No person on this earth, not mother or father, or brother or sister or friend, is closer to us than ourselves. We are far too special for anyone else to fully feel exactly what we feel as individuals, to wholly understand us. Our thoughts are our thoughts, our heartbeats and breathing, the rhythms that keep us alive, our secrets, belong to each one of us alone. No one can ever really monitor us, no matter how empathetic they may be, no matter how hard they try with searching, sensitive questions, with touches and other physical intimacies of love, even with the most elegant of diagnostic instruments that modern science can contrive.
At times, in the dull days and the dark nights, we suddenly lose that special, exclusive contact with ourselves. We cannot understand ourselves any longer. We feel lonely, sad, hopeless, perhaps guilty and helpless. We wish to die.
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In formulating an answer it is helpful to return to Hamlet and ask why the fictive, onstage Danish patriarchy embodied in Hamlet constructs Ophelia as a suicide. First let us distinguish among two things, the first between suicide and chosen death. A chosen death kills a body to keep a self from collapsing into a failing body's incapacitating, incurable pain--that is, chosen death, like euthanasia, gives death to a no longer functioning biological body, but an unwanted death to a self that desires to go on living. Suicide, however, kills a body to obliterate an unwanted self. The second is a distinction between active and passive suicides. Active (or heroic) suicides are committed by individuals like Romeo and Juliet or Antony and Cleopatra who seem to have their wits about them, whereas passive (or abject) suicides are committed by individuals like Ophelia who seem not to have their wits about them.
The Idea of Suicide in Hamlet:
The gravediggers in act 5 of Hamlet are quite clear on this point: "if the man go to this water and drown himself, it is will he, nil he, he goes, mark you that, but if the water come to him, and drown him, he drowns not himself; argall [therefore], he that is not guilty of his own death, shortens not his own life" (Shakespeare, 15-19)! The terrible irony of the term, suicide is that it is never just a "self killing"; rather, suicide is a social vocation, a job (however unknown this may be to those killing themselves), though not a particularly remunerative one given that one's compensation for doing this job is to be misrepresented as a sick or evil aberration over which society has little or no control. Patriarchies manifest contempt for suicides because, of the people they exploit, suicides are the most subjected to their needs, the most given over to doing their dirty work. Thus, one reason that no one in the past, except marginalized emergent thinkers like Shakespeare, came anywhere close to an adequate understanding of suicide was that for centuries, suicide was so necessary to those in power that they could not afford to identify its cause, or solve what to them was not a problem to be solved, but a solution to a problem.
"O, that this too too solid flesh would melt" soliloquy (Shakespeare, 2007, I.ii.129-158). Now we may understand what led Durkheim's account of suicide awry. He assumed that suicide was a cultural problem, a site of loss, and an unwanted by product of power. Thus he did not see that for patriarchal societies, suicide is a gain, a solution to problems they cannot otherwise solve, and thus a necessary and desirable relation of power (Roy Walker, 1998).
If we were now to ask what patriarchal structures do to prevent suicides, the answer is simple: little or nothing. Despite rhetorical attacks, legal prohibitions, barbaric burial practices, and/or strategic feints in the direction of pretending to prevent them, such societies do not in fact go out of their way to prevent suicides (or, for that matter, many other forms of death) precisely because they can't do without them. Moreover, because they need suicides, they become quite good at producing them. In the face of this fact, our next question surely is, "But why did Ophelia commit suicide?"
At the beginning of the play, Ophelia is a happy, energetic young woman of fourteen or fifteen. She speaks with strength and wit to her brother as he leaves for Paris, and for some time she has been caught up in a love affair with Hamlet, a man twice her age. Agency, desire, and a sense of self are developing quickly. To use the play's imagery, Ophelia is an "infant of the spring," a "tender bud" enjoying "the morn and liquid dew of youth" (Shakespeare, 2007, 1.3.39, 41). However, as the play progresses she declines to melancholy and madness, and then, though we don't see this, she kills herself, the youngest person in the play to die. As this decline nears its end, her sense of self disintegrates. She withdraws into infantile, ritualistic behavior. With a collage of associative lyrical fragments ("snatches of old lauds" [hymns]), she tells the traumatic events of her life the only way she can, but no one on stage cares to understand echoes that carry "but half sense." As we watch this disintegration, and its tragic aftermath, we must ask: What causes Ophelia's suicide? Why does she give up? As critics, we may also ask: Why did Shakespeare put a suicide in this play? (Roy Walker, 1998)
To ask why Shakespeare included Ophelia's mad scenes and suicide in Hamlet is to ask why he developed a minor character that is present in only one scene of The Hystorie of Hamblet into a major character. As do the other adolescents Shakespeare added to his source, Ophelia creates a contrast to Hamlet by closing out an option Hamlet could have taken, but does not. Ophelia and the other adolescents also reveal a similarity. Try as they do to escape the lethal triangle of patience, revenge, or suicide, each ends up dead. The point of this multiplication is to make sure the audience realizes that Shakespeare is addressing a general problem, not just an individual one. Moreover, he is addressing this problem at a time in early modern history when suicide rates were rapidly escalating, and "suicide was punished more severely than ever before or afterwards" (W. Thomas MacCary, 1998)
In much the same way that Chapter 3 examines the forces that cause Hamlet to affect a lethal compromise between opposed parental demands, this chapter analyzes what Ophelia does in the face of an equally impossible demand (Shakespeare, 2007). However, to understand why she kills herself, we must first get beyond circumstances that, though they obviously contribute to her suicide, do not cause it. The cause is not the loss of her former king, her brother, her lover, and finally her father. These losses are devastating; nonetheless, they are only contributing circumstances, since not every teenage girl who suffers losses of this magnitude or greater commits suicide. Likewise, the cause of Ophelia's suicide is not the facts that, with Polonius dead, Hamlet out of reach, and Laertes in Paris, the men who are her "head" have left her without any rational source of control. Though attractive to many male critics, this "woman who can't make it without a male authority-figure" (W. Thomas MacCary, 1998), analysis of Ophelia's situation is deeply sexist, not to mention false, given that Claudius, and later, Horatio are present, but to no avail. Nor is the cause of her suicide the fact that she is a woman.
