‘A Becoming Exit’: Suicide of Honor in Seneca, Shakespeare, and Mishima

by Paul D. Green

( A revised and expanded version of “ ‘Immortal Longings’:  Suicide of Honor in Seneca, Shakespeare, and Mishima,”  September 2006)

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.  4 B.C.-65 A.D.) was one of the most important literary figures of ancient Rome: moralist, Stoic philosopher, and dramatist, as well as tutor to the young Nero and later his unofficial court adviser, he amassed a vast fortune. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was the greatest playwright and poet of Elizabethan England, as well as a successful businessman and property owner. Yukio Mishima, pseudonym for Kimitake Hiraoka (1925-1970), was a brilliant post-World War II Japanese novelist, short-story writer, poet, dramatist, and essayist, who also directed and starred in movies and had his own army. At first glance these three men, widely separated chronologically and geographically, would seem to have little in common except their stature as writers and their prosperity, but a close look at their writings reveals that the three are united by an interest in suicide, especially the suicide of honor, attempted or successfully completed, by which to die with dignity or reclaim a sense of lost honor.

I shall focus on Seneca’s moral writings; on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Rape of Lucrece (an early narrative poem), two of his Roman plays (Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra), and, more briefly, on Othello and Macbeth; and finally, on a short story of Mishima’s, “Patriotism,” that is probably his best-known work and, artistically, perhaps his most impressive performance. For two of these three writers, as we shall see, suicide of honor was not merely a literary or philosophic interest but also the means by which their lives were formally terminated.

                                    A Becoming Exit

It is a common misconception that classical antiquity approved of and defended all forms of suicide. More accurately, Greek and Roman civilization is characterized by what French suicidologist Albert Bayet has called the “morale nuancée, the nuanced or complex morality, which neither  wholly condemns nor wholly condones suicide, but judges each case on its own merits and shows a high degree of sympathy and tolerance. The morale nuancée, associated with liberty, individualism, and education,  was primarily a phenomenon of the intelligentsia and the aristocracy—not the entire aristocracy but the cultivated and cultured segment of it. Hence the suicides recorded in the literature of Rome (and of Greece as well) are for the most part aristocratic, and the great period of Roman suicides was from the end of the Republic to the early part of the Empire—Rome’s most enlightened days.

Certainly these generalizations apply to Seneca and other Stoic philosophers, who do not advocate suicide on a mass scale. On the contrary, the principles that the Stoics teach are for a small, elite group—the wise, or those who try to become wise through the study of philosophy. The Stoics have aristocrats’ contempt for the majority, whom they consider hopelessly entangled in irrational passions and appetites. Their pronouncements on suicide, as on everything else, are not meant for the unenlightened. Stoics allow suicide only when it is in accord with the dictates of reason; suicide must be calmly and reasonably thought out. Stoicism does not recognize the demands of the passions, so self-destruction motivated by anger, grief, or jealousy is entirely unacceptable.

In his long essay On Anger (De Ira), Seneca condemns the suicide of the mythological warrior Ajax, who in a state of madness kills a flock of sheep under the delusion that he is avenging himself on fellow Greeks who have insulted him. In the psychology of the ancients, almost by definition, madness results from the excesses of passion—thus Seneca’s comment on Ajax’s subsequent suicide: “It was frenzy that drove Ajax to his death, and anger drove him into frenzy”  (Moral Essays, Vol .1:  Book 2, p.251). [i]

With even greater explicitness the Stoic philosophers condemn taking one’s life for no valid reason. Epictetus, a freed slave who became a well-known Stoic teacher, notes in his Discourses that a friend of his made an arbitrary and irrational decision to fast until he should die. The philosopher’s attempts to dissuade him had no effect, and finally Epictetus offered his most cogent argument: so useless a suicide is equivalent to murder ( Book 2, chap.15, pp.317-321).[ii]

Seneca, too, in his Moral Epistles (Epistulae Morales) warns against hatred of life or the “lust for death” [“libido moriendi”]  (Moral Epistles, Vol.1 : Epistle 24, p.181). [iii]   He is contemptuous of those who feel compelled to take their own lives for what he considers the most “trifling” of reasons:

One hangs himself before the door of his mistress; another hurls himself from the house-top that he may no longer be compelled to bear the taunts of a bad-tempered master; a third, to be saved from arrest after running away, drives a sword into his vitals.  (Epistulae Morales 1: 4.15)

Seneca, in other words, opposes “a  hasty retreat from life,”  in favor of  “a  becoming exit”  (Epistulae Morales 1: 24.181).

