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Why does Hamlet believe that, although capable of suicide, most human beings choose to...

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nadiyajashif | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted July 6, 2010 at 3:49 PM via web

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Why does Hamlet believe that, although capable of suicide, most human beings choose to live, despite the cruelty, pain, and injustice of the world?

Discuss  morally, religiously, and aesthetically, with particular attention to Hamlet’s two important statements about suicide.

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted July 6, 2010 at 8:47 PM (Answer #1)

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Hamlet speaks of suicide twice--once in his first soliloquy (I ii) and again in his more famous "To be" speech (III i).  In both cases he appears to feel it, but we don't get the sense that he would really do it.

The first reference to suicide is almost the first lines he speaks in the play.  In context, he is mourning his father's death and has just been reprimanded by both his "new" father (Uncle Claudius) and his newly (and hastily) married mother.  He says:

"O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

His canon 'gainst self-slaughter."

In this case, we see him as wishing he were dead and wishing God had not forbidden it.  He seems rather melodramatic--until he follows with the somewhat startling news that his mother has apparently shifted her love and allegiance to her brother-in-law with undue haste.  We then understand his emotional outburst, as he is grieving both the loss of a father and the loss of his mother's love for his father.  Somehow this wish that God hadn't forbidden suicide is hard to take too seriously, as anything more than an emotional reaction to emotional circumstance.

The second soliloquy, though, takes place after Hamlet has met the Ghost (his father), discovered the new King's perfidy, made a plan to seek revenge, enacted his plan to act "mad," discovered his friends were more faithful to his uncle than to him, tried to distance Ophelia from the  trouble ahead, and made a new plan to confirm Claudius' guilt. So Hamlet has been busy, consumed with the business of seeking revenge for his father's murder.  He is distrustful even of friends and calls Denmark "a prison," so he's clearly still in a miserable state before we hear him speak of suicide once again. But he has been thinking and planning and carrying out his scheme, despite his unhappiness.

"To be or not to be"--to live or not to live--"that is the question" he asks himself. He ponders several questions regarding suicide.  First, whether it's "nobler" to suffer through life's "slings and arrows" and "a sea of troubles" or to "end them."

Second, who would choose to

"...bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law'd delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns"

that man is faced with so consistently, when he could just end it all.  Presumably, this list is generic to mankind and the human condition, though a case could be made that these are the specific burdens Hamlet is tired of bearing.  Third, who would "grunt and sweat under a weary life" unless the "dread of something after death" kept one from ending it all.

The answer to all of Hamlet's musings is this one thing: since death is an "undiscovered country" and we don't know exactly what's on the other side of this life, most of us are unwilling to risk killing ourselves.  We are moral cowards, and our "native hue of resolution" turns pale and sickly as we are frozen by our fears.

Whether Hamlet speaks for everyone or not is debateable; that he speaks for imself is clear.  Just as he suffers from a lack of resolution about the self-proclaimed single purpose of his life--seeking revenge for King Hamlet's death--he is irresolute regarding his wish to die.  He may wish to die, just as he wishes to avenge his father's death; however, he is clearly unable to do either.

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susan3smith | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

Posted July 7, 2010 at 4:40 AM (Answer #2)

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In the first soliloquy in Act 1, Hamlet laments "Oh that this too, too sullied flesh would melt and resolve itself into a dew."  In this soliloquy Hamlet expresses the personal desire to die.  But he quickly dismisses the idea of committing suicide on religious grounds:

O, that the Everlasting had not fixed

His canon against self-slaughter.

Suicide is not mentioned again in this speech.

Hamlet's most famous and most often quoted soliloquy "To be or not to be" (Act 3, scene 1) occurs just after he has concocted the plan to "catch the conscience of a king"--a most decided action to determine Claudius' guilt.

Is Hamlet contemplating suicide here?  He is most definitely considering the question you pose:  why do we keep living when life is so difficult?  But the question is a philosophical one, not a personal one.  Throughout this beautifully expressed meditation, Hamlet speaks in general terms.  He is not speaking directly about himself.  His answer occurs in the following lines:

To die, to sleep--

To sleep, perchance to dream, ay there's the rub

In this speech, sleep is a metaphor for death; dreams are a metaphor for the afterlife.  We do not know what to expect in the after life, so we cling to the burdens that we know rather than "fly to others that we know not of."

In this way, "conscience does make cowards of us all."  Much of the play deals with various ideas of action and inaction.  Suicide is presented as an active response against the "sea of troubles," while living is portrayed as being cowardly and passive.

The appeal of this speech to the readers of the play shows its universality.  These are not the thoughts of a deranged man.  These are not the thoughts of an emotionally disturbed individual.  These are thoughts many of us have had a one time or another.  At various times in our lives most of us have probably thought that dying is preferable to living.  We are not necessarily suicidal or clinically depressed. Contemplating our mortality is part of the human condition.

What Hamlet gives us is a well-reasoned argument as to why we do not kill ourselves.  Hamlet is under a tremendous amount of stress at this point.  He suspects that his step-father has murdered his father.  He is saddled with a request to avenge his father's murder which means committing a murder which will probably result in his own death.   In the next scene, his former girlfriend becomes part of a plot to spy on him.  Most likely, Hamlet fears that the play will confirm Claudius's guilt, and he will be forced to act.  Hamlet probably would rather not commit murder.  It would be far easier to take his own life.

But Hamlet does not take his own life, nor seem truly to consider suicide seriously.  His argument is neither moral, religious, or aesthetic.  It is logical; it is philosophical.   It is based on human emotions of fear, our ignorance of the afterlife, and our tendency to cling to the known over the unknown.  But to say that Hamlet does not act is not entirely correct.  He does act.  He follows through with the play to determine Claudius' guilt.  He tells his mother what he has found out.  He kills the man he believes to be Claudius when he is certain that the man will go to hell.  Hamlet is not guilty of inaction; he is guilty of imprudent action.  He makes a dreadful mistake and consequently spends much of the rest of the play trying to survive Claudius' attempts to kill him.

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