Do ostriches really have suicidal tendencies?

Suicide in the theater? An analysis of the motif in works by William Shakespear, Botho Strauss and Sarah Kane


Title page

1 Introduction

2. Brief historical discourse on suicide

3. Shakespeare and the suicide
3. 1. To be or not to be - Hamlet's most famous monologue
puts suicide in a different light
3. 2. Gloster's attempted suicide from the tragedy "King Lear"
3. 3. The suicides from the tragedies “Hamlet”, “King Lear”, “Romeo and Juliet” and “Othello” in a brief discussion

4. Suicide in view of today's theater
4. 1. How does Botho Strauss deal with the subject of suicide in the play “Die Zeit und das Zimmer”?
4. 2. Sarah Kane and suicide under consideration of "4.48 Psychosis"

5. Summary

6. Bibliography

1 Introduction

There is only one really serious philosophical problem: suicide. The decision whether life is worth it or not answers the basic question of philosophy. Everything else - whether the world has three dimensions and the mind has nine or twelve categories - comes later. These are gimmicks; first of all we have to give an answer. (...) The worm sits in the heart of people. He has to be looked for there too. This deadly game, which leads from illuminating existence to escaping from life, has to be pursued and understood.1

At some point in the course of his evolution, humans must have discovered that they can kill not only others but also themselves. It can be assumed that his life has never been the same since then.2

Since ancient times, women as well as men have chosen death. This fact has never left people indifferent. There have been various philosophical approaches since ancient times, some of which are very contradictory. It has not yet been clarified whether man is granted the freedom to let his life of his own choosing.

During my stage work on the plays “King Lear” by William Shakespeare and “Die Zeit und das Zimmer” by Botho Strauss, I came across an interesting connection. Suicide creeps deeply into the pieces. While reading other dramas, I noticed that there too some people are drawn into dark abysses. Suicide seems to be a recurring puzzling theme in literature and theater, in art in general. What causes artists to rethink this topic over and over again? It is precisely this problem that interests me in this work, specifically related to theater.

In order to declare the entire history of the theater with reference to suicide, a book would be necessary. Therefore, in this short work, I would like to concentrate on two specific epochs, represented by individual dramatists.

On the one hand there is William Shakespeare, who is a representative of the Elizabethan age and was a thought leader of his time. On the other hand, in relation to today's theater, I am working on the play “Die Zeit und das Zimmer” by Botho Strauss, who worked as a playwright primarily for the Schaubühne Berlin and gave modern theater a new form. I would also like to refer to Sarah Kane as a representative of modern theater, who shocked the world with her plays and ultimately committed her own suicide. As an example I take the piece “4.48 Psychosis”.

My work does not take a philosophical point of view. Rather, it contains a subject-historical treatise on suicide in relation to the connections between reality and theater.

I suspect that suicide is a changing issue over time, and that change is obviously affecting the use of the theme in theater, as I have noticed in the plays above.

The term “suicide” has only been used since the first half of the 17th century; it was probably coined by theologians and, in a preliminary stage, goes back to Luther's “his self-murder” of 1527. Well over a hundred years younger, the term “suicide” is derived from Latin, which is mainly used in the medical field. The expression "suicide" was coined in the philosophical field. In my work I use the term “suicide” because it is the most common - without any evaluation.

2. Brief historical discourse on suicide

In this work I do not want to present a detailed historical elaboration on suicide. I'm more interested in how the playwrights I named in the introduction dealt with the subject in the background of their current affairs.

In order to be able to understand this better, it is essential to provide factual evidence of specific historical sections that appear to me to be necessary as background knowledge for my work.

As far as the research goes, suicide has mostly been taboo throughout human history and has been punished as a crime from the Middle Ages to the present day.3

Antiquity developed a different concept of life. Life in itself is not a value to it, but comes under moral terms as a life that is determined in one way or another. Therefore suicide was tolerated under certain circumstances, e.g. old age, illness. Often suicide was even valued as an act of individual expression, as shown by some famous traditional examples, such as Cato, Lucretia, Hannibal, Seneca or Socrates.4 Seneca writes in a "Letter on Suicide":

“Life (…) does not need to be held under all circumstances…. Therefore a wise man will live as long as he has to, not as long as he can ... "5

The great diversity of opinion among the philosophers, which ranged from negative to positive standpoints towards suicide, made the suicide very tolerant.

