To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Origin

This phrase occurs in the most celebrated soliloquy of Prince Hamlet in Shakespearean play of the same name, Hamlet. It starts with another famous phrase, “to be or not to be” in Act-III, Scene-I. It reads as, “To sleep, perchance to dream-ay, there’s the rub.” Despondent and feigning, Prince Hamlet contemplates on suicide and death. This speech explains his hesitation to immediately exact revenge upon the murderer of his father, King Hamlet.

Meaning

“Sleep” here represents death and “perchance” means perhaps. The literal meaning of this quote is that death is a better choice to end the sufferings of one’s life. It implies that unconsciousness or dreamless sleep, after death, would be ideal to get rid of troubles and sufferings in life. Since dreams emphasize tenuousness and uncertainty and convey a sense of ignorance about future; therefore, he longs for dreamless sleep, as it would be much better to free him from the worries following death.

Usage

The use of this phrase is common in literature, as it contains highly poetic and evocative language. It is normally found in literary works. However, in everyday life dejected lovers use it to express their desperation in love. Many people, who are extremely hopeless of being unsuccessful in life, also use it, as it would be better to die peacefully than to have dream. Cynic philosophers also use it in their everyday conversation.

Literary Source

This phrase comes from Act-III, Scene-I in Shakespeare’s famous play, Hamlet. Here Hamlet expresses his fear of unknown what might happen after death, whether better or worse. He says:

Hamlet: To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer…
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
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…

(Act-III, Scene-I, Lines 66-68)

In this excerpt, dreams refer to pain Hamlet fears to experience following death. Since there is no guarantee that he will get relief from sufferings and pains through death, he is forced to the reality and nature of death itself.

Literary Analysis

This line is part of famous prolonged soliloquy of Hamlet. It is stated that without “To be or not to be”, Hamlet, the play, would not have been the same. This soliloquy occurs when Hamlet learns his uncle, Claudius has murdered his father and married King’s wife. This foul action drives him nearly crazy, and he seeks revenge for his father’s death, or wish to escape himself to death. Learning this from his father’s ghost, Hamlet becomes dejected. In the following scene, Hamlet ponders over suicide. However, he feels tormented with the fear that he might not find peace even after the death. His mental and moral anguish is at its peak in this soliloquy.

Literary Devices

  • Tone: Gloomy and dejected.
  • Metaphor: “To sleep” is a metaphor representing death, while “dream” is metaphor for consciousness after death.