Suicide in the Plays of Shakespeare and Its Perception Through History
In this essay, I’m going to explore the perspectives on death and dying in Shakespeare’s time and today, specifically, in his play “Antony and Cleopatra”. Tudor and Elizabethan poets exalted the virtues of suicide if committed in preservation of one’s honor. While the cause of much soliloquizing, suicide was a respectable exit for Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. There are more than twenty suicides in Shakespeare’s plays (thirteen explicit, and many more implied offstage), committed in the different circumstances that one may find in life, and each one contributes to the meaning of the play in which it occurs. At least seven are depicted as being really admirable in their context. Four suicides are assisted, and at least three others are imitative. In most cases Shakespeare presents suicide sympathetically and, rather than reproach a character, the audience is left with a mixture of pity and admiration for the victim.
In one sense the suicide of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes may perhaps be said to be associated with intemperance or ignominy. Their downfall is the outcome of some flaw or weakness in their natures. Thus the suicide of Romeo may be said to be associated with the intemperance, in so far as Romeo’s passion was excessive and unrestrained; and, with rather more justice, Antony’s suicide may be said to be associated with the ignominy, in that Antony’s whole Egyptian life was ignominious. But to admit this is by no means to admit that any stigma of intemperance or ignominy is attached to the manner of their death. The reverse seems rather to be the case. The death of Brutus, Cassius, Antony, Cleopatra and Othello is immediately associated with a certain greatness of soul. Therefore, with Antony and Cleopatra it is the intensity and utter abandon of their passion, the quality that redeems it from unqualified grossness, which at the end is mainly impressed upon us. Their final moments are marked, moreover, by an unmistakable moral elevation.
The history of social attitudes toward suicide is the history of official outrage. The essentially private gesture of ending one’s own life has long been met with public indignation and dealt with as an act of criminality or lunacy. Throughout history, bodies of suicides have been treated with degradation. In the past, corpses of ‘self-murderers’ were not only denied public burial, they were hanged by their feet, dragged through the street, burned, and thrown on public garbage heaps.
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In this essay, I’m going to explore the perspectives on death and dying in Shakespeare’s time and today, specifically, in his play “Antony and Cleopatra”. Tudor and Elizabethan poets exalted […]