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Suicide in William Shakespeare's Hamlet

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Suicide in William Shakespeare's Hamlet

In two of his soliloquies, Hamlet questions whether life is worth living. With characteristic ambiguity and indecision, he wavers as he considers both the Christian and the classical perspectives on suicide. Much of the debate surrounding Shakespeare’s treatment of suicide in Hamlet develops from interpretations of those soliloquies. Focusing primarily on his most famous soliloquy at the start of act three, much critical debate has arisen over the subject of his ruminations, whether on suicide or revenge, as critics draw parallels of development in what is seen as the oppositional thematic relationship between self-murder and murder of the king. Although Hamlet’s spiritual conscience and his fear prevent him from committing suicide, his wish to avenge his father’s murder, however hesitant, constitutes a conscious pursuit of death. Taking revenge that draws upon filial duty, on a task apparently dictated by a spiritual being, Hamlet acts in the service of the state and for this service is rewarded with that end he first wished, death.

Heavily weighing upon Hamlet’s mind, particularly in his first soliloquy, are the religious ramifications of committing suicide. Despite his wish that “this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,” he pauses in considering that God has “fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” (1.2.129-132). And indeed, emerging from medieval tradition, the Renaissance church condemned suicide as a sign of the ultimate sin of despair, denying the deceased Christian rites of burial. Additionally, secular law reflected Church opinion, with juries in England ruling on cases of probable suicide. If sane at the time of his death, the dec...

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...hakespeare Quarterly 37.3 (Autumn 1986): 309-317. JSTOR. Wofford College. 16 April 2006 .

McElroy, Davis D. “’To Be, or Not to Be’ – Is That the Question?” College English 25.7 (April 1964): 543-545. JSTOR. Wofford College. 16 April 2006 .

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. In The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1997. 1668-1756.

Soule, George. “Hamlet’s Quietus.” College English 26.3 (December 1964): 231. JSTOR. Wofford College. 16 April 2006 .

Watson, Curtis Brown. “Shakespeare’s Ambivalence in Regard to Christian and Pagan-Humanist Values.” Chapter Nine. Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1960.

Wymer, Rowland. “Suicide, Despair, and the Drama.” Chapter One. Suicide and Despair in the Jacobean Drama. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. 1-36.

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