I find it interesting that there are so many characters who commit suicide in Shakespeare especially after reading how Ophelia’s death is handled. Looking back on other readings, not all suicides were portrayed with the same negative connotations. This leaves me wondering what Shakespeare and his audience would have thought about suicide.
Ophelia has gone mad with the grief of the loss of her father and her love (for Hamlet) being denied. She completely falls apart, climbs up a tree and decorates it with flowers. The tree represents mourning yet she decorates it with flowers that symbolize fertility. While she is in the tree she falls into a stream and drowns. Because she does not try to swim ashore, her death is pronounced a suicide.
We see from the clowns’ reactions to the burial that suicide is more than frowned upon. They question where she is being buried. Typically when people committed suicide their bodies were not given a Christian burial (not permitted in the church blessed graveyard). The priest allows trumpets and flowers and said a few prayers because of the insistence of the king, but refuses more because of the suspicion of suicide. He says rather than prayers she should have stones thrown on her.
“She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet. For charitable prayers
Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her.” (5.1.203-205)
He goes as far as to refuse more prayers because it would “profane the service of the dead”(219)
These are very strong cultural beliefs regarding the subject of suicide – yet Hamlet contemplates. “To be, or not to be; that is the question:” (3.1.58) He decides against it because “for in that sleep of death what dreams may come”.(3.1.68) Hamlet is afraid of what happens to him after death.
We saw a different perspective altogether in the suicide of Othello. After murdering his his wife, Desdemona, Othello finds out the truth; she has been faithful. The remorse overcomes him and he begs to be remembered as loved, wise, yet made a mistake, not jealous but tricked, who threw away the best thing he ever had.
“Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme. Of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe. Of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum.” (Othello 5.2.361-369)
Othello then stabs himself to try to die with some dignity. This is a stark contrast to the fear Hamlet feels and the shame that the priest and gravediggers feel Ophelia deserves.
Romeo and Juliet’s double suicide bring a feud to a halt and is honored with monuments.
In King Lear, Gloucester wants to jump off a cliff to kill himself. In this play a madman (his son in disguise) protects Gloucester from the negative connotations of suicide by tricking him into believing that he has survived the attempt.
In these four plays we see suicide portrayed as a sin to be feared and an honorable deed; split down the middle. We know that, religiously speaking, suicide is a sin. We also see instances of suicide as a way to preserve one’s honor. So I can’t help but wonder: how does Shakespeare feel about suicide?