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To Be or Not to Be: Shakespeare and Humor in Popular Culture

The opening line of Hamlet’s soliloquy may be the most famous artifact of the Bard’s work today. This speech from act three, scene one explores Hamlet’s internal struggle.

Hamlet: To be, or not to be–that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them.

Here the Prince of Denmark reflects on the proper path of action: should he seek revenge for his father’s death or  or live with the guilt of his father’s murder? In addition to this, it is also a question of staying alive to confront his troubles or committing suicide in order to escape them. For many scholars, Hamlet’s soliloquy also approaches the metaphysical problem of ontology.

Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s macabre inventions, and the soliloquy is its glorious masterpiece. However, popular depictions of this particular scene maintain a humorous note. The line “To be or not to be” is usually employed as a tool to exaggerate and humor to a situation that is normally mundane. In one of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, Calvin’s dinner (which is really a questionable serving of green slop) comes to life and performs the famed soliloquy. A comic strip from Stanford University appropriates the scene to a situation where a student considers whether or not he should pursue a PHD.

(source: icecreamdiary.blogspot.com)

(source: stanford.edu)


The line has found it’s way into cartoons. In this Bugs Bunny cartoon, a character who resembles Shakespeare and a witch from Macbeth are reunited. They argue whether or not their meeting place was apartment 2B.


Patrick Stewart also uses Hamlet to teach children about the letter B in Sesame Street.


A Klingon translation of Hamlet has been published. Many Star Trek fans who love english literature will enjoy this crossover. The following video shows a performance of the soliloquy in Klingon.


Hamlet’s soliloquy finds its way back to the stage in “A Shakespeare Rewrite” made for Comic Relief. The sketch depicts Shakespeare and his editor in the process of shortening a much lengthier version of the soliloquy. Shakespeare is played by Hugh Laurie and the editor is played by Rowan Atkinson.


Monty Python’s take on Hamlet is a commentary on how repetitive the play has become because of its position in the Western canon. Hamlet is portrayed as a jaded prince who goes to visit his shrink.


I believe it is important for me to mention here that Hamlet’s soliloquy is visually misrepresented in various media. The speech is often conflated with the scene where Hamlet holds up the skull of Yorick. These scenes are set far apart in the play and have little to do with each other.

(source: flickr.com)

(source: weheartit.com)


To be or not to be. These six words comprise the most oft-quoted line in English literature.  It is true that after numerous (and humorous) depictions or bastardizations in mass media, people have forgotten the context of the soliloquy. But because it has been appropriated by comic wits as a tool for humor, Hamlet (or at least part of it) has reached a much wider audience. Is this a testament to the universal appeal of Shakespeare?

What i find truly interesting: Hamlet is merely one of the products under the brand name of William Shakespeare.

(source: beerohbeer.com)


Camille Martinez

Ateneo de Manila University

Note: The videos in this blog entry have been edited down for your convenience.

  1. February 27, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    I really like this. It’s interesting to trace how this easily recognizable phrase that has transcended to different mediums. Seeing it in cartoons, the sesame street and even in comics is a testament how everyone, even children are exposed to this shadow of Hamlet’s soliloquy

  2. February 27, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    I particularly love the Calvin and Hobbes jokes. But then Calvin and Hobbes always pokes fun at stuff like that. Its interesting to see how, although a lot of them don’t particularly fully grasp what they’re making fun of (the audience, I mean), it still comes as funny because Shakespeare been so integrated into pop culture. I mean, I’m pretty sure kids won’t understand the full weight of lets say Hamlet’s story and what not, but the joke sticks nevertheless due to how Shakespeare is in all of our collective consciousness na. Its kind of amazing.

  3. geloty32
    March 1, 2011 at 9:41 am

    Pretty interesting how Shakespeare is everywhere and even if majority of the populace does not find him interesting nor even know of him, he still exists in many of the things that we are exposed to today. Judging from the wide range of products or shows influenced by Shakespeare, there is no way to determine what possibilities await.

  4. March 18, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    Very interesting article 🙂 i think the one of the Sesame Street though is a bit to much and the essence of the whole “to be or not to be” is gone which I think is important most especially to kids. But i got to say, it’s pretty clever!

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