To be, or not to be… What is the question?

The page on Wikipedia for the phrase “To be, or not to be” starts of as follows:

“’To be, or not to be…’ is the opening phrase of a soliloquy in the “Nunnery Scene” of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. In the speech, a despondent or feigning Prince Hamlet contemplates death and suicide. He bemoans the pains and unfairness of life but acknowledges the alternative might be still worse.”(sic)

Wikipedia then goes on to state that “…(the phrase) is one of the most widely known and quoted lines in modern English, and the soliloquy has been referenced in innumerable works of theatre, literature and music.”(sic). Most of us would vouch for the popularity of the phrase and it is very likely that we have found ourselves using the phrase at various junctures in our lives.

Delving a bit deeper in to the origin of the phrase requires us to understand Shakespeare’s frequent use of soliloquies in his writings. It is generally accepted that Shakespeare used soliloquies to to convey some of his deepest insights in to the human mind specifically the way in which we deal with our inner conflicts under pressure, often failing to perceive the flaws in our own reasoning. This article, however, is neither about Shakespeare’s writings nor about the various insights that he gathered in his studies of the human mind. Instead, we shall try to focus on just one aspect of this “inner conflict” highlighted by the words “a despondent or feigning Prince Hamlet” in the paragraph above. Shakespeare leaves it to the reader to determine for themselves the sincerity of Prince Hamlet in dealing with his inner turmoil and therein lies the true entertainment value of his works. Subsequently, the question that we will explore is whether we are fooling or indulging ourselves by engaging our mental faculties in trying to resolve the myriad inner conflicts that we typically are confronted with in our lives.

The instinctive response would be “It depends…”. First and foremost it depends on the context in which the conflict has arisen. The context determines the severity of the impact of the conflict, possibly on our very existence. If the consequences of the actions to be taken to resolve the conflict can make a difference of life or death then it is safe to say that we are neither fooling nor indulging ourselves and the resolution process demands our complete and total attention. So for the sake of this article lets exclude such conflicts from our consideration.

But it is equally important to realize that in certain situations we have a preconceived notion of the “morally” or “politically” right choice but somehow we are unable to proceed with making that “right” choice for various “selfish” reasons. Maybe the choice of the word “selfish” is unwarranted at this juncture and, borrowing from Shakespeare once again, we can consider the case of Brutus from his play Julius Caesar whose character is best described as “a self-critical and honest man struggling to do what’s right in unpropitious circumstances”. So let us give ourselves a bit of a concession in this regard and proceed with conflicts the resolutions for which could be across the entire moral spectrum between white and black, with possibly some other colors thrown in for variety.

To summarize, with the constraints and assumptions stated above, the question being asked is whether their is a fine line between fooling versus indulging ourselves while agonizing over certain conflicts or can we establish “suitably rigorous” guidelines to help us choose our battles against our inner demons. Furthermore, given the social animals that we are, energies devoted to our inner struggles do deprive others around us of the same. Hence, it behooves us to be cognizant of the consequences of our actions at all times especially whilst giving in to our indulgent desires.

So where how do we proceed from here? Should we fool ourselves in to thinking that we can find the answer or should we indulge ourselves in some Sunday morning rumination in to philosophy and psychology? That is the question!

Like what you read? Give Yatin Kulkarni a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.