Shakespearean Suicide

 By : Nour O. El Borno

 While studying a course at the university called ‘An introduction to English Literature’ our doctor once asked us to answer 12 questions about Sir William Shakespeare. I was very excited for such assignment because it needs a lot of work to try to understand a brain like Shakespeare’s. I remember writing thousands of notes and dates and trying to connect between things and draw some diagrams. It was a great experience. While doing that homework, I have noticed that in his plays Shakespeare had killed a lot of characters using ‘Suicide’ it felt weird that in so many of his plays someone commits suicide. Why? Why wouldn’t Shakespeare try to help the character and show that there is another way out instead of committing suicide? Especially that he was a reformer: of language, ethics and social relations. There must have been something that made him choose such outrageous deed. As the Shakespeare we know, the one who tried to show how inhumane some people were like in ‘Merchant of Venice’ or ‘Othello’ was he just highlighting such deed? Was he with committing suicide? Did Shakespeare, the writer, really think that suicide was the only way out? First of all, what characters committed suicide, why and how? Was there anything in common between them?

First, Brutus in ‘Julies Caesar’ after losing the battle and fear of defeat, he stabbed himself with a sword. Second, Cassius –again- in ‘Julies Caesar’ after losing the battle and fear of defeat he also took his life with a sword. Third, Portia-again- in ‘Julies Caesar’ killed herself by swallowing burning coal, fire, after the loss of power AKA battle defeat. Fourth, Cleopatra in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ killed herself because of the fear of defeat after the loss of power. She killed herself using snakes’ poison and so did her two maids, Iras and Charmian –in the name of love they had for their queen. Fifth, Antony in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ killed himself using a sword because of –again- loss of power and fear of defeat. Eros in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ killed himself with a sword because his master demanded him to kill him but he refused and so killed himself instead. Goneril in ‘King Lear’ after her evil plans were exposed, she stabbed herself with a poisoned dagger. So she wouldn’t have to apologize (self-ego). Juliette in ‘Romeo & Juliette’ stabbed herself after the loss of the beloved. Romeo poisoned himself because of the loss of the beloved- he thought she was dead. Ofelia in ‘Hamlet’ drowns herself- some say she fell and others say she did so herself. She committed suicide because she didn’t know how to handle the fact that her beloved killed her father. Finally, Othello in ‘Othello’ killed himself with a dagger, stabbed himself, because he felt guilty.

The fear of defeat and loss was the reason behind the suicide of 6 characters. That is six out of thirteen. The feeling of guilt made only one character kill itself. Loss of a beloved one made five characters kill themselves. Not knowing what way to choose made one character kill itself (confusion).

Stabbing oneself was used by seven characters. Four characters poisoned themselves. One character drowned and let itself die without trying to survive. Another character swallowed fire.

In his plays, Shakespeare makes a character commit suicide if it felt defeated, guilty, lost someone special and confused. Shakespeare the great writer and reformer didn’t let his characters win or overcome their issues to teach people how to handle such situations. Instead of being the great instructor, he would give the audience an easy way to get over with whatever problems happen with them. ‘Just go and kill yourself’ was what he had implied for in his plays. He first rebelled on the fact that the king was the most important figure of the kingdom and that he came after God when he killed couple of kings in his plays- and that paid off well; after that, happened the revolution against the king and he was killed- And then he rebelled on the church and religion and showed that ‘Death before Dishonor’. That is if you mess things up, don’t bother regretting, don’t bother trying to fix things just commit suicide and let it go. After Shakespeare’s time and the publishing of his plays, just as the king was no longer thought of as a sacred man to be killed, suicide became more accepted by people, those who commit suicide and those who know or hear of them. The question yet remains the same: why had he done so? Was it to teach people how to commit suicide if they wanted to, was it to make people accept such phenomenon or was it a warning for people? If you do things wrong, you will end up killed by yourself.

I think that Shakespeare was a pessimist himself and held grudge against a lot of people who were either unfair to him as a man or unfair to his people and kingdom and so he would kill them brutally in his plays by making them kill themselves. Maybe he wanted to prove that Karma does exist, that is when you do something bad, something bad happens to you and vice-versa. Even when Romeo and Juliette killed themselves it was a lesson for their families. See what fighting results? Death and destruction. Shakespeare was a great writer that his brain and the way he would think are a great myth to all scholars around the world. He was a man of language and moralities. We may never understand how he used to think or what he wanted to show us but we should surely keep trying to figure his thoughts out and digging through his between the lines.


8 thoughts on “Shakespearean Suicide

    1. Yes, I did read that but Shakespeare was smarter than that ! I mean from what we have read about Shakespeare he was a man of reforming and a reformer would never consider suicide as noble as they thought .. so like i said that maybe he wanted to show them how ridiculous they were that whatever happens they just kill themselves ..

  1. I don’t think he wanted to show how ridiculous they were. it’s quite the opposite. you shd keep in mind that Shakespeare also had an Elizabethan mentality.

    1. Yes, true .. well, he will always be a mystery unless someone one day finds a diary he had written explaining his writings .. ( now I think he really should have written one .. ) 🙂

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  3. I’m writing a research paper over this same topic and just so happened to come across your blog! Lot’s of help. It completely baffles me too – Shakespeare’s motives and mystery in the fate of his tenderly, crafted characters. The weirdest part is that nobody is really talking about it or seems to care that one of the greatest poets and playwrights of all time glorifies suicide in almost every one of his works. Weird. Good luck to you in your research! Thanks for this.

  4. “Or that the everlasting had not fixed his canon against self slaughter”
    Suicide was pretty much the worst thing a Christian could do. It’s still regarded pretty lowly. If you murdered someone, especially someone of no consequence, Christian faith leaves a lot of scope for repentance. Faith and love for God trumping all sin. Case in point Hamlet won’t Claudius while he’s praying because he would die and go to heaven. So literally the worst thing someone can do in the minds of Shakespeare’s audience is commit suicide, an act that guarantees damnation because you don’t get to repent for it.
    I’ve not read every play in which it occurs but I’d say it is a savvy artistic choice because it represents how high the stakes were for the characters, Romeo and Juliet didn’t get to be together and so nothing else, even heaven, would make do. In other cases, it’s used as punishment for egregious crimes – Lady Macbeth and Othello for instance. Even Ophelia’s suicide is probably punishment for Hamlet’s failings, Shakespeare lets her damnation weigh on him as well as his father’s death.

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