Though patriarchal societies have long maintained that female fragmentation, ambiguity, and chaos constitute a natural and sufficient explanation for why women go mad and commit suicide, surely this is a self-serving cover for the actual reasons. Ophelia's death is also not caused by her fear of being shamed and dishonored for having slept with Hamlet, or by the fact that, possibly pregnant, she has been abandoned by her lover, though shame, rejection, and the likelihood of further humiliation are also contributory circumstances. Nor is her suicide caused by the melancholy, despair, and madness that follow in the wake of loss, rejection, isolation, shame, and fear. Contrary to conventional belief, melancholy and madness do not cause suicide; rather, all three are the effects of a prior cause. That is, melancholy and madness, like loss and rejection, are the symptoms, the wobbles and lurches, a train manifests before it jumps its track, not the cause of these wobbles, lurches, and track jumping. Nor is her suicide caused by demons comes from hell to lure her to eternal damnation, though conservative early moderns would have thought no less. Nor, finally, is Ophelia's suicide caused by a desire to escape unbearable social restraints and thereby gain a brief flight of ecstatic freedom as an independent, though mad woman.
To be sure, madness allows her an emotional intensity and scope not available to proper women in early modern culture; in fact, it "enables her to assert her being; she is no longer enforced to keep silent and play the dutiful daughter" (W. Thomas MacCary, 1998). But as true as it may be that madness is perhaps the only way a young woman can be independent in a society as rigid as Ophelia's, such an unconscious acting out of feelings and desires too powerful to remain repressed or denied any longer is also not the cause of her suicide, though it is a temporary by-product. Surely such self-destructive forms of rage and honesty, of emotional intensity and independence cannot be powerful, long, or significant enough to be worth the price of a life. Though indeed, the public presence, the released ability to say anything in unshaped fashion, the opportunity to force everyone to look at and fear one's winks and nods and gestures, not to mention the chance to disobey patriarchal law and be oneself in the brief moments madness provides before one kills oneself, are clearly better than the alternatives Ophelia and millions of suicidal women like her face who have no better way to acquire power and freedom.
Why then does the patriarchy Hamlet represents need to produce Ophelia as a suicide? To answer this question, observe that at the beginning of act 5, there is an open grave in the middle of the stage. Ophelia is brought in and laid in this grave with scant, forced honors. Laertes and Hamlet jump into the grave, argue and gesticulate, and then jump out as the scene changes.
Patriarchies use suicide to purge women who individualize themselves and, since Ophelia seeks to do this, she must be dumped in a grave. But why rely on such an indirect technology as suicide to get rid of such threats to male dominance? Why not murder/execute transgress women the same way Polonius and Claudius are murdered/executed? For several reasons:
Ø Because the blood of such women would pollute patriarchal hands;
Ø Because it is taboo to take up phallic arms against women in Hamlet's father's culture;
Ø Because from a patriarchal perspective all the women in this play must die, it is useful to let both of them kill themselves: who (a man can then ask) can be held responsible for the actions of deranged women?
To make women prove--by committing an unforgivable mortal sin--that they are the demonic "things of nothing" patriarchal men take them to be, and thus to prove as well that their suicides, technically capital felonies, are self executions and thus are forms of justice; and
Among other reasons is to solve the problem of gender sameness. When women threaten to become too much like men, suicide is an effective mechanism by which to reestablish an allegedly unbridgeable difference. To be sure, wealth, power, education, mobility, and status establish such difference, but these mechanisms are notoriously fickle, subject to reversals, not to mention subject to appropriation by women. Suicide has the advantage of creating irreversible difference because, in its passive or (allegedly) female form, it displays difference as painful depression, chaos, psychosis, and eventually as death. Over such abject and dead selves, patriarchal men and women feel superior, powerful, and immune from death. They feel that their world is no longer out of joint if only because someone else's world is thoroughly and permanently disjointed. In short, Ophelia's role as a dead woman is (to borrow a line from Judith Butler) to "be" precisely what Hamlet is not-that is, dead (Roy Walker, 1998).
Why patriarchies construct suicides is that once Ophelia's grave is opened in their midst, a number of onstage Danes will be able to use this aperture into the void as a bottomless pit to dump any toxic-waste product they feel they must eliminate to survive, be happy, excel, or escape punishment. In Shakespeare terms, Ophelia and her grave function "as a hole" (Shakespeare, 2007, 71). Think, for example, about the sorts of toxic waste Hamlet is dumping into Ophelia's grave, and thus how necessary this hole is to his program of self-purification.
All those suicidal feelings Hamlet has been soliloquizing about, all that "to be or not to be" (Shakespeare, 2007) melancholia which has been paralyzing his patriarchal identity and delaying his phallic action. Notice that it is not until he dips himself into Ophelia's open grave and as it were, washes himself clean in the bathtub of her grave, passing to her the dirt of his suicidal tendencies, that he is able to feel that his psychic diversity is healed, and that he can act, at last, as a unitary and phallic man--as "Hamlet the Dane."
This antic disposition marked him as mad in the eyes of the court. Having progressively had this antic disposition transferred onto her from the beginning of the play, Ophelia now is mad, and Hamlet becomes sane at the very moment that he drops the last of his anxieties, doubts, despair, and manic-depressive vacillations into the void of her grave, this second lethal orifice opened up by Ophelia's body, her female "nothing."