With the development of Christianity, the ancient understanding of suicide turned into a generally negative societal condemnation of that which excluded suicides to the worst degree from social rights, e.g. burial of the corpse, which reached its cruel climax in the Middle Ages. In the early days of Christian doctrine, the concept of suicide was out of the question as a crime. Six suicides are recorded in the Old Testament - Samson, Saul, Saul's Armored Person, Abimelech, Achitopel and Zimri - none of them is given an unfavorable interpretation. In the New Testament, Judas' suicide is just as soberly handed down, instead of adding to his crimes, the act appears more as a measure of his repentance.6

It was not until the 6th century AD that the church created a law condemning suicide in relation to the commandment “You shall not kill”. Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas expressly forbade suicide and declared it a mortal sin. This paved the way for the superstitious ideas that grew up around the suicidal corpses among the people. These ideas and their implementation on the corpses of suicides are documented in the "Concise Dictionary of German Superstition", such as: "Until recently, the corpses were not carried out through the door, but rather through a hole in the wall, through the window, through the roof or under the threshold (...)."

or: "The dead were also rendered harmless by stakes or heads."7

The chronicle of common suicide in the Middle Ages shows that suicides were punished by the courts and their corpses were hanged and previously dragged through the streets on horseback. The suicidal corpse was treated as cruelly as possible to prevent a return of the ominous spirit.8 As for the suicidal soul, the following superstition holds. She will not go to heaven or hell; "The devil doesn't catch her because he is lying in wait for her by the mouth and she escapes through the anus."9 Here the disparaging macabre attitude towards suicide becomes clear.

According to a paragraph of canon law, the suicides were denied a church burial in the cemetery, according to which their bodies were buried somewhere.10

This cruel disapproval lasted for centuries until a rethink was demanded in the course of the Enlightenment in the 18th century. Nevertheless, the last documented demotion of a suicide corpse was carried out in England in 1823. A man named Griffiths has been buried at an intersection. In England even in 1961 a failed suicide attempt could be punished with imprisonment.11

The rethinking began in the 16th, especially in the 17th century in the field of philosophy and literature, as a modern defense of suicide is stirring, which is based on the examples of antiquity. It tends to free the subject from the domination of the church.

The thought upheaval is limited to the philosophical realm. It does not succeed in moving society to a consistent rethink.12

3. Shakespeare and the suicide

“Is it then a sin to storm

To the secret house of death

Before death dares to come to us? "

W. Shakespeare

William Shakespeare, whose work extends from 1589 to 1613, examines the many facets, circumstances and motivations of this act on the basis of 52 suicides. He is not a moralist, but an observer of human existence. One of his most astute observations is the contrast between talking and doing. Hamlet philosophizes so much about suicide but does not kill himself. On the other hand, those who take their own life do it quickly and without a word. As if talking were a kind of form of therapy which, through speaking, gradually dissuaded the person concerned from the act. In her endless monologue, Lucretia finally realizes that her reflections keep her from doing what she does:

"The word has no power to save me."13

In Shakespeare's dramas there is no disapproval of suicide on the part of the author. The deed is committed by the “good guys” and the “bad guys” alike.

The English theater staged more than 200 suicides in 100 plays in 40 years (1580-1620).14 What made the subject suddenly emerge from its darkness?

Certainly the poets were concerned with the philosophers of their time who brought forth a different awareness of suicide. For example, Michel de Montaigne (1533 - 1592) wrote a few essays about the “most heterogeneous questions and problems that a person confronts” in which he defended suicide and a different awareness of death or the “art of dying”, as Montaigne puts it , developed. For example, in his essay “A Custom on Keos Island”, which gathers Montaigne's views on suicide, it says: “Death is all the more beautiful, the more man wants it himself. Our life depends on the will of others, death on our own will. "15

At the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century, the suicide problem aroused an attraction among the public that was partly curiosity and partly restlessness. During this time, viewers were obsessed with voluntary death. It is the first time in Western history that such an interest in suicide has been observed.16

