Hamlet Dramaturgy

Informing Bethany Lutheran College's Spring 2013 Production. Shows at: April 19, 20, 26, 27 at 7:30pm and April 21 at 2pm

Suicide in Elizabethan England

Hamlet’ s “to be or not to be” speech is probably the most famous monologue in theatrical history and by now perhaps it is easy to take for granted that Hamlet is thinking about committing suicide. Just for historical and spiritual context though, I think we need to review this idea a little more deeply.

In Shakespeare’s time suicide would have been more than just frowned upon. People who were caught attempting suicide would have been put on trial and punished.

That’s right, kids, suicide was ILLEGAL.

As if that was not sad enough, if you were successful in your suicide attempt, you would be buried in disgrace outside of the city limits and it would be officially agreed upon that you were a condemned soul. This is a difficult concept to really understand in our culture, but honor was a really big deal in Elizabethan England. Arguably, honor was everything because it affected everything.

Your place in society was directly relatable to the future of your children and how comfortable (or uncomfortable) your life would be. In committing suicide you not only lost your own personal honor, but the honor of your family would be marred forever.



Edwin Booth as a contemplative Hamlet. 

Let’s compare this to our culture at Bethany Lutheran College, shall we? Let’s say it was found out that you became overwhelmed with the stress of school, the drama of life, and the prospects of what you’re going to do with this mountain of college debt and you decide to swallow a bunch of pills to just end it all. You would be taken to the doctor’s, have your stomach pumped and before you would even leave the hospital on your feet, a bunch of lawyers are probably already in your parent’s living room suing them for your despair.

After the government had successfully taken all of your money (making it officially a mountain of college debt) you would be removed from all social media, none of your friends would talk to you anymore, and you would most likely be sent to Montana or somewhere isolated. Your parents would probably lose their jobs and your siblings would never be allowed into college or any other form of society. That is kind of like how it would be.

That puts a little different spin on Hamlet pondering suicide.

He is not only contemplating the physical act of killing himself, but weighing the understanding that his soul would spend eternity in hell with the social disgrace on his person as well as on his beloved father’s name. Hearing these thoughts from a character that the audience empathizes with in Shakespeare’s time would have been incredibly shocking, certainly Shakespeare was a bold man for writing them.

Lydia Grabau, Dramaturg

15 comments on “Suicide in Elizabethan England

  1. Kaitlyn
    February 22, 2013

    Hey Bro you’re cool.

  2. Michael
    February 22, 2013

    What makes it all the more interesting and bold is that it seems that Hamlet is doubting whether his suicide would actually cause him to be damned. He calls it courage to act rather than to “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Another question in the play is that of the role of fate. How noble is it for a person to merely let fate happen to him? But not knowing, doubt, “conscience does make cowards of us all.” It is a bold assertion on Hamlet’s and Shakespeare’s part to say that, except that “the dread of something after death, the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will.” It is courage, Hamlet attests, to face the unknown, despite what fear there be.

    • hamletdramaturgy
      February 22, 2013

      Totally! And I think this ties it pretty neatly with the idea that Hamlet is attending Wittenberg and influenced by the Reformation. Michael, what if your character actually had Martin Luther as a professor?! It kind of makes me want to reread the things Luther would have been writing while Shakespeare was writing Hamlet.

      • Michael
        February 22, 2013

        Well, Luther died in 1546, and Hamlet was probably written ca. 1600-01….

      • hamletdramaturgy
        February 22, 2013

        Yes. Do you know off hand if everything Luther wrote was published during his lifetime or if some of it was made public posthumously? I know there is probably no way to know for sure that Shakespeare was reading Luther but that would be a really fantastic coincidence.

      • Michael
        February 22, 2013

        I believe most of what he wrote was published during his lifetime. I can’t think of anything offhand that was done posthumously, but I know that there was some work done by friends and acquaintances of Luther to publish his Table Talks and the like. Otherwise, most of Luther’s theology and writing would have been published and rather well-known.

      • hamletdramaturgy
        February 22, 2013

        Interesting. Shakespeare definitely would have known Luther’s work, regardless of whether he specifically imagined Hamlet learning from him.

      • Michael
        February 22, 2013

        Agreed. I think it safe to assume that the religious turmoil of the day would at least have been in the back of his mind.

    • baddhorse
      August 21, 2016

      Good observation. I think that’s because Hamlet was not considering suicide. Read the monologue again. He was considering assassination, which would avenge his father but result in his death and chaos for his country.

  3. Josiah
    February 22, 2013

    Lydia, given the interest you have in “Catholicism in Hamlet” and the discussion we are having here about the possibility of Luther’s theology influencing Shakespeare, I think as you continue to study this play you should take note of any “religious loyalties” that Shakespeare makes (whether his writing reflects Lutheran/Protestant or Catholic ideals), and try to find where the character Hamlet fits within the spectrum.

  4. Josiah
    February 22, 2013

    Also, it would be neat to consider the role of confession in Hamlet. Shakespeare kind of makes a big deal out of it. Hamlet’s father is condemned after death because he did not confess his sins. The ghost says this of his condition at death:

    “Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
    Unhousel’d, disappointed, unaneled,
    No reckoning made, but sent to my account
    With all my imperfections on my head”

    Later, when Hamlet is finally about to kill his uncle, he relents because he sees his uncle confessing, and does not want to usher the villain to heaven.

  5. Rebecca
    February 23, 2013

    Suicide was still illegal in this country in the last century. And as recently as 50 years ago many Christian church bodies would not bury those who had committed suicide as it was seen as a rejection of God (think Judas Iscariot). These were not just Elizabethan ideas.

    • Michael
      February 24, 2013

      Thus it is not so far removed that we cannot understand the plight Hamlet has in considering his suicide.

  6. Maddy
    May 11, 2017

    If I am correct, there are multiple references to the Protestant Reformation throughout Hamlet. First, Claudius does not want Hamlet to go to school in Whittenburg due to the reformation. If Hamlet was converted, that could potentially cause multiple problems for the throne of Denmark. Second, and arguably a bit more obvious is his “politic worms” speech. Though he is discussing the corruption of the throne, it is directly referring to The Diet of Worms (possibly showing that he thought corruption of the church too?– just a thought)
    In his to be or not to be monologue, he is clearly contemplating suicide. It makes sense too. He is dealing with an incredible task of killing the king, but also trying to obey his father and “leave [Gertrude] to Heaven.” Which, by the way, is another reason for Hamlet’s internal conflict. Leaving his mother be after the incest and terrible things she had done (even if she was unaware of Clausius’s alternative motives) was no easy thing to do. Yes, it makes perfect sense to be contemplating suicide.
    Sorry if you don’t agree. Please correct me if I’m wrong, I’m only a sophomore in high school

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This entry was posted on February 20, 2013 by in Shakespeare/Hamlet History, Text and tagged , , , .

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