Hamlet’s iconic speech in Act 3 is often interpreted as suicidal ideation, though there is more than enough evidence to suggest otherwise.
The lines can be translated individually; here is a link to one.
I thought some more about it, and decided to do my own close reading:
I consulted the dictionary for this infinitive form of existence: the definition of “to be” is “what will come or happen in the future”. Hamlet contemplates two choices for the future. What will be, and what will not be? Perhaps he is wondering about his primary purpose: seeking revenge for the murder of his father. Will he exist into the future or will Claudius? Is the revenge to be or is the revenge not to be? Hamlet questions.
Is it better to suffer the trials of life stoically or to fight back with action thus putting an end to the suffering of himself, and his father’s ghost?
Hamlet cannot sleep. He is similar to Macbeth who had “murdered sleep”and who called sleep a “balm” and a “chief nourisher”. The sleep deprived suffer doubly because they cannot, by action, end the suffering of the waking life, and they cannot, by inaction, get relief in the dreaming life. Hamlet suffers because he cannot sleep, he cannot dream, so he lives without hope, suffering endlessly stuck in inaction.
Dreams offer hope for the future. Dreams are what Hamlet desperately needs as he is stuck in the past with his father’s ghost; he is in hell on earth and cannot move forward into the future because he cannot take action while suffering in thought.
He realizes that death is like a sleep, and he wonders about the afterlife which makes a mockery of the suffering done on earth.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? (a dagger or sharp needle)
Who would put up with all this suffering in the present, if we could quiet the torment of our minds and bodies ourselves.
who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Who would put up with the burdens of life if we only knew what would happen after death? But instead we suffer knowingly in life, rather than die unknowing what will be. Death is “the undiscovered country” – the place we cannot come back from, and the place we will never know.
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
Therefore as thinking, conscious beings who consider how we act, we are cowards stuck in inaction. But, then Hamlet sees Ophelia (her name meaning “help”).
–Soft you now!
Once he catches sight of Ophelia, he loses all his mental torment, sees beauty and purity, something better than human, a “nymph” (minor female nature gods) and Hamlet wants to recall his “sins” in prayers (orisons).
Here is another good resource for interpretation.
And this one too.
There are as many interpretations of these poetic lines as there are versions of the performance. Here are a few to sample:
Toby Stevens shares thoughts about playing Hamlet:
An actor’s dream and nightmare is playing Hamlet and this speech. How should we translate the lines of the past into the present and the future?
Hamlet cannot sleep because he cannot dream. Yet, the philosopher George Santayana said that “Sanity is a madness put to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled.”
…I think I need to sleep on it.