What distinguished the Renaissance attitude towards suicide from that of the Middle Ages was not a sudden enlightenment, but rather a new emphasis on individualism. This emphasis on the fate of each individual comes to the fore very well in Shakespeare's works, especially when it comes to suicide. In Shakespeare's tragedies, suicide never begins. It always only takes place after you got to know the figure who committed it and shared her painful fate, such as the suicide of Romeo and Juliet, Othello or the heroes from Roman times, such as Brutus, Cassius or Cleopatra. However, the suffering of a tragic hero in drama belongs to a different world than that of the suicide behind the scenes, whose act is seldom tragic, often depressing and confused. There was no reason why the body of a real Othello should not have been dragged through the streets on a horse and buried at a crossroads after it was staked, writes Alvarez.17

Accordingly, the Renaissance's fondness for tragedy does not mean a new tolerance for real suicide. Shakespeare brought about a new awareness of suicide that did not really translate into reality, as historical sources show.

3. 1. "To be or not to be ..."

Hamlet's most famous monologue puts suicide in a different light

To be or not to be, that is the question here: whether it is nobler in the mind that endures the arrows and slings of angry fate, or, armed against a sea of ​​plagues, they end through resistance. Dying - sleeping - nothing more! - and to know that a sleep ends the heartache and the thousand thrusts that our flesh inheritance - it is a goal to wish fervently. Die - sleep - sleep! Maybe dream too! - Yes, there it lies: what dreams may come in sleep, when we shake off the urge of the earthly, that forces us to stand still. That is the consideration that misery brings to old age. Because who endures the ridicule and scourge of the times, the mighty pressure, the proud mistreatment, spurned love pain, the right postponement, the arrogance of the offices, and the disgrace that does unworthy silent merit when he retires himself could put with a needle bare! Who was carrying burdens and moaning and sweating hard? Only that the fear of something after death - the undiscovered land from which no wanderer returns - errs the will that we would rather endure the evils we have than flee the unknown. So conscience makes a coward of us all; The innate color of the resolution, full of pith and emphasis, driven off course by this consideration, thus loses names for the action.18

One of the most famous monologues in world literature from 1600 from the tragedy "Hamlet", published by Shakespeare in 1602, puzzles literary scholars.

Hamlet speaks the text without any special external dramaturgical cause before meeting Ophelia, secretly observed by Polonius and Claudius. Hamlet philosophizes about suicide - but the interpretations range from: Hamlet votes for suicide to Hamlet is against.

Wolfgang Clemen describes the problem as follows:

In the face of a text that seems to lack the logical context of thought and the corresponding connections, the majority of the numerous explanators have tried to supplement the missing logical connections, the not clearly visible references, to clarify what is merely indicated.19

Each reader interprets Hamlet as a kind of "creative co-author" from his point of view - monologue and ascribes his own meaning to it - in an effort to understand Shakespeare. So there is no valid objective truth about the meaning and message of the monologue, not even about a simple semantic structure - concludes F. Günther.20 Even the first line is unclear: "To be or not to be - to be or not to be ...": What question is Hamlet actually asking? Is Hamlet pondering about his own suicide or about the question of human life and death in general?

The monologue suddenly appears on a philosophical level, after having only acted and talked emotionally.

Why not commit suicide in the face of the injustices, humiliations, and torments of life? Hamlet compares death to sleep, in which dreams come to us that we cannot influence in a good or bad way. Then what happens after death? What dreams may come to us? The uncertainty of what to expect after death causes fear of it and makes us endure the torment of life as if in a crippling state to the end of all evil. This fear of it prevents us from being able to freely decide whether to live or die. That’s my brief interpretation.

Apart from how each individual interprets the text, the inner movement of the monologue with its back and forth, the chain of hopes and despair of human existence is well expressed. Never before has the basic temptation of suicide been presented with such truth, Minois declares. The only thing that matters is that the question has been formulated and that its echo reverberates to this day. “Hamlet is an actor: we all are; he moves between madness and clairvoyance: that is everyone's lot. His question is the question of man. "21

It is a timeless and universal text, and yet localized in time and space: 1600 in England.

