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Suicide is an important theme in Hamlet....  Discuss how the play treats the idea of...

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melodyforlife | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted July 14, 2009 at 6:24 AM via web

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Suicide is an important theme in Hamlet....


Discuss how the play treats the idea of suicide morally, religiously, and aesthetically, with particular attention to Hamlet’s two important statements about suicide: the “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt” soliloquy (I.ii.129–158) and the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy (III.i.56–88). Why does Hamlet believe that, although capable of suicide, most human beings choose to live, despite the cruelty, pain, and injustice of the world?

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pmiranda2857 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted July 15, 2009 at 8:23 AM (Answer #1)

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Death is an important theme in Hamlet.  First, Hamlet is confronted with the untimely death of his father, then, as a contemplative person, he becomes engrossed in thinking about death and the afterlife, as well as whether the ghost who identifies himself as Hamlet's dead father is, in fact, his father and not an evil manifestation trying to tempt Hamlet into committing a grave sin.

Death occurs to Hamlet, in the form of suicide, as it does to many people who experience hardship, loss and feelings of isolation and hopelessness.  Hamlet considers suicide, but resists because of the Christian belief that suicide, being a mortal sin, would disqualify the soul from finding eternal rest in heaven with God.

"To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 't is 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?" (Shakespeare)

Hamlet's spirituality, as well as his understanding of the meaning of truth are closely linked with the events that take place, his father's death, his mother's quick remarriage.  Even though Hamlet is suffering here in the mortal world, his contemplates suicide in the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy.

Hamlet is saying that no one would choose to live a life of pain and misery except that they are reluctant, fearful of the what will happen to them after they commit suicide, a grave sin, a mortal sin that would prevent the person's soul from entering heaven and God's holy presence.

So suicide is viewed in the play through the Christian perspective, which informs Hamlet that it is wrong to risk eternal peace for a sense of peace from a life of difficulty.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted July 15, 2009 at 9:12 AM (Answer #2)

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That Hamlet suffers greatly from depression is apparent.  His statement in Act I wishing that his "solid flesh would melt" is typical of severely depressed people.  For, melancholy causes its victim to become passive.  So, in their wishes to eschew their troubles, they think that it may be the best thing if they did not wake from sleep; thus, Nature would take the active part and remove the worry from them of what to do with their lives: 

To die, to sleep--/No more; and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to:  'tis a consummation /Devoutly to be wished.(60-64) 

However, there's a "rub" to the comfort of "sleep." If one induces it oneself, he is guilty of committing suicide, which is a sin, punishable in the life after death:

To die, to sleep--/To sleep, perchance to dream, ay there's the rub/For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil/Must give us pause.(64-67) 

As Hamlet's depression increases and he spends more and more anxious moments contemplating the revenge his father's ghost requests, Hamlet realizes that regicide is a very serious act, an act for which he can be punished by death as one who has committed treason.  Also, suicide condemns one to hell. This is why Hamlet "gives pause."  Hamlet reflects that in this pause, one tolerates

The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,/The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,/The insolence of office, and the purns/That patient merit of th'unworthy takes(III,i,71-74)

The dread of what lies beyond the grave deters the melancholic Hamlet. However, all his inaction and self-debate proves self-defeating to Hamlet as "conscience...make(s) a coward of [him]."

After the soliloquy in which Hamlet contemplates suicide, he is riddled by inaction and moments of irrationality and ridiculous humor.  Timothy Bright writes in his "Treatise of Melancholy":

Sometime it falleth out that melancholy men are found very witty, and quickly discern, either because the humor of melancholy with some like sort with their spirits...are instruments of such sharpness. To this, other reasons may be added,as : exercise of their wits, wherein they be indefatigable, which maketh them seem to have that of a natural readiness which custom of exercise, and use hath found in them.  Moreover,...melancholy breedeth a jealousy of doubt in that they take in delibertation...Their resolution riseth of long deliberation, because of doubt and distrust which...disturbeth the sleep of melancholy persons.

As the plot "Hamlet" progresses, the reader perceives this procrastination in Hamlet and continual debate with death.  Finally after talking with Fortinbras who is willing to sacrifice himself and his army for a cause, Hamlet, in his final soliloquy, resolves to act for a cause much stronger than that of Fortinbras and is, thus, shaken from his melancholy and thoughts of suicide:

How stand I then,/That have a father killed, a mother stained,Excitement of my reason and my blood,/And let all sleep, while to my shame I see/The imminent death of twenty thousand me/That for a fantasy and trick of fame/Go to their graves like beds....Oh, from this time forth,/My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! (IV,iv,56-66)

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jagtig | (Level 1) Salutatorian

Posted July 17, 2009 at 11:24 PM (Answer #4)

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Now, Ophelia's death is, as stated above, considered a suicide.


Hamlet speaks about "maimed rites betokening suicide" (a desperate hand) in these lines, though the description by Gertrude is not certain.


The exact religious canons pertaining to the burial of a victim of suicide are contained in these lines by the priest. Thus, he considers her suicide a distinct possibility. "Her death was doubtful."


The Clowns suspect the death to be suicide. These lines.


However, they appear to assume from the fact that she's being buried as a Christian that ("How can that be, unless she drowned herself in her own defence?") that she was dishonoured.

Now, Ophelia's words appears to favor the viewpoint of the clowns; I take that point of view from these lines that "young men will gain a young lady's favor, and then after succeeding will deny her the dignity of marriage, saying that he would have married her had she not given in tohim."


Alack, and fie for shame!

Young men will do't, if they come to't;

By cock, they are to blame.

Quoth she, before you tumbled me,

You promised me to wed.

So would I ha' done, by yonder sun,

An thou hadst not come to my bed. - Ophelia IV,v,60 et seq.

These lines point to a motive for Ophelia's suicide. They echo her father's words, "I fear'd he did but trifle, And meant to wreck thee; but, beshrew my jealousy!- Act II, Scene I.


So, to sum up, it appears Hamlet may have won Ophelia offstage; she dies by drowning in the aftermath, as a result of that and her father's murder; Hamlet observes that the funeral procession is that of a suicide victim; the Priest finds that she may be buried with partial rites; the clowns venture to guess that she was dishonoured, but otherwise equivocate.

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jagtig | (Level 1) Salutatorian

Posted July 17, 2009 at 6:12 AM (Answer #5)

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Hamlet is not a simple play, and a part of it deals with the relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet.

Ophelia's father, Lord High Chamberlain Polonius, believes until his end that the illness from which Hamlet suffers, that which makes him suicidal, arises from the love he holds for the man's daughter.


The action which results in Hamlet's final undoing arises from a final attempt to extract this information from Hamlet, through staging a meeting between him and his mother in her room. Polonius hides himself to overhear the conversation, and is killed upon being discovered, though Hamlet's avowed intent was to kill his uncle, who he suspected of being the eavesdropper.


Between the revelation of Hamlet's infatuation with Ophelia and the manslaughter in the Queen's chamber, there is the play which is staged by Hamlet to catch the conscience of the King; draw a confession from Claudius.


Thus, Hamlet is not simply suicidal, not simply melancholic, but driven to desperation, philosophically posing the conundrum (how to avenge a murder without committing a crime) within which he finds himself in Christian and "university" terms.

Is he exaggerating his pain in light of the dilemma the appearance of his father's ghost presents? Possibly. The ghost's commandment was well night impossible to fulfill, and a treason-trial of his uncle would have been a far better outcome as far as he was concerned.

His brainish act ( http://www.tailsntales.com/eng/sha/ham/tex/sel_7.html#anchor278868 ) put an end to that possibility.



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