What Seneca means by “a becoming exit” is related to his general principles on living a good life. “For mere living,” he asserts, “is not a good[,] but living well.” The wise man is concerned with the “quality, and not the quantity, of his life. As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free,” in order to die well. “And dying well means escape from the danger of living ill”  (Epistulae Morales 2: 70.59).

Seneca, like other classical writers, almost always treated certain kinds of suicide with sympathy. These included the suicide of honor, the suicide of love, and the suicide of old age, categories which often overlapped. The suicide of honor was an all-embracing category. Political and patriotic suicides were among its subdivisions, as were suicides to avoid defeat, capture, or humiliation by the enemy, and suicide to end guilt or shame.

A major form of political suicide in the ancient world, especially in Athens and later in Rome under the early emperors, was that required by the state as the equivalent of, or an alternative to, legal execution. In Athens the death sentence was often carried out by forcing the prisoner to drink hemlock, as in the well-known case of Socrates, which Seneca cites enthusiastically on numerous occasions. According to Seneca, Socrates, who lived a life consistently grounded in the highest moral principles, is equally an icon of dying well. In Plato’s dialogue The Phaedo Plato’s mentor, Socrates, surrounded by his followers, discourses calmly and eloquently on death and the immortality of the soul while he awaits the arrival of the state-mandated poison; and even after he has drained the cup, he continues discoursing, as Seneca notes, “up to the point of death”  (On Providence, Book 3: Moral Essays 1: 23).

Another one of those public figures who are lauded by Seneca for their courage, integrity, and honorable death is Marcus Regulus, a significant example of the patriotic suicide. Regulus, one of the commanders of the Roman troops in the First Punic War against the Carthaginians, was eventually captured and then sent back to Rome to negotiate a peace treaty, at the same time being made to take an oath to return to the Carthaginians. Regulus advised the Romans that it would be in their interests to continue the war, and then, having done his patriotic duty, he felt obligated to keep his promise to return to the Carthaginians, where he knew certain death—in his case, death by torture—awaited him.

Perhaps the most famous of all the classical suicides of honor, and the one whom Seneca praises almost more than any other, is Marcus Cato the Younger (sometimes referred to as Cato Uticensis—Cato of Utica). Known for his probity (some would say his severity) and his unwillingness to compromise with principles, Cato supported Pompey against Julius Caesar in Rome’s early civil war. When Pompey was defeated and later murdered, Cato preferred to take his own life rather than live, as he thought, without freedom (i.e., under Julius Caesar). [iv]

Seneca tells the frequently heard story that on Cato’s last night he took to bed with him a copy of The Phaedo and a sharp sword—“the first, that he might have the will to die, and the second, that he might have the means.” He dealt himself a serious, but not deadly, wound, which his physicians were able to bind up, but in spite of his weakness from loss of blood, he ripped apart the dressings and ultimately bled to death (Epistulae Morales 1: 24. 169, 171). Seneca’s response to Cato’s life and death speaks for itself: in his essay On Constancy (De Constantia), for example, he refers to Cato as “a truer exemplar of the wise man than … Ulysses and Hercules”  (Moral Essays 1.51); and in On Tranquillity of Mind (De Tranquillitate Animi) he eulogizes Cato as “the living image of all the virtues”  (Moral Essays 2:275).

If Socrates, Regulus, and Cato, all of whom lived well, represent the ability to die well and bravely at the appropriate time, Maecenas is represented by Seneca as a coward. A counselor to the Emperor Augustus as well as a patron and close friend of the poets Virgil and Horace, Maecenas was a sickly man, obsessed with the fear of death, “a curse,” in Seneca’s words, “which lays a curse upon everything else” (Epistulae Morales 3:101. 165). Seneca records the fragment of a poem by Maecenas , “that most debased of prayers, in which Maecenas does not refuse to suffer weakness, deformity, and as a climax the pain of crucifixion—provided only that he may prolong the breath of life amid these sufferings” :

                                    ‘Fashion me with a palsied hand,                                  

                                    Weak of foot, and a cripple;

                                    Build upon me a crook-backed hump;

                                    Shake my teeth till they rattle;

                                    All is well, if my life remains.

