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Look to Hamlet for a stirring critique of suicide

Rory Kinnear as Hamlet (National Theatre)

I was interested to read Michael Alexander’s informative article about Shakespeare in the Herald last week here. Fr Dwight Longenecker has also written an interesting blog, laying out the reasons why he thinks our greatest national poet and dramatist, whose 400th anniversary we are currently celebrating, was probably a Catholic.

As Alexander writes, we will never know the answer to Shakespeare’s religious adherence for sure but I for one, having read books on Shakespeare by Fr Peter Milward SJ, Lady Clare Asquith and Peter Ackroyd, feel as certain as one can be that he lived, albeit in secret, the religion of his parents.

Can you separate a person’s faith from their art? I don’t think so, but people try to do it all the time. An English lecturer once told me that Dante was a great poet – if you discounted his Catholic faith. Dante certainly didn’t discount it. By the same token, it slightly annoys me when modern commentators appropriate Shakespeare to bolster their own agnostic prejudices. Theatrical director Richard Eyre has commented that Shakespeare’s plays reflect so many different views that their author can’t possibly believe anything (just like members of our intelligentsia).

The other day on the radio Sir Ian McKellen informed us that Shakespeare was above all an actor, writing for other actors (just like himself, obviously.) In the Telegraph yesterday, Sir Nicholas Hytner paid testimony to “our greatest writer’s continuing power to inspire and transform”. But inspire what and transform whom?

I think of the play Hamlet as being closest to the heart of its author. Thus I am always haunted by the lines in Hamlet’s early soliloquy, quoted by Alexander in his article referred to above: “O… that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” For a Christian, suicide is objectively a grave sin. For many suicides there may be factors that mitigate personal guilt, such as a mental illness. But when it is planned meticulously, well in advance, and executed with deliberate intent, how to respond? We must pray for the mercy of God on that person’s soul – but I still feel a shiver of horror.

I am saying all this because I learnt last week that a teacher from my old school, whom I had known many years ago, had committed suicide. She had many friends, did not have a terminal illness and was not in pain. But she lived alone, had no religious faith and was experiencing the progressive physical humiliations of old age, which she was not prepared to tolerate. She was a member of Dignitas, the organisation that promotes euthanasia, and followed its advice about the necessary pharmacology.

That this lady had come to this decision was a shock. But I was more shocked by the response of some people with whom I shared the news. They simply had no problem with the manner of her death: after all, it was a rational decision, she had left no dependents and it was her right to choose. Why not celebrate her life, they said, rather than focus on her death? My Shakespearean recoil struck them as sounding “judgmental” – and who was I to judge? I tried to explain that it was possible to leave judgment to God and still deplore such a desperate act but they disagreed.

I suspect that, living as we do in a society that values individualism above all else and which thinks that this life is all there is, defending and even applauding this kind of death will become more and more common. That is why we need to let the transformative power of Hamlet’s argument against suicide sink deep into our consciousness, and to learn by heart his inspiring lines later on in the play when he muses, “Who would fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life/ but that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns/ puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have/than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all…”

If fear of the possible eternal consequences of our actions makes us “cowards”, such cowardice can be seen, paradoxically, as life-enhancing.