Throughout Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the themes of death and suicide are prevalent, especially with the Prince of Denmark himself, Hamlet. While strongly considering the option of suicide, Hamlet believes that most human beings choose to live, despite the cruelty, pain, and injustice of the world, because of the social and religious stigma attached to ending one’s life and the fear of what happens after death. Morally, society condemned suicide as a disgrace due to the strict standards adhered to during the Elizabethan Era. Religiously, suicide was an impious act and considered an unforgivable sin, punishable by spending eternity in Hell. Aesthetically, the idea of taking one’s own life differed in opinion from that of Hamlet, who considered suicide a means of escaping the miseries of life, to that of the rest of society, who disapproved of it to the highest degree. These methods of analyzing suicide in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are what define the very theme, and consequently the play as a whole.
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William Shakespeare wrote the tragic play Hamlet during the Elizabethan Era, a time of strict moral code, which directly influenced how the characters in the play react to suicide. In 17th century England, taking one’s own life was frowned upon greatly by society. A quote describing Elizabethan England tells all: “Such as kill themselves are buried in the field with a stake driven through their bodies” (Crime and Punishment). During this time period, it was not considered noble to commit suicide. This is mirrored in Hamlet’s speech of why people do not take their own lives, as evidenced by the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them …” (3.1.1750-1754, The Tragedy of Hamlet). Here, Hamlet considers the moral choice of suffering the hardships of life and the immoral choice of suicide. “This may be an easy way to end the pain but is far from noble” (Barbers). Barbers’ quote concerning Hamlet’s situation is insight to how Elizabethan society thought. If Hamlet were to commit suicide, the moral and societal implications from his act would be considered a heinous crime and moral transgression. Part of Hamlet’s apprehension to take his life is caused by the social stigma attached to suicide throughout the Elizabethan Era. Albeit this apprehension is felt by Hamlet, Shakespeare uses it as an opportunity to reflect upon the societal connotation of suicide.
Religion’s stern condemnation of suicide and the temptation of the sin are intertwined throughout Hamlet, affording another rationale for not taking one’s life. The setting and characters in the play are of the Christian faith, and the consequences set forth by religion are made clear during the play. “Hamlet is a Christian and to commit suicide would be against his religion” (Barbers). While this is true, Hamlet’s character can be seen as “psychologically complicated” with “themes rooted in deception and madness, contemplations of life and death, and of course, desire for revenge” (William Shakespeare’s). The author of this critical article’s perception of Hamlet shows the complex nature of Hamlet’s psyche. In the play, Hamlet laments that suicide is considered sin: “His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!” (1.2.336). When Ophelia’s funeral is commencing, religion’s censure of suicide is also apparent in the words of the priest. “Her death was doubtful; / And, but that great command o’ersways the order, / She should in ground unsanctified have lodg’d / Till the last trumpet.” (5.1.3559-3562, The Tragedy of Hamlet). The priest speaks of how Ophelia had committed suicide and that she does not deserve a Christian burial, yet because of Claudius’s royal hand, her funeral would still be proper. The priest completes the service reluctantly, exhibiting the religious dishonor that is brought about by suicide. The fear of spending eternity in Hell due to the sacrilegious act of suicide played a large role in the public apprehension of suicide.
For Hamlet, suicide presented a particular allure, a magnetism to which he was attracted and pulled. Aesthetically, taking one’s own life was a means of escape to Hamlet. “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt” is an example of Hamlet’s suicidal thinking, caused by his belief that the world is a corrupt place (1.2.333, The Tragedy of Hamlet). In addition, Hamlet explores the reasons why society does not commit suicide. “The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveler returns, puzzles the will” does not portray Hamlet as very faithful to his religion because he is stating that after death, “no traveler returns” and that it is “undiscover’d country” (3.1.1772-1773, The Tragedy of Hamlet). To any Christian, it is understood that one goes to Heaven or Hell in the afterlife, and the return of one’s spirit occurs after death. In his soliloquy, Hamlet seems to lean towards the idea that all of society does not commit suicide because of the fear of the unknown of what comes after death. While suicide has an aesthetical appeal to Hamlet because it is a means of escape from the hardships he is enduring, he makes a generalization that society fears what is to come. Later in the play, Hamlet will eventually realize his faith and understand that he will ultimately die; he comes to comprehend the mortality of the human – that the dust of a king is no different than the dust of a plebian. The ensnaring lure that draws Hamlet into considering suicide may cause some readers to consider his sanity, but not everyone feels this way. “The character of Hamlet is itself a pure effusion of genius. It is not a character marked by strength of will or even of passion, but by refinement of thought and sentiment. Hamlet is as little of the hero as a man can well be: but he is a young and princely novice, full of high enthusiasm and quick sensibility – the sport of circumstances, questioning with fortune and refining on his own feelings, and forced from the natural bias of his disposition by the strangeness of his situation” (Hazlitt). Hazlitt’s analysis of Hamlet empathizes with the Prince, claiming that he was acting on his feelings throughout the play. The reasoning that Hazlitt presents lends understanding to Hamlet’s consideration of suicide and his torn psyche. While Hamlet may have seen aesthetic pleasure in suicide, others considered it a cowardly way to avoid one’s troubles.
Hamlet’s consideration of suicide and overall fascination with life and death provide the tragedy with a sense of darkness that drives the play. In essence, the story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is one of despair and shadows. Shakespeare uses the theme of suicide as an opportunity to present the societal connotation that comes with it. While Hamlet seems like a dark character whose sanity could be brought to question, his tortured psyche caused by his life brings understanding to his emotional conflict. Hamlet’s belief is that humans choose to live because of the social and religious stigma attached to suicide, along with the fear of the uncertainty of death. Playing a prominent role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, suicide gives the play a gloomy tone and gives insight by allowing the reader to imagine why one would or would not end one’s own life.
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