                                    Save, oh, save it, I pray you,

                                    Though I sit on the piercing cross!’  (Epistulae Morales 3:  101. 165)

Seneca is livid: “Is it worth while  [sic] to weigh down upon one’s own wound and hang impaled upon a gibbet, that one may but postpone something which is the balm of troubles, the end of punishment?” In contrast to the actions of the honorable suicides who appear in his work, including the notable triumvirate of philosopher, military commander, and statesman, Maecenas seems to be a pathetic example of manhood. “What does he mean by such womanish and indecent verse?”  Seneca asks, with incredulity. “What does he mean by begging so vilely for life?”  (Epistulae Morales 3: 101. 165, 167).

As an additional foil to Maecenas, Seneca’s friend Tullius Marcellinus is presented in a very favorable light. Suffering from a debilitating disease by which he  became “old prematurely,” Marcellinus finally heeded the advice of an unnamed Stoic friend (perhaps Seneca himself?) to “die honorably.” After comforting his sorrowful slaves and dispensing small gifts to each of them, he fasted for three days, then lay in a tub and had hot water continuously poured over him until he gradually and quietly passed away (Epistulae Morales 2:  77. 171, 173).

For many Roman writers suicide to avoid pain—not one-time or short-lived pain, but long-term, intolerable pain that prevented people from functioning normally—was not merely acceptable but, as in the case of Marcellinus, treated as a virtual first cousin to the suicide of honor. In Seneca’s words, “I shall not lay violent hands on myself just because I am in pain, for death under such circumstances is defeat. But if I find out that the pain must always be endured I shall depart, not because of the pain but because it will be a hindrance to me as regards all my reasons for living”  (Epistulae Morales 1: 58. 409).              

One final point about Seneca’s attitude toward suicide of honor: in spite of his predilections for the educated, the upper classes, and the well-to-do, he does cite several instances of valiant suicides not falling into one or more of these categories—“men of the meanest lot in life” who, 

when they were not  allowed to die at their own convenience, or to suit themselves in  their choice  of the instruments of death… have snatched up whatever was lying ready to hand, and by sheer strength have turned objects which were by nature harmless into weapons of their own.  (Epistulae Morales 2: 70. 67)

Two such examples were captives trained to be gladiators: one stuffed a sponge-tipped stick, used in the public lavatory for personal hygiene, down his throat and choked to death; the other, on a wagon carrying him to a gladiatorial performance, broke his neck by allowing his head to get caught in the spokes of a revolving wheel. Though the nature of their deaths was inelegant, Seneca praises the resourcefulness of these two men who were determined to die by their own hand rather than endure the ignominious end that lay in store for them in the arena  (Epistulae Morales 2: 70. 67, 69).

Seneca’s own death by suicide occurred after the cruel and unpredictable Nero, believing  that his mentor and longtime adviser was implicated in a political insurrection against him, informed the aged philosopher that his earthly existence was no longer desirable. In Rome suicide to escape formal execution reached its apex under Nero. Official condemnation from the Emperor was usually followed by brutal assassination at the hands of his storm troopers, and many—like Seneca—preferred the more dignified alternative of suicide.

Throughout his writings Seneca declares many times that the true test of a man’s character is the way he faces death. If we can judge from the sympathetic description of his death by the Roman historian Tacitus, Seneca’s virtue was unquestioned, at least in death. As in the death of his idol Socrates, the Roman philosopher and moralist, who accepted his fate bravely, rebuked his friends for weeping, reminded them of the lofty philosophic precepts which teach us how to behave in adversity, and then, simply and unhesitatingly, cut his arteries to end his life. According to Tacitus,  his death was “protracted and slow.” After cutting his arteries, he was given hemlock (like Socrates) by a good friend. But even that was ineffective—and finally he was “lifted into a bath, suffocated by the vapours, and cremated without ceremony” (Annals, Book 15, chaps. 62-64, pp.315-319). [v]


More than fifteen centuries after Seneca’s death, Shakespeare focused on the suicide of honor, primarily, though not exclusively, in various Roman contexts. Though I shall emphasize the suicide of honor, it is perhaps not out of place to note that, like Seneca and other ancient writers, Shakespeare espouses the morale nuancée, with its shifting perspectives. As early as  1912 James Holly Hanford, in his PMLA article “Suicide in the Plays of Shakespeare,” refutes the contention of John Churton Collins that in Shakespeare’s plays “in no case is [suicide] associated with honor, but in all cases with intemperance or ignominy, or with both. …”  (p.380). Hanford asserts that from play to play, and even within each play, the attitude varies; and often, especially in the Roman plays,  suicide is seen in a positive—indeed, an enthusiastic—light.

