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Suicide In The Renaissance

Under the Tudor monarchy the church and state took a strict view on suicide as a mortal sin which was linked to deep despair and demonic pride. [1] In English Renaissance drama however, suicide was often depicted in a far more subtle fashion, with divisions drawn between ignoble and heroic forms of self-sacrifice.

Ironically the Christian aversion to suicide does not come directly from the Bible, which is at best enigmatic in its assessments. One of the first protagonists to label suicide self-murder was St. Augustine in his work The City of God where he argued that God’s command, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (Exodus 20:13) should be extended to include the taking of a person’s own life. This outlook contrasts with the Roman view that if one acts to protect principles or honour, such a death would be noble and admirable. The historical figures of Cato and Brutus were often held up as prime examples of worthy suicides.

When Shakespeare was writing his great tragedies, there was a transitional period in Renaissance theatre. Roland Wymer notes that, ‘suicide was reacquiring the dignity and honour of its Roman past, but had not lost its medieval connotations of shame and despair.’ [2] In fact, Shakespeare used suicide in his plays more often than any other of his contemporaries. Therefore a distinction needs to be drawn between the different suicides and the subsequent audience reaction to them which Shakespeare would have intended.

Hamlet’s famous ‘To be, or not to be’ (3.1.55) soliloquy can be interpreted as his musings on suicide. The speech is notably free from the common language of religious despair which is associated with Christian suicide. Ophelia who actually does commit suicide would have been excused the fate of damnation on the grounds of her madness. However, in King Lear, Gloucester displays all the signs of despair, which means that Edgar’s attempts to save him are not merely to preserve his life, but also his immortal soul. In this respect Gloucester goes through a simulated ‘fall’ from the cliff, and according to Edgar, is saved by a miracle. He also relates to Gloucester that he sees a fiend atop the cliff with him, which reinforces the diabolic threat to his father’s soul.

The problem with this interpretation is that King Lear is set in pre-Christian Britain, and Gloucester himself views his suicide as a Stoic gesture. The ambiguity of the ancient versus modern stance on suicide is indicative of Shakespeare’s ambiguity on this issue in the body of his work. In the case of Othello, Shakespeare managed to combine both honour and despair in his suicide to blur the two opposing attitudes. While he despairs at his actions in killing Desdemona, he also makes the decision as an honourable soldier to fall on his sword in order to rescue his reputation. [3]

The characters in the Roman plays also commit suicide in order to protect their reputation, or to avoid a disgraceful life. The effect of suicide in them can vary dramatically though. In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony’s suicide, while ultimately successful, is a botched affair, and robs him of the dramatic and immediate effect that it should have had on the audience. [4] In contrast, Cleopatra’s desire to follow ‘the high Roman fashion’ (4.5.91) sees her dress up for the occasion and her death even draws praise from Augustus Caesar who states, ‘Bravest at the last, / She levelled at our purposes and, being royal, / Took her own way.’ (5.2.334-6)

In Shakespeare’s tragedies there is always more than the strict adherence to Christian doctrine in evidence. Although the official stance on suicide was one of abhorrence, thanks to the Renaissance and the subsequent re-discovery of the ancients, the educated classes of the time would have been able to appreciate the classical ideals of suicide which permeated Renaissance theatre and which the arts, in general, continued to use as a counter-balance to the mortal sin of suicide.

Ralph McLean

 

1. Jacqueline Vanhoutte, ‘Antony’s ‘Secret House of Death’: Suicide and Sovereignty in Antony and Cleopatra’, in, Philological Quarterly Vol. 79 (2000), pp. 153-176. Return to text

2. Rowland Wymer, Suicide and Despair in the Jacobean Drama (Sussex, 1986), p. 2 Return to text

3. Op. Cit., pp. 90-5 Return to text

4. Richard K. Sanderson, ‘Suicide as Message and Metadrama in English Renaissance Tragedy’, in, Comparative Drama Vol. 3(1992), p. 208 Return to text

 

 

General Background
Antony and Cleopatra
Hamlet
King Lear
Othello
A Brief Overview Of British Social And Political History
The Politics of the Catholic Church
The Influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare
International Relations and Politics
James VI and I and his Patronage of the Arts
Kingship in the Renaissance
Early Modern Attitudes to Madness
Political Theatre
Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge Tragedy
The Religious Reformation, 1529-1559
The Influence Of Machiavelli On Shakespeare
The Succession of James I
Suicide in the Renaissance
Textual Variations in Shakespeare’s Plays
The Tragic Hero
The Transition from Medieval to Renaissance Drama
The Battle of Actium
Sources for Antony and Cleopatra
Marc Antony
The Contrast Between the Renaissance Prince Hamlet and Old Hamlet
New Words in Hamlet?
Is Hamlet a Problem Play?
Sources for Hamlet
Concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in Hamlet
‘And My Poor Fool Is Hanged’
The Double Role Of Cordelia And The Fool In King Lear
The Enclosure Acts
The Theme of Nature in King Lear
Nature and Cosmic Order in King Lear
Sources for King Lear
Cyprus
The Publishing and Performance History of Othello
Race in Othello
Sources for Othello
Venice
The Wife as Property in Othello