Suicide in Shakespeare

How about a book on the subject of suicide in Shakespeare? On that subject alone, how many suicides can you name? I saw it and figured Brutus, Cassius, Othello, Romeo and Juliet…then had to think about it. Ophelia, maybe?

The book focuses on patterns of suicide present in six Shakespearean tragedies: “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “King Lear,” “Timon of Athens,” “Othello” and “Julius Caesar.”

No mention of R&J. Interesting. What about Lear? Is he going to talk about what happens strictly in the last scene? I can’t honestly remember whether Regan poisons Goneril and then kills herself, or it’s the other way around. And are we to take Kent’s “My master calls me, I must not say no” as his impending suicide? That’s how I’ve always assumed it.
The inclusion of Hamlet makes me assume that he’s speaking of Ophelia, although I think her state of mind would make any conclusions about suicide somewhat questionable.
What of Macbeth? Does it ever clearly say that Lady M kills herself? I’m looking at the MIT version of the text right now and it goes straight from “The queen my lord is dead” right into to-morrow and to-morrow, with no real explanation in between.

7 thoughts on “Suicide in Shakespeare

  1. Lady M's suicide comes through Malcolm, at the very end of the play: "Who, as 'tis thought, by self and violent hands / Took off her life" — though I suspect that, as with Ophelia, the line between suicide and madness-induced accidental death is a pretty thin one.

  2. Damn. Cass beat me to it. Though my wife often chastises me on the difference between madness and sleep-walking. Lady M isn't mad – at least we never see her so. Instead she's re-enacting the events that led them to this terrible state, and doing so while she's asleep.

  3. Okay, now you've got me making lists in my head.

    Brutus, Cassius, Casca, Portia (reference to Cato Sr. as well).
    Romeo, Juliet.
    Antony, Cleopatra, Iras, Charmian.
    Lady Macbeth.
    Goneril, Kent.

    That's all the suicides I can come up with.

  4. How about Timon of Athens? It's not exactly crystal clear, but he writes his epitaph, predicts his own death,and makes some oblique comments about hanging from a tree.

  5. With Hamlet, obviously not an actual suicide, but I wonder if he also talks about Hamlet's depression & thoughts of suicide ("to be or not to be" and all that).

  6. Timon seems to die of sheer bile; it doesn't strike me that he does anything to hasten his own end. To the contrary, he's digging for roots to eat and is disappointed to find gold instead.

    Kent can be understood as announcing his suicide, certainly, but I think he works just as well as "dying of a broken heart," and recognizing his heart is about to give out owing to an advanced case of symbolic necessity. His generation, a generation of prosperity and honor…a generation that owned a golden age, has come to an end with the death of Lear. Obviously, his own heart is about to fail, just through the sheer force of the story. I don't think he has to lift a hand against himself to make it happen. If I were playing Kent, I think I'd probably put my hand to my chest and breathe with some difficulty in that last scene.

  7. I think they'll probably spend a while talking about Gloucester's attempted suicide that Edgar thwarts, because that's the scene in the play most concerned with the motives for and ethical implications of suicide.

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