                                                      More an Antique Roman Than a Dane

Even in non-Roman contexts Shakespeare cannot be pinned down to a single approach (i.e., a negative approach, referred to as the morale simple by Albert Bayet, and in Shakespeare sometimes appearing as Christian prohibition). For example, within a work as elusive as Hamlet the Danish prince, in one of his despairing moods, fervently wishes at the beginning  of the play that the “Everlasting had not fixed/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” (1.2.131-132).[vi]  Likewise, in his “To be, or not to be” soliloquy (3.1.58-90), perhaps the best-known passage in the play, Hamlet again broods on suicide, but is deterred by “the dread of something after death,/ The undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveller returns” (3.1.80-82).

In an early, albeit problematic, version of Hamlet  (Quarto 1, the so-called Bad Quarto of 1603) this soliloquy of Hamlet’s has more-explicit Christian allusions:


                                    To die, to sleep: is that all? Ay, all.

                                    No, … .

                                    For in that dream of death, when we awake,

                                    And borne before an everlasting judge

                                    From whence no passenger ever returned,

                                    The undiscovered country at whose sight

                                    The happy smile and the accursed damned—

                                    But for this, the joyful hope of this,

                                    Who’d bear the scorns and flattery of the world,


                                    When that he may his full quietus make

                                    With a bare bodkin? 

                                           (qtd. in Norton Shakespeare, p.1692)

Thus, from the evidence in the play, Hamlet appears to accept the Christian prohibition against suicide [i.e. , the morale simple], and after the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, he never again mentions the possibility of killing himself.

In the well-known graveyard scene in Act 5, the First Clown (a gravedigger), anticipating the burial of Ophelia, asks, in a controversial malapropism, “Is she to be buried in Christian burial that willfully seeks her own salvation? “ (5.2.1-2)—a point of view reiterated more formally by the officiating priest shortly thereafter:

                                       Her death was doubtful,

                                    And but that great command o’ersways the order

                                    She should in ground unsanctified have lodged

                                    Till the last trumpet.


In other words, without the intervention of Claudius, King of Denmark, ecclesiastical authorities would not have permitted Ophelia, a possible suicide, to be buried in sacred ground. The priest’s bitter remark about this obvious double standard based on social class is anticipated by the earlier observation of the Second Gravedigger: “If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’ Christian burial” (5.1.22-24). The key word in the priest’s comment is that Ophelia’s death is “doubtful,” not an undeniable case of suicide, but religious authorities wish to treat it as if it were. James Holly Hanford’s comment on this scene is consistent with his general refutation of the idea that Shakespeare’s view of suicide is always negative: “At the scene of the burial  of Ophelia the sympathies of the audience are enlisted against the bigoted priest who represents the stern attitude of the church” (p.383)  [emphasis mine].  In a similar comment not focused specifically on Ophelia’s death, Larry R. Kirkland has suggested that “the softer feelings toward suicide engendered in Shakespeare’s plays stand in some contrast to the harsh official attitudes and policies of the day” (p.665).

To contextualize these “harsh official attitudes and policies” to which Hanford and Kirkland  allude, cultural historian Michael MacDonald closely examines the burial scene of Ophelia from the perspective of Elizabethan attitudes toward suicide. Having examined laws against suicide in public records of the period, as well as statistics and specific examples of coroners’ verdicts on those adjudged to be possible suicides, MacDonald points out that “suicide was a heinous crime in early modern England, and the law against it was rigorously enforced.” Moreover, “prior to about 1660, the non compos mentis verdict [of coroners’ juries]–a decision of insanity or at least mental instability—was very seldom used” ( “Ophelia’s Maimèd Rites,”p.310). Paradoxically, …”when juries did on occasion find suicides lunatics, the officials sometimes enforced the penalties for self-murder anyway” (p.312).

