can say “What the heck is that” but can’t say “What a heck is that.” Still so simple and obvious?

The short form of all of this is that a (or I should say an, as that’s the older form; we got into the habit of dropping the nbefore consonants) comes from the same origin as one (and in many European languages the same word is used for both), and also as any, while the, as I already told you, was originally the same as that. And so we could say that Hamlet is one prince, but he is not just any prince, he is that prince. He is not just a prince, he is the prince – in this play, anyway.

But why did our linguistic forebears feel a need (or the need) to make a distinction (or the distinction), when speakers of many other languages did not? That’s a good question. But it’s not the good question we’re dealing with today.


One thing that might jump out if you stare at our sentence for a few moments is that there is no question mark. It’s not “To be? Not to be?” (well, not in English it’s not). Question could be problem, or dilemma, or, um, hangup… In fact, Italian translations include both “questo è il problema” and “questo è il dilemma.” In Mandarin, the usual translation of this ‘question’ is 问题 (traditional characters 問題) (wèntí), which in most contexts is translated as “problem” (the first character generally signifies “ask” and is made from a combination of glyphs for “gate” and “mouth”; the second has the general sense “question” and uses a glyph for “forehead” as the semantic part of it). In Japanese it’s 問題 (mondai), which uses exactly the same characters as the Chinese but stands for the Japanese word, which is not etymologically related but also means “problem, issue, question.” In Czech it can be “oč tu běží” (“that’s what’s at stake” or “that’s what’s going on”). In Dutch you can say “daar gat het om,” which means “that’s what it’s about” (more literally “there goes it about”). It begins to sound like the hokey pokey: not “You put your right foot in, you take your right foot out” but “To be, or not to be… that’s what it’s all about.”

Or it could be frain, which is the word question displaced. Middle English (Chaucer’s tongue) used frain; Old English used the earlier form frægn, which was said about the same as frain. Remember the German, “das ist hier die Frage”? You can see the family resemblance between Frage (and fragen, which means “ask”) and frægn. It would fit nicely: “To be, or not to be, that is the frain.” But I’m afraid not. (Also, alas, it’s not related to refrain.)

Why did we lose frain? Well, now, that’s a question, isn’t it. And here’s an answer (answer, by the way, is an old Anglo-Saxon word; if you want a French-Latin word, try response): Latin gained considerable prestige in England through its association with education, the Church, and the law courts – and parliament, of course. The word question first showed up in English in the 1200s, and it referred to a point for inquiry or discussion – exactly the way Hamlet uses it. Our usual sense, “a sentence phrased to elicit information,” was already in use at Shakespeare’s time; it showed up in English in the 1300s… a century after the other sense. So of course the “inquiry” sense was well ensconced.

Stop and take a look at these Latin-derived words relating to wanting to know something, question and inquiry (and query). Consider what letter we think of as particularly quizzical and maybe quirky: Q. In English we have wh- words for things to ask: who, what, when, where, why (and, as an honorary member, how). In Latin, those are qui, quid, quod (or quando), quo (or ubi), quare, and quam (or quomodo). Now remember that English and Latin both trace back to the same Proto-Indo-European source (though the split happened much father back). And consider that wh is a respelling of hw, which is how when we’re being very precise we still say it, and consider that hw is very closely related to kw, which is another way to spell qu.

Yes, wh- words and q- words are, in the mists of history, originally the same; it’s no coincidence. (Q.E.D.) And so it’s that much less surprising that we liked question better than frain in the final analysis (which, for frain, came around the time Shakespeare was busy being born).

There are, certainly, other words we could use instead of question. You see some suggestions in other languages’ versions: dilemma and problem. Issue might also work (though in Shakespeare’s time that would have had more of a sense of “outcome”). But a problem is something you task yourself to and solve. A dilemma may not even have a resolution. A question, however, is a mental exercise that calls for an answer – and it has that q, that questing quest. Shall we call the question and have a vote?

If we do, we’ll also have to consider how the result sounds.

The sound

When Burbage stepped up to the edge of the stage and said the line – and all the ones that follow it – he didn’t murmur it into a mirror, like Kenneth Branagh, or into stone walls, like Mel Gibson, or into empty space, like Laurence Olivier. He had to be heard, so he didn’t murmur it at all: he spoke it loud and clear. We don’t know whether everyone at the time spoke their thoughts aloud so people hiding nearby could hear them, but people in Shakespeare’s plays sure did. This had the advantage of the audience actually hearing their thoughts.

And Burbage didn’t say it in a natural speech rhythm, either. This is poetry! It’s not necessary to say it with a Bela Lugosi Dracula rhythm, but it has a rhythm. And that rhythm is… yes? Anyone?

Iambic pentameter! Five metric feet of iambs. Iambs are not dog food (though they can be doggerel): they’re made of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. So a line of iambic pentameter has ten syllables.

