Article Title

Suicide as Message and Metadrama in English Renaissance Tragedy


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

It may be only a coincidence that the most famous soliloquy in English Renaissance drama, a speech that has virtually come to symbolize the dramatic art itself, is an abstract contemplation of suicide. Nevertheless, the fame of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" (III.i.55-87) is suggestive and appropriate: it hints at a deeply felt, if rarely articulated, connection between suicide and play-acting, and it calls attention to the centrality of suicide as a dramatic topos in the English Renaissance.1 The great symbolic potency of real suicide makes stage-suicide suitable for displaying courage and cowardice, love and aggression, self-assertion and self-punishment. Like its real-life counterpart, stage-suicide can express a wish for posthumous control over the lives and feelings of survivors. It can manifest a desire for oblivion or for reunion with the dead. It can gesture toward rebirth or even toward immortality. Many studies of suicide in English Renaissance drama have shown that, in spite of Christian doctrine-which regarded suicide as a sign of despair and demonic pride-the act was often presented on Eizabethan and Jacobean stages in ways that were probing and complex, morally neutral or even sympathetic.2 Stage-suicide served as a flexible device for creating dramatic closure, a kind of diabolus ex machina with a multiplicity of meanings and uses.

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