As for the nature of Ophelia’s death, MacDonald notes that

drowning was one of the most frequent causes of accidental death in Tudor and Stuart England, and it was obviously difficult in many cases to be sure that people found drowned in a pond or river had actually committed suicide. Juries nevertheless returned large numbers of drowned bodies as felones de se [i.e., self-murderers] (p.311). [vii] 

Perhaps one final point about Ophelia’s drowning needs to be made. Determining whether Ophelia’s death is suicide is made especially difficult in the play by its third-hand (or even fourth-hand) presentation, from some assumed eyewitness or eyewitnesses to the drowning, then possibly from a Danish courtier to whom the sad news has been related, before it’s announced to Gertrude, who repeats what she has heard to Laertes and Claudius.

Judging from the variety of responses in Hamlet to the death and burial of Ophelia, we appear to be dealing here with a solid example of the morale nuancée.  With the exception of the priest and the two gravediggers, who don’t approve of Ophelia’s burial in sacred ground, all of the other characters in the scene—Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, Hamlet  (in spite of his pronouncements against suicide),  and Horatio—are profoundly sympathetic to Ophelia. There is also some ambiguity in the pronouncements of the secular officials: the Second Clown/gravedigger reports that the “coroner hath sat on her [i.e., conducted an inquest], and finds it Christian burial” (5.1.4-5). Even the king’s intervention on behalf of Ophelia, a “gentlewoman,” highlights the point that the aristocracy enjoyed privileges unknown to the masses, and suggests additional levels of complexity with respect to the fate of someone ruled  a possible suicide.  

In terms of attitudes toward suicide, however, the different views on Ophelia’s death are not the only complications in the play. Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend and former fellow student, seems to embody at different times conflicting views on suicide. Early in Hamlet  Horatio and the guard Marcellus  try to prevent the prince from following his father’s ghost up to the battlements, for fear that the ghost, who might be a demon in disguise, could possibly instill in him the idea of suicide by leaping off the tower into the sea below. Granted, the two are concerned about Hamlet’s safety, but from a Christian perspective they are also fearful for Hamlet’s soul. It was common during the Early Modern Period to see Satan as a clever psychologist who would scrutinize his victims carefully to find an appropriate strategy to lure them to perdition:

                                    What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,

                                    Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff


                                    And there assume some other horrible form

                                    Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason

                                    And draw you into madness? … .

                                    The very place puts toys of desperation,

                                    Without more motive [i.e., cause], into every brain

                                    That looks so many fathoms to the sea

                                    And hears it roar beneath.

                                                      ( 1.4.50-51, 53-55, 55.1-55.4). [viii]

In this scene Horatio appears to espouse the standard Christian view against suicide, but at the end of the play, when Hamlet lies dying, Horatio has to be forcibly restrained from joining his lord in death ( a variation on the suicide of honor), in order that he might set the record straight about the strange series of deaths that end the play. Though Horatio remains alive, this final example of his unswerving devotion to Hamlet evokes strong admiration in readers and spectators –something akin to a parallel in readers’ and spectators’ sympathy for the death of Ophelia. His spontaneous utterance as Hamlet wrestles with him for the poisoned cup, “I am more an antique Roman than a Dane” (5.2.283), highlights the indissoluble association between the culture of ancient Rome and the suicide (or, as in this case, near-suicide) of honor in its multiple forms. [ix]  With his conflicting views on suicide, Horatio embodies the morale nuancée, for his attitude appears to vary with the circumstance.

It is clear that Hamlet contains more complex views of suicide than any other play of Shakespeare. Hamlet himself, in his reservations about committing suicide, represents the standard Christian view against self-killing and is thus allied with the priest and the gravediggers of the burial scene, except (as I  noted above) that his feelings for Ophelia—“I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers/ Could not, with all their quantity of love, /Make up my sum” (5.1. 254-256)—would seem to preclude the possibility that he opposes her burial, especially since he tells Laertes, “Be buried quick [i.e., alive] with her, and so will I” (5.1. 264).  In spite of Christian teachings and the rigorous secular laws in Tudor England against self-destruction, Ophelia’s suicide, as we have seen,  is clouded by multiple levels of ambiguity; and in the case of Horatio, his strict Christian horror toward Hamlet’s possible suicide does battle with his Roman tendencies to join his lord in death.                       

