Suicide is an important motif in Hamlet. We encounter the contemplation of suicide, and even the act itself (maybe). What does this play say about suicide?
I picked this question, not because it seems most central to my schema of Hamlet (although that does play part), but because I never even considered the Queen’s death a suicide until someone mentioned it during the panel discussions, and never considered Ophelia’s death not a suicide until we talked about it during the panel discussions. It’s kind of weird how different people can read the same exact text, and can vehemently argue against one another a completely different meaning to that same text.
While I really did consider the fact that the Queen’s death could be a suicide and that Ophelia’s death could have been an accident, I think that the play frames suicide as being a reward of sorts to those who deserve an escape. It’s more or less Shakespeare playing God and determining who seems the most innocent yet troubled to readers before giving the troubled character what would traditionally be considered a tragic death by suicide, but really ends up being a saving grace for them. Suicide isn’t always tragic, essentially.
The first instance of suicidal thoughts is actually pretty close to the beginning of the play, setting up suicide as a theme throughout the play. After Uncle-Daddy essentially tells Hamlet to get over his father’s death, Hamlet says “O, that this too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw and resolve itself into a dew, Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!” (I.ii.131-134). At this point in the play, we don’t know a whole lot about Hamlet but most readers kind of feel bad for him and understand his craving for suicide. His noble father has been killed; his uncle is marrying his mom not much after his father’s death and everything is seemingly falling apart. Shakespeare is setting up the notion of suicide as a more or less acceptable escape rewarded to those who are being imposed upon with troubles. The only thing stopping Hamlet is his faith, and most of us readers at this point are rooting for Hamlet at this point in the novel (which is a little weird because we were kind of cheering him on to commit suicide…?), although that is soon to change.
Not long after we start to feel bad for Hamlet, we start to see that maybe he’s a little creepier and demented that we initially anticipated. He starts rebelliously talking to ghosts and then Ophelia claims that Hamlet “took me by the wrist and held me hard; Then goes he to the length of all his arm, And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow, he falls to such perusal of my face As he would draw it. Long stay’d he so” (II.i.98-102). We then later see that Hamlet wants to frame the new King for his father’s death in a very convoluted way. Hamlet says that “I’ll have these players Play something like the murder of my father Before mine uncle. I”ll observe his looks; I’ll tent him to the quick. If he but blench, I know my course” (II.ii.575-579). He starts getting a little creepier and little less innocent with each line.
Again, Hamlet considers suicide, proclaiming “To be, or not to be, that is the question” (III.i.64), shortly before cutting off ties with Ophelia abruptly and pursuing his odd plan. I, at least, no longer felt bad for Hamlet anymore once reaching this point in the play and could not deem that he deserved a suicide to take away all his troubles, as he was creating more troubles left and right.
Ophelia, on the other hand, has a pretty sad life. She’s told what to do (and what not to do) constantly by her insane and nosey dad and dumb brother. She also thinks Hamlet is in love with her until one day he cuts all ties and acts like nut-job (whether that’s intentional or not is a different question so I won’t get into that). She literally has nothing to live for, even before her once lover kills her father. After some psychosis that was almost completely ignored after Polonius’ death because everybody was too busy worrying about dumb ol’ Hamlet, the Queen announces to Laertes that Ophelia drowned. The Queen says that “there is a willow grows aslant a brook, That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream. Therewith fantastic garlands did she make Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples that liberal shepherds give a grosser name, But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them. There on the pendant boughs her crownet weeds Clambering to hang, and envious sliver broke, When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up; Which time she chaunted snatches of old lauds, As one incapable of her own distress, Or like a creature native and indued Unto that element; but long it could not be Till her garments, heavy with their drink, Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodius lay To muddy death” (IV.vii.184-201). Yes, that was a really long quote but it proves my point: there’s a whole lot of speculation about her death and not a whole lot of facts. Regardless of whether we think it was an intentional suicide or one caused by her psychotic state, the notion of suicide being an escape for characters framed as most disadvantaged is furthered by Ophelia’s death.
Last but not least: the Queen. While some speculate that she did commit suicide by denying the King’s advice to not drink the poisoned cup, I really don’t think that it was intentional. She was just thirsty, and I see her action more of a feminist notion than anything by Shakespeare. If she did know it was poisoned and was drinking it intentionally in an effort to commit suicide, I don’t think she would have announced “No, no! the drink, the drink!—O my dear Hamlet!—The drink, the drink! I am poison’d” (V.ii.308-309). Not only does it not make logical sense for that to be an act of suicide, it also lines up with what my thoughts are on what the play says about suicide. The Queen isn’t really viewed as a selfless or disadvantaged or innocent character by most people. In fact, most readers I talked to thought she was pretty rotten for marrying her late husband’s brother so shortly after death. The idea that she didn’t commit suicide and that idea that she was a pretty rotten character reinforce the notion that suicide in this play is only reserved for the disadvantaged or innocent characters.
While one could argue that the Queen’s death was a suicide and that Ophelia’s death was not, it just doesn’t sit well with me to go with that. While it’s a little backwards to think that Shakespeare is saying that the most innocent and disadvantaged of characters deserve suicide, if you put yourself in their shoes, you’d probably want that too. This is a weird form of martyrdom on Shakespeare’s part, but it works well in Hamlet.