Raise your hand if you have taught romeo and juliet or julius caesar
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Raise your hand if you have taught Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar. How would Shakespeare and his audiences have felt about suicide?. The main texts:. Macbeth – Lady Macbeth’s madness and suicide I Henry IV – Hotspur’s pre-battle “Die all, Die merrily” speech (4.1)

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Raise your hand if you have taught Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar

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Raise your hand if you have taught Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar


How would Shakespeare and his audiences have felt about suicide?


The main texts:

  • Macbeth – Lady Macbeth’s madness and suicide

  • I Henry IV – Hotspur’s pre-battle “Die all, Die merrily” speech (4.1)

    • Sidenote: Originally, I was interested in looking at Falstaff’s informal use of “suicide language” such as “Hang thyself,” but decided that it would be a bit unrelated to the rest of the research


What would Shakespeare have called it?

Excerpt from the OED:

For earlier synonyms see SELF-DESTRUCTION, -HOMICIDE, -KILLING, -MURDER, -SLAUGHTER.

a. The or an act of taking one's own life, self-murder. Phr. to commit suicide.

1651CHARLETONEphes. & Cimm. Matrons (1668) 73 To vindicate ones self from..inevitable Calamity, by Sui-cide is not..a Crime. 1656BLOUNTGlossogr., Suicide, the slaying or murdering of himself; self-murder. 1732Lond. Mag. I. 251 Love and Jealousy, the old unfashionable causes of Suicide. 1765-8ERSKINEInst. Law Scot. IV. iv. §46 Suicide, which is a species of murder, ought to be governed by the common rules of murder. 1781COWPERTruth 20 Charge not..Your wilful suicide on God's decree. 1817SELWYNLaw Nisi Prius (ed. 4) II. 970 A proviso..declaring the policy to be void in case the insured should..commit suicide. 1891FARRARDarkn. & Dawnlxvi, The terrible disillusionment and suicides of Gallio and of Seneca.


Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene(c. 1590)

  • The Red Crosse Knight encounters Despayre in Book 1, Canto IX

  • Despayre lays out an argument for suicide that almost persuades the knight

  • The knight is ultimately rescued by Una (truth)


“Instigated by the devil”? (1685)


What did the church say?

  • John Sym’sPreservative Against Self-Killing

  • John Donne’s Biathanatos(he is not as “anti-suicide” as some)

  • Judas’ self-hanging in the book of Matthew

  • Any other suggestions?


Early Psychiatry

  • Looking at the work of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) and his view of devils as only one contributor to “self-destructive” tendencies

  • Saw suicidal people as human


How have various productions portrayed Lady Macbeth’s suicide?

  • Is it played as certain or a rumor?

    • Malcolm’s speech is not certain about it

  • Is it kept offstage or brought “on-stage”

    (ex. Polanski version)

  • Are audiences meant to feel sympathetic or redeemed (and how is that played)?

  • Marvin Rosenberg’s The Masks Of Macbeth – detailed descriptions of a variety of productions


Still wondering…

Will this research give me the confidence and skills to approach the topic of suicide in a meaningful way with my students?

Will this research help make discussions of suicides in Shakespeare rich and meaningful to students?


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