                                    Playing the Roman fool

The titular hero of Othello, who is not a Roman but is a valiant soldier, takes the honorable way out by killing himself. Indeed, Othello uses the words “honour” (5.2.252, 301) and “honourable” (5.2.300) to describe himself and his intended action shortly before he commits suicide, which is his way of punishing himself for the murder of his beloved Desdemona and, implicitly, of escaping the humiliation of being brought before the Venetian authorities for sentencing. [x]  At the same time, realizing the horrible act he has committed in murdering his innocent wife, he appears to suggest that he will be damned for it  (5.2.280-288) and—though he doesn’t explicitly say so—for taking his own life , which is equally punishable by damnation according to Christian theology. Thus, in a Shakespearean paradox—and like Horatio—Othello embodies conflicting views of suicide.

In contrast to the suicide of Othello and the suicidal intention of Horatio, Macbeth, who is also a valiant soldier, chooses, in the last scene of the play, to go down fighting rather than take his own life: “Why should I play the Roman fool, and die / On mine own sword ?  Whiles I see lives, the gashes/ Do better upon them” (5.10. 1-3). [xi]

                                    ‘Tis Honor to Deprive Dishonoured Life

One of Shakespeare’s early works, his long narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece  (1594), which some have seen as an influence on Macbeth, [xii]  centers on suicide to redeem lost honor. Drawing on the Roman historian Livy and Shakespeare’s favorite Latin poet, Ovid, this poem tells the story of the Roman matron Lucretia (Lucrece), who is raped by Sextus Tarquinius (Tarquin), a military officer, good friend of her husband Collatinus (Collatine), and heir apparent to the Roman throne. Besides the brutal rape, the poem deals with other important moral issues, including the betrayal of friendship, the violation of the code of hospitality, and the general victimization of women.

Tarquin shows up unexpectedly at the home of Lucrece, who is alone; he is treated courteously and given lodging for the night. Though Tarquin weighs the pros and cons of taking Lucrece by force, and though, after he finally enters her bedroom, she pleads with him (using some of the same arguments he has used on himself), desire finally wins out in his “disputation/ ‘Tween frozen conscience and hot-burning will” (lines 246-247).

After the rape Lucrece sees no recourse but death. From antiquity to the Early Modern Period honor for women in the private sector was often narrowly defined as chastity and marital fidelity. Lucrece uses the terms “honor” and “dishonor” and related forms a number of times. In at least one stanza she uses them four times in three lines: “My honour I’ll bequeath unto the knife/ That wounds my body so dishonourèd./ ‘Tis  honour to deprive dishonoured life.”  And in the last line of that stanza she concludes that in her death, “mine honour is new born” (lines 1184-1186, 1190).

She believes that the violation of her body no longer allows her to be considered a loyal wife. But in so believing, she makes no distinction between adultery, in which presumably there is equal complicity, and rape. In a seminal discussion of Lucretia’s suicide in Book I  of The City of God, St. Augustine raises these and related topics as he analyzes whether or not she should have killed herself. He is explicit that when a woman is physically violated, “then the guilt attaches only to the ravisher and not at all to the woman forcibly ravished without any consent on her part” (p.28). [xiii]  Citing an anonymous speaker on this subject, St. Augustine continues his analysis with this illuminating insight: “A paradox! There were two persons involved, and only one committed adultery. … The speaker observed in the union of two bodies the disgusting lechery of the one, the chaste intention of the other, and he saw in that act not the conjunction of their bodies but the diversity of their minds” (p.24).

If Lucretia, he continues, is not guilty of a serious crime—i.e., adultery—then she was in the wrong to find herself guilty and be her own executioner. (Thomas Aquinas would later expand on this idea that no person may be judge, jury, and executioner of himself/herself.)

St. Augustine concludes that there is one of two ways of evaluating her case: 1) either her self-punishment results from her awareness that there was some “hidden consent” to this “adulterous” act, and “then she did not kill an innocent”;  or 2) she was completely chaste and therefore committed gratuitous murder against herself (p.30). We are aware, of course, that Augustine is writing as a Christian theologian about a pre-Christian suicide, and that his influential view that the Biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill” refers to oneself as well as others (pp.31-32) helped establish suicide as a cardinal Christian sin in subsequent theology. Nonetheless, his comments on Lucretia’s suicide are incisive and useful for Shakespeare’s readers. (It is not clear whether Shakespeare himself knew The City of God directly.)

