Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” speech is one of the most iconic and recognizable speeches in literature. If you have not read it and for some inexplicable reason won’t spend five short minutes to do so, the basic gist of it is Hamlet debating with himself which is worse: to face “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” (life) or to “take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them” (death).
When reading this soliloquy, I suddenly realized that Hamlet, though very eloquent in his monologue, has little to no knowledge of what happens after death, and that lack of knowledge terrifies him.
Even though he is faced with great tribulation on this side of heaven, he is petrified of what lies beyond. Death is something many people dread, and Hamlet portrays that fear in his speech, trying to soften it in comparing dying with an endless sleep–which doesn’t really work.
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub: For in that sleep of death what dreams may come . . . (that thought) must give us pause—there’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life.Hamlet
If death is sleep, Hamlet muses, then there will doubtlessly be dreams in that sleep. And if we have nightmares here, what is to stop death-dreams from being one everlasting horror that causes a cold sweat to break out on our cold brow and our lifeless heart to pound in terror for all eternity??
Death has always been something that humans fear. It’s unknown; no human has ever experienced it and lived to tell the story. Some people feel as if Hamlet’s speech precisely explains (albeit much more eloquently) the uncomfortable feeling when thinking of death and beyond; they don’t know what lies o’er the grave, which terrifies them. Would we begin another life? Or would death be a vast big nothingness? Would we just cease to exist?
But we really need not fear death, for Someone has conquered it:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he (Jesus) too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.Hebrews 2:14-15
Jesus broke the power of death by coming to earth as a human, living a perfectly sinless life (I don’t know about you but it’s pretty hard for me to not sin within the span of five minutes, forget about a lifetime), took the entire burden of the worlds’ sin–past, present, and future–on himself and sacrificed His life in exchange for ours so that we need not fear death.
Death is swallowed up in victory. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”1 Corinthians 15:54-55
So knowing that death has no hold over us, we should realize that Hamlet’s hopeless perspective of being trapped-in-the-frying-pan-but-not-willing-to-leave-for-fear-he’ll-fall-in-the-fire is not the right way to approach death–or life for that matter.