Why is Ophelia given a Christian burial given the Catholic church's position on suicide? When a person committed suicide, the Catholic Church used to have that person's head removed and the person...

Why is Ophelia given a Christian burial given the Catholic church's position on suicide? 

When a person committed suicide, the Catholic Church used to have that person's head removed and the person was buried upside down because it was believed that they could assure that said person could not find heaven. In Ophelia's case, she buried right side up and with her head attached. The church ruled she was incapable of reason at the time of her death. The gravedigger believed that political favors were granted. Was this the proper ruling or was the gravedigger correct? Explain 

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droxonian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is a surprisingly lengthy debate over this issue between the two gravediggers in Act 5, Scene 1 of Hamlet. Between them, they do essentially elucidate what has happened--the first gravedigger reiterates that those in power have ruled that Ophelia is to be buried in the proper fashion; the second gravedigger says Ophelia is being treated like a man to whom "the water come to him, and drown him, he drowns not himself" (as if her death were an accident) but that he feels "if this had not been a gentlewoman, she'd have been buried out o' Christian burial."

What he is indicating here is his own opinion that Ophelia's noble family has interceded on her behalf to have the coroner rule her death accidental. He himself does not believe this ruling at all and thinks political favor has been invoked. It is highly likely, given Polonius's position, that political favors were invoked, but the Shakespearean audience would recognize this debate. Because suicide was so poorly viewed at this time, all families, noble or otherwise, would sometimes go togreat lengths to try to conceal the manner of a family member's death. It may be likely that noble families were more often successful in having these deaths ruled "proper."

However, we could also ask the question of how much these gravediggers actually know about what happened in the circumstances of Ophelia's death. The play itself does not state for certain that she willingly drowns herself so much as she does not fight what she feels to be her fate. Because suicide was such a contentious issue, it also generated much gossip, and it is likely that some people who did indeed die by accident were gossiped about as if they had been suicides. Shakespeare could equally be highlighting the fact that more attention than is perhaps necessary is paid to this issue by onlookers whom it does not really concern.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In light of the fact that Shakespeare criticized the Catholic Church in other plays such as "Romeo and Juliet" in which the friar oversteps his vows in experimenting with herbs, etc. and in his involvement with intrigue, it seems reasonable that the gravedigger is correct and Shakespeare offers yet another criticism. Also, it is a known fact that the clergy was often influenced to make rulings in favor of royalty who contributed greatly to the support of the cathedrals, etc.  One salient example of such favoritism is the annulment of King Henry's marriages by the pope--that is, until he became carried away in his efforts to have a son.

Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has relaxed its stand on many issues.  Suicide is one of these since the Church now states that if one is not in his/her right mind, he/she does not realize the evil of what is done to him/herself.  However, it seems unlikely that such a psychological investigation would have been conducted in the setting of the play "Hamlet."