To end itself by death:
suicide in Shakespeare's tragedies

Kirkland LR
South Med J 1999 Jul; 92(7):660-6


The tragedies of William Shakespeare make frequent use of suicide, some accomplished, some merely contemplated. Although his intent was their dramatic context, the Bard nonetheless clearly anticipated many features being discussed today, including assisted suicide, imitative ("copycat") suicide, and suicidal ideation by individuals with depression or disabilities. Recent debate over how often these factors influence the incidence of suicide rarely invokes their historical longevity. They are not new, so changes over the years in societal, religious, legal, and medical attitudes toward suicide must be considered when trying to understand their role. This review attempts to show that many such features of and attitudes toward suicide circa 1600 were perceived by Shakespeare and incorporated into his plays. In the 15 plays classified as tragedies, there are 13 definite and 8 possible suicides, ie, a total of 21 incidents for evaluation. Among the 13 overt suicides, at least 7 are depicted as being admirable under the circumstances at the time. Also, in various ways, 4 of these 13 were assisted, and at least 3 others contain an imitative element. Overall, the action of taking one's life is presented in a neutral or even favorable light, and the audience is left with a mingling of pity and admiration for the victim, not reproach.
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