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