Ancient Languages/to be or not to be


Dear Maria,

I saw two different translation of 'to be or not be that's the question' into Latin.

1. esse aut non esse, illa est quaestio.
2. essene necne, illa quaestio est.

Which one is correct and better?

Thank you.


Dear John,

“Vivendum sit necne, id quaeritur” or “ Vivendum sitne necne, quaestio est” are the best translations for  the sentence “To be or not to be, that is the question” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene I) that expresses Hamlet’s state of  uncertainty, since he bemoans the pains of life but thinks that the alternative, i.e. death,  might be still worse.

The former sentence, in fact, follows Cicero’s De Divinatione, book I, chapter 86, wher we read “ necne fiat, id quaeritur” meaning:” Whether it happens or does not happen, that is the question”, while the latter follows Cicero’s Tusculanae Disputationes, book IV, section 29, where we read“...perturbationes sintne ..., quaestio est” meaning:”The question is whether perturbations of mind are ...”.

In short, in “To be or not to be...”there is a double  indirect question as Hamlet is asking whether one ought to be [i.e."live", Latin "vivere"] or not, and in Latin such a double indirect question takes its verb in the Subjunctive with “ne” attached or without “ne” and with  “necne “ in the second clause for "or not".

As for "Esse aut non esse, illa est quaestio" and "Essene necne, illa quaestio est", they both are wrong: the former because you cannot use the infinitive in a double indirect question, the latter because there are "-ne" and "necne" that belong to a double indirect question, but there is the infinitive "esse" instead of the subjunctive.

Best regards,


Ancient Languages

All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts




I am an expert in Latin & Ancient Greek Language and I'll be glad to answer any questions concerning this matter.


Over 25 years teaching experience.

I received my Ph.D. in Classics (summa cum laude) from Genova University (Italy).

This expert accepts donations:

©2016 All rights reserved.