How many of you have your hand up right now because you paused to count the syllables in “To be, or not to be, that is the question”?


How many are there?


If you say it in strict iambic pentameter, “To be, or not to be, that is the ques-tion,” you have that last -tion hanging off the end like some kid with his butt half hanging off the end of an overcrowded bench. (And if you’re wondering how it was said in Shakespeare’s time, the answer is yes, the -tion was one syllable.)

Part of the trick here is that iambic pentameter brooks some variation. Bela Lugosi never made a version of Hamlet, and you don’t need to do it for him. You can shift the stresses around a bit, because you’re clever and so was William Shakespeare. So the stress is better placed as “that is the” than as “that is the.”

The other part is that iambic pentameter does allow an eleventh syllable as a final off-beat. Poetry allows all sort of little cheats like that, partly because most poets aren’t good enough to make the words they want fit the rhythm effectively. William Shakespeare was good enough, of course! But he liked to avail himself of all the tools, because he was clever, and he didn’t want it to be monotonous like driving on a highway at night (if he had known what that would be like).

And anyway, we don’t always know exactly for sure what he wrote, or whether he wrote one thing and revised it, or whether someone else revised it… You see, there were several different editions of his plays in his lifetime, and they weren’t all equally well made. In fact, some of them were pirated (this was before copyright existed, so actually anyone could print a bad copy of your stuff and make money on it and you couldn’t do Jack about it). A minor player might have a decent memory for all the lines and go to a publisher and recite it for them, for instance – with inevitable errors. An early edition of Hamlet that was probably a sketchy pirate version started this speech as “To be, or not to be, Ay there’s the point.” Not even the question, the point! But later (and more reliable) editions have the line as we know it, or, you know, with slight typographic variations: “To be, or not to be, that is the Queſtion.”

But there is one more question: Why so many words? We’ve already seen that this line could lose several words; in fact, it could thaw, melt, and resolve itself into “Why not die?” or just “Why be?” Even allowing for iambic pentameter, the whole speech could be reduced to two lines:

Why should I not just I kill myself right now?
I am afraid to die, of course. That’s why.

And most of those words are for rhythm.

There is a popular trend of thought in favour of concision. Some people hold that fewer words are always better. And I agree with them, but only insofar as the principle is applied to them specifically and not in all other instances.

Some people just don’t know how to luxuriate in language. It’s a particular problem in English, where there has long been a strain of thought that plain, hearty speech is virtuous, and fancy and frilly words are degenerate – simple, hard work is best, and words need not be wasted. It’s true that there have been many people who have written just plain too damn much, using too many words to say a thing, and it’s true that some writers resort to clichés and redundancies and dilute their effect. But it’s also true that some things benefit from being spelled out and played with and looked at from different angles. Life is not a straight line, you know. That’s why movies last more than five minutes.

That’s also a reason Shakespeare’s plays are so long. Five acts! Some of them would take up to five hours to perform in their entirety. I was about to say that that’s some director’s cut kind of stuff, but today in live theatre, directors cut – especially when it comes to Shakespeare. You are unlikely ever to see a complete uncut performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays, even the shortest one (it’s that one about the bloodthirsty Scot and his bloodthirstier wife).

To be fair, five hours makes a bit much of an evening at the theatre, especially when you add intermissions (no selling food and bev during the performances now as they would have at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre). We’re busy people, and we have jobs to go to, and all that.

It’s not that no one worked in London circa 1600. But hours were less regular, and many of the patrons did not, in fact, work, because they were nobility and had other people working for them. And it’s not that they had all evening. It’s that they had all afternoon. The play was done before the sun was down. But they had the stretch from the midday meal to the evening meal to fill. They didn’t have football or cricket then, and not everyone wanted to go to the bear-baiting or the cockfights. So, when it came to something to watch, the answer to the question was always “To be… as long as possible.” Long and luxuriant, of course, full of the tides of thought and the echoes of excellent words.

The syntax

Not just excellent words, though: excellent arrangement of words. These words have the effect they have only because they are strung together in a particular order. Every speaker is a breeder of syntax. And, at last, now that we have the ingredients, we must see how the recipe is put together. It’s time for the syntactician to step in.

And how does a syntactician see it? Well, to start with, it has two parts, obviously, but while the focus of the meaning is on the first part – the dilemma driving the whole monologue – the syntactic heart of the sentence is the second part: “that is the question.” First setup, then spike.

The heart of a sentence is normally a finite verb, a verb conjugated to convey that something is occurring or existing at a particular time, and as a rule that verb has a noun or pronoun as a subject. If the verb is transitive, it has another noun or pronoun as an object. The rest of the sentence modifies that core structure.