Shakespeare’s Lucrece is neither philosopher nor theologian but a woman overwhelmed by the atrocity perpetrated against her. She considers the damage irreparable; she applies words like “stained” and “polluted” to herself, conjuring up not merely the literal sexual nature of the crime but also  the ruin  of her most prized physical possession: her unspotted body, referred  to as  stolen “treasure” (line 1056) and “that dear jewel I have lost” (line 1191). She fears for her husband Collatine’s reputation as well as her own, envisioning with horror a boastful Tarquin telling his comrades with a smirk at some time in the future that a newly born child of Lucrece’s was actually sired by him, not by Collatine.  (She seems to assume that he may have impregnated her, but that even if he hasn’t, he is likely to tell others that Collatine is  “doting father of his [i.e., Tarquin’s] fruit” (lines 1062-1064).

Shakespeare, who understands the human psyche so well, provides legitimate concerns for Lucrece, and unlike Lucrece herself, the poet holds her entirely guiltless: “Not that devoured, but that which doth devour,/Is worthy blame. O, let it not be held/ Poor women’s faults that they are so full-filled [i.e., filled full] / With men’s abuses…” (lines 1256-1259).

At first, torn between living and dying, she is momentarily deterred by the thought, unusual for a non-Christian, that suicide might jeopardize her soul, but the anguish of guilt and shame is so great  that she is determined to die and, given the fact that her rapist is a soldier, expresses her wish in an appropriate military metaphor: “ ‘Then let it not be called impiety/ If in this blemished fort I make some hole /Through which I may convey this troubled soul’ ”(lines 1174-1176). But she is resolved to have her revenge on Tarquin, and so “ ‘die I will not,’ ” she insists, “ ‘till my Collatine/ Have heard the cause of my untimely death,’ ”  (lines 1177-1178), and to that end she pens a somewhat distracted note to him to be delivered by one of her faithful servants.

When Collatine finally arrives, accompanied by fellow soldiers (anachronistically called knights) and by her father Lucretius, she begins slowly and cautiously: “ ‘Dear husband, in the interest of thy bed/ A stranger came, and on that pillow lay/ Where thou wast wont to rest thy weary head’ ” (lines 1619-1621). Then she introduces the violent details: the “stranger’s” brandishing of his sword; the threat that if she resists, he will kill not only her but one of her slaves, tie them together, and declare that he caught them in the act of adultery; and finally, after overpowering her, the consummation of his “scarlet lust” (line 1650). But not until she has made all the men swear to avenge her dishonor does she identify the “stranger” as Tarquin.

Just before she kills herself, she proclaims that if physically she is “ ‘stained with this abuse,/ Immaculate and spotless is my mind./  That was not forced’ ” (lines 1655-1657)—a key concept in St. Augustine’s analysis of a rape victim. And Lucrece’s male spectators echo her sentiments: “ ‘They all at once began to say/ Her body’s stain her mind untainted clears’ ”(lines 1709-1710). But even their collective agreement of her guiltlessness is not enough to keep her from stabbing herself in order to free her troubled soul from the “polluted prison” of her body (line 1726). [xiv]

Three factors, however, seem to detract from Lucrece’s heroic act. First, as her cousin, Junius Brutus, points out to Collatine, “Thy wretched wife mistook the matter so/ To slay herself, that should have slain her foe” (lines 1826-1827). Second, right after her suicide there is the patriarchal squabbling between her father and her husband about who had the greater right to her; i.e., they fight over her as over a piece of property, which in both classical antiquity (in which the poem is set) and the Early Modern Period (in which it was written) is a fairly accurate description of female status. Thus her father says, “ ‘She’s mine’ ”… (line 1795). And Collatine replies, “ ‘She was my wife./ I owed [i.e., owned] her, and ‘tis mine that she hath killed’ ” (lines 1802-1803). In other words, the body that Lucrece was so concerned about keeping pure and unpolluted for her husband is, at some level, seen by Collatine, after news of the rape, as damaged goods, and after her suicide, as totally demolished property, formerly his. His response, in short, is that he, and not his wife, was the owner of her body, which she therefore had no right to destroy. Third, what diminishes Lucrece’s self-sacrifice is the nature of Tarquin’s punishment. Though she wanted him killed, the publicity about his repulsive deed to Lucrece, terminating in the display of “her bleeding body thorough [i.e., throughout] Rome,” leads instead to “Tarquin’s everlasting banishment” (lines 1851, 1855).

