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Themes of Suicide in Shakespeare's Hamlet

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 981 words Published: 10th May 2021

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In some cultures, suicide is considered honorable, but in most, it is considered a mortal sin.  Morals involved in suicide stem partly from religious views and partly from social classes.  In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, suicide is a persistent theme.  In Hamlet, the mortality and consequences of suicide are discussed thematically more than they are in other Shakespearean plays.  During the play, suicide is considered religiously and morally by Hamlet and Ophelia.  They agree on these aspects, but each treat suicide differently.

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The struggle between life and death consumes Hamlet.  He considers suicide, which is illustrated in many instances through the play.  In Hamlet’s  soliloquy “O that this too sullied flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into dew, or that the everlasting had not fixed his cannon “against self-slaughter” (1.2 128-132),  he expresses his wish to die and what is holding him back.  Hamlet wishes to die, but he cannot because it is a mortal sin to kill himself.  He believed suicide would lead to hell or purgatory.  One of the most famous soliloquies, the infamous “To be or not to be” speech, dealt with his fear of a horrible afterlife.  In this speech, Hamlet rationalized his hesitancy to kill himself.  “To die, to sleep, to sleep perchance the 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” (3.1. 65-68).  In effect, people must think before killing themselves because death is a gateway to the unknown.  In act three scene one, Hamlet expresses life is unbearable, but no one wants to go to a place that is unknown. He states, “And makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of?” (3.1.79-80).  In the end, Hamlet’s afraid of the afterlife and this leads him to not take his own life.

The theme of suicide is best played out at Ophelia’s funeral.  Act five scene one begins with the two clowns digging Ophelia’s grave and debating her burial.  First Clown: “Is she to be buried in Christian burial that willfully seeks her own salvation?” Second Clown: “I tell thee she is; and therefore, make her grave straight; the crowner hath sat on her, and finds it Christian burial.”  First Clown: “How can that be, unless she drowned herself in herown defense?”  Second Clown: “Why, 'tis found so.” (5.1.1-8).   Because suicide is a mortal sin, the clowns wonder whether she will have a Christian burial.  The harsh priest expresses his reluctance to provide her with full burial rites.  He states, “Her obsequies have been as far enlarged As we have warranty: her death was doubtful; And, but that great command o'ersways the order, She should in ground unsanctified have lodged Till the last trumpet: for charitable prayers, Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her; Yet here she is allow'd her virgin crants, Her maiden strewments and the bringing home Of bell and burial.”  (5.1.226-234)  Presumably, the "great command" was issued by King Claudius.  Without her royal ties, Ophelia would have been buried in the unsanctified ground. 

Lastly, the culminating theme of suicide is the death of the entire royal family.  During the carnage, Laertes is slashed with his own poisoned sword.  Claudius is killed by his own poisoned sword.  Gertrude willfully drinks from the chalice that poisons her, and Hamlet dies because his indecisiveness for revenge has led to the royal family killing itself through betrayal, self-corruption and sin.

Works Cited

1.   Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Shakespeare Through the Ages. United States. Infobase Publishing.

2009 Print. A selection of the best criticism on the play through the centuries,
introductory essays on the development of criticism on the play in each century,
a brief biography of Shakespeare, a plot synopsis, list of characters, and analysis of several key passages and an introduction by Harold Bloom.

2.   Branagh, Kenneth, Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. United States. WW Norton & Company.

1996. Print. This volume includes Branagh's introduction and screenplay adaptation

Shakespeare's text.

3.   Held, George F. Hamlet’s Other Purpose.  United States. Lulu Press. 2014. Print"

4.   Langly, Eric. Narcissism and Suicide in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries. United States. Oxford University Press. 2009. Print.

 5.   Kellog, Abner. Shakespeare’s Delineations of Insanity, Imbecility, and Suicide. United States. Hurd and Houghton, 1866. Print.

6.   Peragine, Juliana “Under Pressure: Suicide, Gender, and Agency in Hamlet.2016


7.   Petronella, Vincent F. “Hamlet's ‘To Be or Not to Be’ Soliloquy: Once More Unto the

Breach.” Studies in Philology, vol. 71, no. 1, 1974, pp. 72–88., www.jstor.org/stable/4173832.

8.   Smith, Barbara. “Neither Accident nor Intent: Contextualizing the Suicide of Ophelia.” South

Atlantic Review, vol. 73, no. 2, 2008, pp. 96–112. JSTOR, JSTOR,


9.   Smith, James. “The Funeral of Ophelia.” The Irish Monthly, vol. 79, no. 932, 1951,

pp. 60–66. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20516317.

10.   Richards, Irving T. “The Meaning of Hamlet's Soliloquy.” PMLA, vol. 48, no. 3, 1933,

pp. 741–766. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/458339.


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