To Live or Not to Live

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The complex intention of taking one’s own life is difficult to comprehend and identify with. Suicide is destruction; the ultimate and final chapter of an existence. Shakespeare’s Hamlet builds upon this theme, dissecting the idea of suicide and what would cause a person to take so drastic an action. One of the most influential plays in American history, Hamlet tends to the idea of suicide morally, religiously, and aesthetically, and the protagonist asserts his belief that, though every person is capable of ending their own lives, most humans choose to continue on in spite of the pain and injustice of the world.


The vision of taking a knife to one’s throat, jumping from the ledge, ending the precarious balance that is life is unfathomable. The amount of pain that would cause a human to end it rather than bear it is unimaginable unless experienced. Yet, in his first soliloquy of the play, Hamlet turns to and reflects upon suicide. His emotional turmoil at his father’s death is cast aside by Claudius, who calmly explains that fathers come and fathers die, as is the way with life. He views Hamlet’s anguish as sulking, moody, and “unmanly.” Only a “heart unfortified, a mind impatient, and an understanding simple and unschooled” (1.2ll97) could lean toward such a childish tantrum over something as plain as the death of a father; Claudius even attempts to persuade Hamlet to continue his life and forget past events, and to think of him “as of a father” (1.2ll109). While Claudius is attempting to mask the grief of the king’s death with the happiness of his marriage to the queen, Hamlet is not fooled and perceives the situation as it truly is. After permitting Laertes, son of Polonius, to return to France, where he was staying before the coronation, Claudius does not hesitate to command Hamlet to stay in Demark rather than return to school in Wittenberg, and Gertrude agrees, pleading Hamlet to stay with her, against his wishes. He bitterly notes, “I shall in all my best obey you, madam.” (1.2ll120), fortifying in himself that he is not bending to the will of his inferior uncle/father.


While alone, these events resonate with Hamlet, causing him to reflect upon his dire situation, and his wish to end it: “O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt” (1.2ll129). In his mind, at this moment in time, suicide seems an enviable alternative to the pained life he has suddenly been thrust into. Interestingly, he does not feel held back from this decision by his own moral judgment or the fear of doing the unthinkable, but rather by religion: “Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” (1.2ll131). The thought of whether or not God exists is not questioned, and Hamlet instantly bars himself off from this choice he finds so pleasing, simply because it is forbidden by the principles of religion. Hamlet spends the course of the play questioning himself and his motives, as well as the motives of others, but does even think to question a thing as solid and certain as religion. Anguishing in his loathing and disgust toward the hasty marriage of his mother and uncle, and the thin and frail masks of grief everyone but him seems to wear, Hamlet feels alone in his emotions and betrayed by everyone who feigned sorrow: “A little month, or ere those shoes were old / with which she followed my poor father’s body, / Like Niobe, all tears” (1.2ll 147).


Most notably, the nature of his mother’s new marriage digs at Hamlet, to the point where he becomes unusually obsessed with her sexuality. The comparison of his father to his uncle is as extreme as that of a “Hyperion to a satyr” (1.2ll140), and Hamlet struggles to understand why, after as loving a husband as his father, his mother can settle for such societal scum as Claudius, and this seems to destroy him much more than it even concerns Gertrude. It may seem that Hamlet is only fretful of his mother’s well-being, but he touches upon the idea of misogyny, lamenting, “Frailty, thy name is woman” (1.2ll146). Digging at him constantly, the perception that his mother is not strong enough to take care of herself, and too blind to see what is best for her, causes Hamlet’s extreme inner struggle, contributing to his madness and thoughts of suicide. He also touches upon incest, commenting that his mother moved “[w]ith such dexterity to incestuous sheets” (1.2ll157), and the negative consequences this marriage signifies for Denmark. Hamlet’s reflection upon suicide concludes with his disbelief that he must keep his emotions to himself, which allows them to eat at him psychologically all the more: “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (1.2ll159).


The famous lines that made history not only in literature, but worked their way into everyday society, contribute largely to the concept of suicide in this play. Perhaps the most famous speech in the English language, Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act III is one of the most logical and powerful depictions of thought given by Hamlet throughout the entire play. After posing the question “To be, or not to be,” he examines the moral legitimacy of taking action to put an end to one’s problems through self-imposed death. He views allowing oneself to be pushed around the complexities and plights of life as passive, while seeking an end to suffering as active: “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” (3.1ll58). Comparing death to mere sleep, Hamlet concludes that suicide is a reasonable and advantageous action to take: “’tis a consummation / devoutly to be wished” (3.1ll64). As the religious word “devoutly” indicates, Hamlet immediately recognizes that the uncertainty of the afterlife is the main and perhaps only factor which prevents humans from taking the easy path by ending their lives of pain. Another question is raised: namely, who would choose to suffer through the “proud man’s contumely”, “gangs of disprized love, “laws delay”, or “insolence of office” (3.1ll72) when peace could be so easily found with the blade of a knife. Once again he answers himself, asserting that no person would continue their lives if it weren’t for the “dread of something after death, / the undiscovered country from whose bourn / no traveler returns” (3.1ll79). Hamlet believes that if humanity knew what lay in that dark, uncertain void that is the afterlife, perhaps they would find it more agreeable and be enthusiastic to enter such a place, but under current circumstances, people are more willing to “bear those ills we have / than fly to others that we know not of” (3.1ll82).


The importance of this speech lies not only in what it reveals about the theme of suicide in the play, but what it reveals about Hamlet’s character. For the first time, his emotional passion is complemented by a logical thought process as he debates the easy slip into the afterlife versus the enduring of human suffering. Hamlet has turned to religion before in his desperate search for a solution to his misery, and found it to be imposing on his resolve to kill himself or kill Claudius. In this soliloquy, he turns to philosophy and logic, and becomes equally frustrated. The connection between thought and action is again broken. He struggles to realize that suicide is wrong on both levels, moral and religious. What seems to be the most basic knowledge that suicide is a pessimistic and nonconstructive device proves to be a point of great struggle and contemplation for Hamlet.


This struggle seems to be only within Hamlet himself, as he searches for a cure to end his torment. Just as he places his faith blindly, unquestioningly within the church, so has the rest of society. When Ophelia, the tortured lover of Hamlet, reaches the obvious point of insanity in her flower speech in Act IV, Scene 5, she is still not justified by society in killing herself, purely because it is against the church. Legally, she is unable to have a Christian burial, despite her noble upbringing, and is thought to be hell-bound, rather than headed for the glory of heaven. Still supported by Hamlet’s family, who mourn her death and wish she could have been Hamlet’s wife, Ophelia is, by rule of society, unworthy because of her actions, which are deemed unholy. Despite this, Ophelia, innocent and caught up in the maddening, torturous proceedings caused by the vengeance of those around her, is perhaps the only character morally justified in ending her affliction. As Hamlet reflects upon the possibility of death, and lets the questionable integrity of it consume him, Ophelia finds solace the easy way, but reaches madness before the point of suicidal thoughts surface and overwhelm her. As Hamlet points out, the sane fear death for the ambiguity of the afterlife, and Ophelia’s circumstance portrays that without that constant, logical terror, death becomes easy, simple, and slipping into the water and the mystery of death makes perfect sense.





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Healing_Angel said...
Jul. 21, 2010 at 3:54 am
Great review. Very detailed.
 
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