In the Roman plays it (suicide) is justified by History; and for the others the audience is asked to exchange for a moment its Christian morality for the more primitive pagan sentiment, a less noble feeling, doubtless, but one which is perfectly intelligible to all men because it is instinctive. This, then, is the true attitude of Shakespeare towards suicide. It is an attitude which implies no moral theory, which has, in fact, nothing to do with morality, being determined wholly by the laws of art. (Hanford, 1912, p.396)
To a partial extent I agree with Hanford’s statement that Shakespeare’s decisions for portrayal of suicide are choices driven by history, storytelling and rooted in art. When solely examining Shakespeare’s female suicides, there is strong evidence of the suicides being justified by both history and art, however, there are arguably moments in his dramas when a modern audience is very obviously encouraged to question the morality of the circumstances of female death. When raised in a current context, it is paramount to take into account, Hanford’s statement was made in 1912 and therefore a modern analysis, more inclusive of moral questioning, will reflect changes in society.
When exploring the role of female suicide within Shakespeare, it is important to consider the historical societal developments that impact analysis; it is equally crucial to be conscious of the social and religious beliefs of the audience Shakespeare was writing for. Though his intent was to create drama via suicide, arguably his dramatic presentations also reflect multiple attitudes towards suicide. In Shakespearean times, suicide was regarded as ‘self murder’ and both church and state regarded the illegal act as a mortal sin (Suicide in Shakespeare’s Plays & Elizabethan Times, 2020). In Elizabethan society, God’s command ‘Thou shalt not kill’ included ‘self-murder’; ‘Shakespeare knew this well and his dramatic instinct bade him attribute these dominant sentiments to the greater number of his Christian characters’ (Hanford, 1912, p.382).
These attitudes offer explanation as to why Shakespeare often chose settings for his plays that were distanced from England to foreign settings; in my examples, Romeo and Juliet is set in Italy, Julius Caesar in Rome. Removing the stories from England, and relocating them, eased the discomfort caused by the suicides and gave room for Elizabethan audiences to feel sympathy, rather than condemn the suicide victim as they would in their own society. However, even during Shakespeare’s lifetime, people were beginning to challenge ‘religious rejection of suicide… suicide was becoming more exposed and more tolerated in the early modern era and literature followed suit’ (Zamani and Abbasi, 2015, p.1150). The societal upheaval during the Renaissance called controversial issues into question and Shakespeare’s portrayals of suicide highlight those moral and ethical disputes.
Upon analysis, it is crucial to note that presentation of suicide in Shakespeare’s Roman plays contrasts to Elizabethan moral codes; ‘in the Roman plays generally, the characters speak of suicide from the Roman point of view, a point of view which would have been brought home by the narrative of Plutarch even if Shakespeare had not been familiar with it from other sources’ (Hanford, 1912, p.385); for Romans, suicide was valued as an act of honour. Hanford highlights how Shakespeare’s suicides are presented differently within the Roman plays, regardless of his personal attitude. His approach is appropriate for the plays’ setting; however, this sense of honour is also an attitude to suicide that the Renaissance period would have examined.
This essay seeks to explore the subtleties in how Shakespeare uses female suicide in his plays and what we can learn from their presentations: was Shakespeare emphasizing some moral theory, or were his words driven by art, as argued by Hanford? Within Shakespeare’s plays, there are notably six female suicides, in chronological order: Juliet, Portia, Ophelia, Goneril, Lady Macbeth, and Cleopatra. This essay focuses on the first two female suicides in the tragedies; the focus on Juliet and Portia is not only for conciseness, but because of the contrast between the Christian and Roman portrayals of female suicide; additionally, because their respective suicides are defined, to differing degrees, by their relationships with male protagonists.
By specifically exploring these two female suicides rather than the more widely addressed male tragic heroes, this essay highlights how the act of female suicide coincides with Hanford’s and other critical views on Shakespeare’s use of suicide, but furthermore, often serves a purpose to enhance the plot and character of male counterparts.
Within Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare uses the impulse of suicide in a way that heightens the intensity and passion of love. In one reading, we can identify Juliet’s actions (similar to that of Portia), as being triggered by the male characters, specifically her father and Romeo. Looking at her suicide from a historical patriarchal analysis, the male dominance over her life appears to be the catalyst for her misfortune. Her female lack of autonomy would not have appeared out of the ordinary to an Elizabethan audience in the same way it does to a modern audience. In a modern light, we identify suicide as the result of oppression, but foremost, to convey the intensity of love.
It could alternatively be argued that Juliet’s suicide is a further act of attempting to maintain control over her life; Shakespeare could be subverting the traditional portrayal of a female during the time of writing. Juliet is subject to the male gaze, but continues to challenge it, to the point of death. In the balcony scene, we witness her language show her want for change. Firstly, she suggests to Romeo ‘deny thy father and refuse thy name’ (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.37), however in the patriarchal society she does not possess the voice to create change. ‘Juliet can say whatever she wants, but her language has no power to change reality…. because Juliet does not have the power to shape Romeo through her gaze she turns her gaze upon herself, an element she believes she can control’ (Thompson, 2011, p.40); ‘If thou wilt not, be but sworn my love / And I’ll no longer be a Capulet’ (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.38-9); a change of name is impossible as she is completely under the control of her father who must approve the marriage. It is evident she understands her absence of power as she continues to consider what Romeo can do with his inherent power via gender.
For Juliet, her death is the only thing she truly has control over, and she recognises this as her power. Juliet uses her life to redeem assistance from the friar: ‘If in thy wisdom thou canst give no help, /Do thou but call my resolution wise, / And with this knife I’ll help it presently’ (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 4.1.53–5). Hawkins (2016), notes, ‘Suicide becomes a reclaiming of oneself from outside forces and desires’. Shakespeare uses the notion of death to give her masculine actions that begin to subvert gender stereotypes. This is continued in her very masculine actual death, in which she stabs herself, in contrast to Romeo taking poison, which was considered easier and therefore a more feminine death. ‘When women touch weapons, often there are special circumstances which account for this unwomanly behaviour’ (van Hoof,2002, p.49); fourteen-year old Juliet completing her suicide with no hesitancy is another example of Shakespeare using suicide to subvert gender constructs and heighten the drama.
Both Juliet’s feigned and real death are interesting contributions to how we understand her role. ‘Juliet sees her feigned death as a means of rebellion and escape, but her actual death can be viewed as the means by which she is punished for her rebellion. Nonetheless, her actual death is also the catalyst that leads her to be accepted by society.’ (Thompson, 2011, p.44); as highlighted by Thompson, both demonstrations of her suicide have in common their positive outcomes. Firstly, her feigned death frees her from the forced marriage to Paris and transforms her father’s emotions of seeing her as a disobedient daughter into mourning for his lost child – ‘Alack, my child is dead / And with my child my joys are buried’ (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 4.5.63-4). Furthermore, she uses ‘suicide’ as an action of rebellion against her father, indicating to the audience her intentions and defiance. Secondly, her real death ignites the ending of conflict between the Capulets and Montagues; ‘The note on which the drama closes is not of reproach but of mingled pity and admiration’.