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1 COMPARATIVE ? ama Volume 26____________Fall 1992____________Number 3 Suicide as Message and Metadrama in English Renaissance Tragedy Richard K. Sanderson 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" (ffi.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.! 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, RICHARD K. SANDERSON, Associate Professor of English at Boise State University , has published on George Orwell and on Mary Shelley. He is currently working on a book on literary representations of suicide. 199 200Comparative Drama 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. My purpose here is to explore the communicative, selfdramatizing , self-fashioning dimensions of suicide as they were recognized and exploited by English Renaissance playwrights. By concentrating on these dimensions of the act, we will see how stage-suicide resembles but also differs from other deaths on stage; how suicide is linked to the theatrum mundi metaphor (both the act and the metaphor expressing a contempt for life and, paradoxically, a denial of death) ; how the mimetic representation of suicide leads to metadramatic effects which have, perhaps surprisingly, their counterparts in actual suicide. Since my discussion will employ ideas about suicide and death in the real world, I must concede a certain circularity in the argument, for modern thanatology is already pervaded by theatrical terms and concepts. In particular, to the extent that modern thanatology derives from psychoanalysis, its discourse is something like a theory of drama—a resemblance which will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with Freud's own statements about the debt of psychoanalysis to dramatic poets. Whenever we speak of death, we really mean the death of someone else; death is something we know only from the outside as surviving observers. It is natural, then, that our attempts to explain death and dying frequently use the vocabulary of spectatorship . For example, one of Freud's classic pronouncements on the way we think about death employs a theatrical metaphor: "It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators."^ Another example of such dramatistic thinking might be the ideas of Elizabeth Kiibler-Ross, who, in her well-known book On Death and Dying, claims that dying people go through five psychological "stages"—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.4 I would suggest that Kiibler-Ross may have a dramatic model in the back of her mind: the five-act tragedy. If death in general is amenable to discussion in dramatistic terms, death by suicide is particularly suited to such discussion. Drawing upon Freud's remark, cited above, psychologists Edwin S. Shneidman and Norman L. Farberow have theorized that suicidal logic is based on a confusion of selves or roles. They argue that a suicidal person "fallaciously" divides himself into Richard K. Sanderson201 two selves: one that, after death, will be mourned by others, and one that will remain magically alive to witness and receive their mourning.5 Similar terminology is employed by Karl Menninger in his analysis...


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