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To Be or Not To Be

That Is the Answer
by Laura Henry Buda, Associate Director of Communications

When someone pretends to be a Shakespearean actor, what do they intone in their deepest, most serious voice? “To be or not to be…” To say the play is quotable would be a staggering understatement. Hamlet is not just a stand-in for the idea of “Shakespeare”—the play’s phrases are woven into the fabric of western culture, a collective reference point appearing in literature, music, drama, television, movies, even textbooks and cartoons. Read on for a very small sample of titles and references inspired by Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy.

The list of works that reference the first line is endless—but here are some of our favorites.

2BR02B, a dystopian short story by Kurt Vonnegut. (1962)

To Be or Not to Bop: Memoirs of Dizzy Gillespie, written by the famous jazz musician. (1979)

To Be or Not to Be in the Party: Communist Party Membership in the USSR, by Yuri Glazov. (1988)

The Chemistry of Conjugated Cyclic Compounds: To Be or Not to Be Like Benzene? by Douglas Lloyd. (1989)

To Be, Or Not to Be, an S.O.B.: A Reaffirmation of Business Ethics, by Ben B. Boothe. (1979)

Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 film and Mel Brooks’ 1983 remake, both titled To Be or Not to Be, follow a troupe of actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw.


Slings and Arrows, a Canadian television series focusing on the misadventures of staff and artists at a fictional version of the Stratford Festival—in the case of STC staff, real life on screen. (2003)


Outrageous Fortune, a 1987 film starring Shelley Long and Bette Midler.


In one episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor claims to have transcribed the original draft of Hamlet, assisting Shakespeare, who had a sprained wrist. He takes issue with the mixed metaphor “To take arms against a sea of troubles.”


Natural Shocks, an award-winning novel by Richard Stern about coming to terms with mortality. (1985)


Flesh is Heir: An Historical Romance, a novel by Lincoln Kirstein, an impresario and the co-founder of the New York City Ballet. (1932)


Perchance To Dream: The Patient’s Guide to Anesthesia, by Robert C. Brown. (1981)

Perchance to Dream, a Star Trek: The Next Generation novel by Howard Weinstein. (1991)

There are also at least four romance novels called Perchance to Dream.

The Electric Light Orchestra quotes the soliloquy in their song “Mister Kingdom”—“Oh, to sleep, perchance to dream / To live again those joyous scenes.”


What Dreams May Come, a 1998 film starring Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding Jr., based on the 1978 novel by Richard Matheson.


The Mortal Coil and Other Stories, by D. H. Lawrence, author of Sons and Lovers. (1917)

This Mortal Coil was a music collaboration led by Ivo Watts-Russell, founder of the British record label 4AD. Watts-Russell said the name was taken from a version of Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch that referenced the Hamlet speech.


In a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, Calvin’s mystery meal suddenly comes alive and recites the soliloquy through “…must give us pause”—with dramatic relish. (1994)


“The insolence of office,” a familiar phrase in D.C., often applied to the opposing political party.


Undiscovered Country, a play by Tom Stoppard, author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. (1979)

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the film sequel to the Star Trek television series and last film to feature the entire original cast, including William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and George Takei.  Kim Cattrall and Christopher Plummer also starred in the film. (1991)


In The Cherry Orchard by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, at the end of Act 3 Lopakhin teases Varya with references to Ophelia. Some versions translate his line: “Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins dismembered!” (1904)


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