Regardless of what your English teacher may have said, a verb is not always an action. The verb in this case is is, which is, as you now know, a copula: it’s just equating its subject with its object. It says that the time is the present (it’s not was) and the subject is neither I (then it would be am) nor you, we, or they (then it would be are). The subject is that, which in this case is a deictic pronoun: it’s pointing back to what’s before it (there are other kinds of that; for instance, there is the relative that as in “It’s ‘to be or not to be’ that is the question”). And the object is the question – well, it’s question, specified by the.

And the first half, “To be, or not to be”? It modifies that core structure by explaining (in advance) what that is. It is not a sentence by itself; the verbs in it are both infinitives. They are called infinitives because they not finite – they are not limited to a particular time and person. The possibilities are infinite! The realities, however, have not been established. And we don’t even know what these two unbound existentials are doing there on the stage, like Vladimir and Estragon, until they are acknowledged and described: “that is the question.”

In all of this, in fact, there is no reality, no act, no concrete thing. There is an opposition of the possibilities of being and not being, which are not even things you can talk about as such in some languages. And that imaginary tension is presented as a question, which is also just a mental and linguistic construct, by its nature and definition something unresolved. The essence of a question is that it has an indeterminate essence. So in all of this talking of being, and these three instances of the verb be (to be, not to be, is), there is nothing there; its very essence is a lack of essence, an uncertainty. The native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.

As it often is. Or the paler cast of thoughtless repetition, as we quote these words by rote, like a quick invocation, a prayer, an orison. Their sense is always there in potential but not so often fully present in the mind of the quoter. But that’s language: a window that’s not always looked through, not always seen through, sometimes just a reflection of the person looking. It is, and is not, and neither is nor is not, and both is and is not. And none of the preceding at all if we do not put it in words.

The rest is silence?

Richard Burbage finishes his speech, says “Soft you now!” and turns to the boy playing the young woman Ophelia, and the play continues in the wooden Q until the end, where the stage is littered with actors pretending to be dead people. And then all the words have escaped into empty air and the vibrations that conveyed them are dissipated. But they are written down and, later, will be published. A word on a page is just ink and paper (and a word on your screen is just selective absences of light), waiting for someone to see it and act on it, like Schrödinger’s cat. But when you look, there it is, and it’s alive in your mind.

About 16 years later, on his 52nd birthday, William Shakespeare dies. He is back in Stratford; he left London somewhere around 1610, possibly because his playhouses kept having to be closed due to outbreaks of the plague. Less than a month before his death, he signed his will, in which he described himself as in “perfect health.” But, it is reported, after going out drinking with two other playwrights, he caught a fever and died. One James Mabbe will write a verse that is in the first folio edition of his collected works:

We wondered, Shakespeare, that thou went’st so soon
From the world’s stage to the grave’s tiring room.

(A tiring room is a dressing room, not a bedroom or boring place.) Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, had died even before Hamlet arrived. His wife and two daughters survive him. Neither daughter has children. Shakespeare’s only progeny now are his plays and poems.

Richard Burbage continues acting until 1619, three years after Shakespeare’s death, when he dies, also at age 52. He is much mourned by the theatregoing public. His gravestone reads, simply, “Exit Burbage.”

Or anyway, it’s said that it did; it, too, has ceased to be.

And the rest is… words, words, words.

Would you like another sentence tasting or two or three? I am open to suggestion of great sentences that allow such explorations.

4 responses to “To be, or not to be, that is the question

  1. Tat tvam asi is a mahavakya or great sentence from Sanskrit. It’s a suggestion.

    I liked reading this article. I also saw a documentary which could not ensure whether Sir Francis Bacon or other 3 subjects were only historical Shakespeare.

  2. I loved this. The various explorations and international diversions and explanations of historical context kept me interested the whole way through. Which is quite something for me, these days: my reading habits have deteriorated somewhat, so the span of my attention isn’t what it used to be. But this held it.

    So, I feel like I could definitely read another one, though perhaps not in short order*; having finished it, it was quite satisfying, but if I’d known in advance just how long it was, I may have been too daunted to even start, to my loss.

    I only wish I had a great sentence to suggest, but none come to mind.

    One will occur to me while I’m driving somewhere, unable to write it down. Then, at the end of the drive, I will rack my brain, trying to remember what it was. It’s happened before.

    *Not that I imagine you can dash this sort of thing off in an hour or anything like that.

  3. Suzanne Valkemirer

    If you want to be careful with your language (as you always admirably are), you will prefer annus domini in the sentence “The year is anno domini 1600.”

    “Anno” is the ablative singular form of annus and thus means ‘in the year…’ (similarly aestate ‘in summer’, eo tempore ‘at that time’, and many other examples of the ablative of time that could be mentioned). In your sentence, the nominative singular is needed.

  4. In kurdish, to be or not to ve =”buun an ne buun”

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