Suicide is an important motif in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We encounter the contemplation of suicide, and even the act itself (maybe). To understand what the play says about suicide, we’ll look at the two most likely cases of suicide (Ophelia and maybe Gertrude) and a few other instances where Hamlet himself considers suicide.
Throughout the play, Ophelia is portrayed as a obedient and meek young woman, and every single one of her actions seem to be dictated by the men surrounding her, especially her father, Polonius. However, the death of Polonius — the single most influential person in her life and one whom Ophelia is very dependent upon — throws her entire life out of balance. Afterwards, she descends into madness, roaming and singing in the court and handing out flowers to each of the characters. When Gertrude informs us that Ophelia has drowned, she describes how Ophelia was “like a creature native and indued Unto that element: but long it could not be till that her garments, heavy with their drink, pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death” (iv.vii.179-183). As a woman who had, prior to her father’s death, made no decisions of her own, her suicide represents the first time that she has absolute control over her life. Her choice to not save herself is an outward expression of her inner feelings of depression, loneliness and turmoil.
Likewise, whether Gertrude’s death was a suicide is also widely debated today. For my own panel discussion, I had the question about familial relationships, and believed that Gertrude truly loved Hamlet. After Hamlet informs her to stop sleeping with Claudius because the latter had killed her husband (in the same scene that Polonius is killed), I felt that Gertrude began to look for some opportunity to tell (or show) her son that she did not intentionally seek to abandon either Hamlet or his father and was willing to help him. Thus, deeming her death a suicide made more sense in this context, as an effort to both save and warn her son no matter the consequences (King Claudius: Gertrude, do not drink. Gertrude: I will, my lord; I pray you, pardon me” (v.ii.290-291)). Additionally, Gertrude’s decision to drink the poisoned cup as an act of defiance and control would parallel the circumstances of Ophelia’s death. Both women, in committing suicide (if we choose to see both deaths as suicides), are exercising their only form of control over their lives.
On the other hand, Hamlet, who frequently contemplates suicide, never actually commits the act. In his famous “To be or not to be” speech, Hamlet asks “who would fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns” (iii.i.76-80). The fear of what comes after death, as well as the fear of possibly not going to Heaven (as suicide was widely viewed as un-Christian) obstructs him from carrying out the act himself, but in this soliloquy, the analysis of the reasons behind suicide show that not only is Hamlet seriously considering suicide at this point himself, but is also considering why some people may not end their lives and rather suffer through it.
While the women who actually commit suicide never once mention it, Hamlet is very outspoken and dramatic about the topic, especially during periods of inactivity in his life. Still, the three share one thing in common: once they find that they lack a purpose in this life, they begin to consider/actually commit suicide. For Ophelia, this was when her known world, centered around Polonius fell apart; Gertrude, when she finally understands what has happened, and what she has done to her deceased husband and her soon-to-be poisoned son; Hamlet, when he was stuck between believing the Ghost/killing his uncle or maintaining his loyalty to the King and Queen.The topic of suicide is heavily intertwined with some of the other topics (such as feminism, madness and tragic flaws), but shakespeare shows that once each of the characters reach this point, the sense of helplessness and worthlessness exceed their fears of the unknown and even the fear of not going to Heaven.