The attraction of the audience to suicide on stage reveals a social problem and a general interest in it. For the first time since ancient times, suicide became a central theme in numerous writings that question traditional prohibitions. A number of philosophers and writers should be mentioned at this point who addressed the subject in more detail in their writings: Montaigne, Pierre Charron, Justus Lipsius, Francis Bacon. Around 1610 John Donne dedicated an entire book to suicide: "Biathanatos". Robert Burton analyzes in the "Anatomy of Melancholia" suicide out of religious desperation. In addition, suicide is discussed in all of the works, tragedies and novels of the period.22

It is remarkable that the fascination of the Hamlet monologue continues to this day, which refers not only to its language, but certainly also to the content of the text. One can therefore assume that the topicality of the question of “to be or not to be” still presents suicide as a social problem today.

3. 2. Gloster's attempted suicide from the tragedy "King Lear"

A tortured sobered old man intends to commit suicide and, after failure, decides to suffer his life to the rightful end.

What made Shakespeare adopt such a dramaturgical grip? Why does Gloster choose to endure his misery all the time?

The symbolic meaning of this particular suicide attempt by Count Gloster in “King Lear” has occupied the critics for a long time. This scene shows the “paradox of pure theater”, as Jan Kott thinks.

The defeated Gloster wants to put an end to his misery and decides to fall from the cliffs near Dover. Since he is blind, he needs a guide to lead him there. The guide is his son Edgar, who pretends to be a madman . "It's the curse of the times that mad people lead the blind!" - says Gloster.23

Suicide itself takes a grotesque turn. Edgar leads Gloster up what is supposed to be the highest cliff, which is actually just a small hill in the landscape. Everything is an illusion. Gloster jumps and of course survives. It's just a pantomime, "an executed circus root," as Kott says. Not only the pantomime of suicide is grotesque, writes Kott, the dialogue accompanying this scene is also cruel and full of mockery, with the blind Gloster kneeling down and praying:

Oh ye mighty gods!


1 This account of the problem of suicide comes from Albert Camus, a writer of the 20th century and an important proponent of existentialism. Minois 1996. p. 15

2 see Alvarez 1999. p. 118 (Professor Erwin Stengel)

3 see Minois 1996.

4 see ibid. p. 70 ff.

5 Willemsen 2002. p. 59

6 see Willemsen 2002. p. 22

7 ibid. p. 73

8 see Minois 1996. p. 19 ff.

9 Willemsen 2002. p. 75

10 A report on a suicidal burial from 1608 shows the actual situation in dealing with suicides at the time when Shakespeare's dramas were written:

Thrown into the Main in a barrel.

In 1608 a 60-year-old widow hangs herself in Knetzgau (Ellmann, Utfr.) On the life of Bamberg. Bailiff on Ebers-u. Schmachtenbach (the like) has the hanged man cut off by the Bamberg Newsman's servant and thrown from the ground onto the common alley, where she was lying there from Thursday morning to Saturday even late in the evening (in November). Did the Würzburg centgrave want to make a grave in the kennel next to the church wall and have it buried; but has not been granted by Bamberg's sake. Afterwards the würzburg. Zentgraf inspect the hanged man by the farmhand, take a body mark and go out to the infirmary chapel between Knetzgau and Sand (both Ellmann Utfr.) To be buried. Dogs scraped them out afterwards. The daughter ran to Bamberg and asked to send the news servant out to bury the dead woman somewhere else. Because even those from the community complained and did not want to allow another burial in this place, the hanged friend gave a barrel, the messenger (hangman) servant hit the hanged woman in it, carried them on a pull cart to the Main and into it Thrown water. Bernard Dietz, Herzogenaurach.

Willemsen 2002. pp. 85 f.

11 see Alvarez 1999. p. 66 ff.

12 see Minois 1996. pp. 132 ff.

13 see Minois 1996. p. 162 ff.

14 see ibid. p. 134

15 Decher 1999. p. 53

16 see Minois 1996. p. 155 ff.

17 see Alvarez 1999. p. 67 ff.

18 Shakespeare 1623. p. 1236

19 Günther 2001. p. 85

20 ibid.

21 Minois 1996. p. 133

22 see ibid. p. 134 f.

23 Shakespeare 1623. p. 1133

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