How does the play Hamlet treat the idea of suicide morally, religiously, and aesthetically? Why does Hamlet believe that, although capable of suicide, most human beings choose to live?

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squeezebox eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hamlet grapples with the ideas of suicide and mortality quite a bit throughout the play. In his first soliloquy ("O but that this too, too solid flesh would melt") Hamlet is aware of the consequences of suicide from a religious stand point. The first lines do not point to a desire to directly kill himself, but rather a desire to simply perish - "O that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!" The following lines begin with the word "or." If Hamlet cannot spontaneously and simply stop existing, he wishes that suicide was not considered a mortal sin. This opening showcases a quality we see in Hamlet throughout the play - his inability to act. He spends a lot of time wishing things were different. The easiest thing would be to just stop existing through no action of his own. But he can't end his own life because he does not want to suffer the eternal consequences. So with these two options out, he has no choice but to continue living and being miserable.

In Act 3, scene 1, we see the same conflict in his "To be or not to be" soliloquy. He considers whether it is better to live and suffer or to commit to death and escape the suffering of life, but also face the unknown after death. He likens death to a sleep and the afterlife to dreams, saying,

"For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause."

He continues asking who would willingly go through a life full of suffering if they could find peace in death, unless there was something to be feared in the space after death. Hamlet clearly fears that he will suffer far more after he is dead than he is suffering in life. However, he is angry at himself for his "cowardice" and concludes the speech by saying, 

"Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action." 

It is interesting that he refers to what stops a person from killing themselves as conscience. This points to a moral dilemma rather than a fear-based conflict. It indicates that on some level, Hamlet believes it is wrong to take one's own life and not just the fact that he is afraid of facing the eternal unknown. 

Finally, the play deals with the suicide of Ophelia. Act V, scene i opens with the clowns, or the gravediggers, commenting on the circumstances:

First Clown: Is she to be buried in Christian burial when she wilfully seeks her own salvation

Second Clown: I tell thee she is; therefore make her grave straight. The crowner hath sate on her, and finds it Christian burial.

First Clown: How can that be, unless she drown'd herself in her own defence?

Second Clown: Why, 'tis found so.

The gravediggers--simple laborers--have an awareness that according to the laws of Christianity, Ophelia should not be getting a Christian burial. The scene continues with the clowns further commenting that were it not for Ophelia's social status, she would not be getting a Christian burial. As Shakespeare's clowns often do, these characters present the "everyman's perspective" on Ophelia's suicide. 

Further into the scene, we see an exchange between Laertes and the priest conducting the funeral ceremony. Ophelia does not receive all the rights of Christian burial, and the priest indicates that it is more than enough that she is buried in holy ground. The characters that loved Ophelia do not openly acknowledge that her death was suicide at any point. Gertrude's speech says that Ophelia "fell" into the water, and the circumstances of her death are not spoken by any other character. This characterizes the death as taboo and unmentionable. Those that cared for Ophelia ignore it rather than acknowledge it.

charsteph88 | Student

In the play, Hamlet describes the act of suicide as being both desirable and morally and religiously reprehensible. In Act 1, Scene 2, he expresses the desire to die, and then laments that God himself has made a law forbidding the act of suicide when he says, "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt thaw and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!" The way he describes the act of death seems almost comforting and beautiful, as he likens it to transforming from a solid state into a liquid state. One gets the impression that he would find death preferable to life, but he feels bound by his moral obligations and religious promises that he has made by being a follower of God. 

In Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet again makes mention of suicide, this time by questioning whether it would be more noble to suffer the pain that life hurls at you, or to fight the pain by taking "arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them"- that is, by committing suicide. Again, he contrasts what occurs in his daily life with what, aesthetically speaking, would occur were he to commit suicide. In life, he experiences "heartache," a "thousand natural shocks," and the "whips and scorns of time." All of this brings to mind a man whose flesh is physically wounded, perhaps bleeding, as he is being tortured. In contrast, he believes that in death, he will look restful, as he will be asleep. He hypothesizes that in that restful sleep of death, dreams will come to him. Again, we picture something beautiful, serene, calm. Life is ugly; death, in comparison, is something to be desired. In this soliloquy, he wavers between the two extremes, wondering which to choose for himself. 

In spite of all of this, however, Hamlet believes that while suicide is something that every human being is capable of, most do not end up committing suicide, and instead choose life. According to Hamlet, it is his moral obligations which haunt him in life: the fact that he feels that he must avenge his father, the idea that it might not be "noble" to commit suicide, and the idea that it would be breaking one of God's laws and thus a religious obligation. Still, that is not enough to stop him questioning whether or not he should kill himself. What is frightening to him, however, is what happens after death. If he considers suicide, he must also consider the unknown, which might very well be eternal damnation in hell, as dictated, he believes, by God. It is this uncertainty which causes people to reconsider their wishes for an end. 

rienzi | Student

Contrary to popular opinion as evidenced above, suicide is barely a marginal issue in this play. Horatio expresses the attempt at the end of the play which gives Hamlet an opportunity to expound on Horatio's usefulness to round out the play. Then in 5.1 poor Ophelia gets the bum rap of committing suicide so we can see how strict and heartless the Catholic church is. That's it.

No, Hamlet does not wish for death in his first soliloquy in 1.2 nor does he wish for death in his "To be..." soliloquy. His first soliloquy is juvenile hyperbole. It is about loss not about desire. Read the soliloquy as a whole and then compare it to the battle of wills that just occurred between Hamlet and Claudius.

In his soliloquy in 3.1, Hamlet isn't talking himself out of suicide. He is expressing the impediments to action, i.e., moving from thought, through resolution to action. Fighting a sea of troubles is not suicide. It may be life threatening but not suicide. The point is that one always takes their life into his or her hands when venturing to solve life's ills. We see this in Hamlet's last soliloquy as he watches Prince Fortinbras engage in combat for nothing more than the honor of doing so. If someone is telling you that Hamlet contemplates suicide in this play. They don't know what they are talking about.

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