To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ 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 th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
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.
The famous soliloquy from the first scene of act three in Hamlet.
Here are Rabbi David Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens citing staves from this scene in their debate on the question of the afterlife. I’ve pasted the video here at the point just prior to when Hamlet gets brought into the mix, as it’s Sam Harris making a very interesting (and very relevant) point about our fear of death and how a parent could ever find consolation in the loss of a child.
For the record, I take issue with Harris’s implied point; namely, I think it’s death that is actually more upsetting — as an idea — than merely dying. The latter is a temporary moment of life, actually a part of our experience of the world. The former is not. As Larkin wrote, “Not to be here, not to be anywhere“: that’s what’s so horrifying to us. In his novel Metroland, Julian Barnes echoes this exact sentiment when he asserts, “I wouldn’t mind dying at all, as long as I didn’t end up dead at the end of it.” You have to admire the logic of the idea, as well as Barnes’s subtle repetition of the word end. But I’m getting carried away again…
By the way, if you want the No Fear Shakespeare version of the above soliloquy, it’s:
To die, to sleep—to sleep, maybe to dream.
Ah, but there’s the catch: in death’s sleep
who knows what kind of dreams might come,
After we’ve put the noise and commotion of life
behind us. That’s certainly something to worry
about. That’s the consideration that makes us
stretch out our sufferings so long.
After all, who would put up with all life’s
humiliations—the abuse from superiors, the
insults of arrogant men, the pangs of
unrequited love, the inefficiency of the legal
system, the rudeness of people in office, and
the mistreatment good people have to take
from bad—when you could simply take out
your knife and call it quits? Who would choose
to grunt and sweat through an exhausting life,
unless they were afraid of something dreadful
after death, the undiscovered country from
which no visitor returns, which we wonder
about without getting any answers from and
which makes us stick to the evils we know
rather than rush off to seek the ones we
don’t? Fear of death makes us all cowards,
and our natural boldness becomes weak with
too much thinking. Actions that should be
carried out at once get misdirected, and stop
being actions at all.