A correspondent writes in relation to a point I make in an article (on the Penguin website) on whether Shakespeare should or should not be modernized, where I quote ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’ as a line whose meaning is obvious to everybody. He comments: ‘But does it really mean what most people think it means? Dr Johnson in his Notes on Hamlet interprets this line as asking whether or not we will continue to exist after death. This interpretation certainly fits the context and Johnson was presumably as good a judge of Shakespeare's language as anybody. It seems probable then that the bard's most commonly quoted line is misunderstood by almost everybody and thus supports the arguments of those who wish to modernise.’
It’s an interesting point, but this isn't so much translation, to my mind, as interpretation. There's nothing in the meaning of the word be which offers this alternative. This is Johnson reading in possibilities which fit in with his mindset - someone who condemns the tragedies for their 'lack of moral purpose', and leads him to such statements as:
'In tragedy his performance seems constantly to be worse, as his labour is more. The effusions of passion which exigence forces out are for the most part striking and energetick; but whenever he solicits his invention, or strains his faculties, the offspring of his throes is tumour, meanness, tediousness, and obscurity.'
Likewise, I'm not sure I would agree that Johnson is as good a judge of Shakespeare's language as anybody. He holds an 18th-century view of literary language which leads him to such observations as: Shakespeare's narration has 'a disproportionate pomp of diction and a wearisome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few'. And again: 'his declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak'. While not denying that ‘Shakespeare sometimes sleeps’, I think we would take a different view today.
I would be interested to see a modern translation purporting to make Shakespeare's language easier which actually succeeds with the line 'To be or not to be'.