St. Augustine notices the inequity here, as well as the tragic irony. “But how was it,” he asks, “that she who did not commit adultery received the heavier punishment? For the adulterer was driven from his country, with his father; his victim suffered the supreme penalty” (p.29).[xv]

  And With This Good Sword

In  Julius Caesar (c. 1599), written about five years after The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare turns from what is essentially a private, domestic tragedy with political repercussions to a larger, public tragedy played out in the Roman Forum, in the Senate, and on the battlefield. Despite the title the play is not really about Julius Caesar, who is assassinated in the third act, but about the high-minded, public-spirited idealist Marcus Brutus, invariably reflecting on what is best for Rome. Brutus is drawn into a conspiracy by his friend and brother-in-law, Caius Cassius, to murder Julius Caesar, considered a threat to Rome’s liberty. Cassius is a foil for Brutus: more personally motivated against Caesar, occasionally somewhat mean-spirited, and willing to compromise with morality. (Brutus accuses him, during a famous confrontation, of taking bribes, but they are eventually reconciled.) Cassius is also much more practical and realistic than Brutus. If Cassius had prevailed, instead of Brutus, in some of their important strategic decisions—for instance, the decision not to murder Mark Antony along with Caesar, or later, after Caesar has been struck down, the decision to allow Antony to deliver a funeral oration for Caesar in the public forum, where he inflames the citizens against the conspirators with brilliant rhetoric and equally brilliant psychology—the history of Rome, not to mention the plot of Shakespeare’s play, would have been quite different.

Although both Cassius and Brutus end up as suicides of honor in the ensuing civil war, in which they face Antony and Octavius as their mighty opposites on the plains of Philippi, their deaths take place in separate scenes, with each anticipating imminent defeat. Their contrasting personalities notwithstanding, the two generals are valiant soldiers, not afraid of death, and preferring death to dishonor. But early in the fifth act, when Cassius questions Brutus, “If we do lose this battle,…/ What are you then determinèd to do?”  (5.1.97-99), Brutus’ response is rather curious, if not shocking. This son-in-law of Marcus Cato the Younger, the patriot who has been rhapsodized by Seneca and so many others, admits that he “did blame Cato for the death/ Which he did give himself—I know not how,/ But I do find it cowardly and vile/ For fear of what might fall so to prevent [i.e., cut short]/ The time of life…”  Brutus will instead arm himself “with patience” (5.1.101-105).

The unexpectedness of this response is in part due to Brutus’ well-known acceptance of Stoic teachings to which Cato also subscribed; the “patience” that Brutus insists he will demonstrate is a major Stoic virtue. (One might say that Lucrece, as sympathetic as she is, is nevertheless lacking in that virtue.)  What he seems to be reacting to in this minority view of his father-in-law’s death is that there was no impending threat, but rather a nonspecific, indeterminate threat of capture or disgrace for Cato. Brutus seems to come close to accusing his father-in-law of what Seneca terms “ a lust for dying.”

Justifiably, Mark Sacharoff refers to Brutus’ remarks on Cato as “the most controversial passage in Julius Caesar” (“Suicide and Brutus’ Philosophy…,” p.115). Sacharoff rejects the notion that Brutus refers to Stoicism in condemning his father-in-law’s death—“Even by the rule of that philosophy/ By which I did blame Cato for the death/Which he did give himself” (5.100-102)—but instead insists that Brutus is thinking of philosophies less tolerant of suicide, like Plato’s, Aristotle’s, and Plotinus’, as well as the “neo-Stoicism of Shakespeare’s period, and Saint Augustine’s” (pp.118-119).[xvi]

To further explain the possible source of Brutus’ strange remark about his father-in-law, Cato, Sacharoff traces in some detail the complicated historical relationship between Cato and Brutus—uncle and nephew, teacher and student—and the relationship of both men with Caesar, which probably led, he believes, to a division between them (pp.120-122). Oddly enough, he doesn’t mention that Brutus was also Cato’s son-in-law.

When Cassius presses Brutus further on his intentions—“Then, if we lose this battle, / You are contented to be led in triumph / Thorough [i.e., through] the streets of Rome?”—Brutus’ response this time is less ambiguous:

                    No, Cassius, no.

                  Think not, thou noble Roman,

               That ever Brutus will go bound to Rome.

                   He bears too great a mind. …


The implication here is that when the possibility of defeat, with attendant disgrace, is immediate and         specific, Brutus will take appropriate action.

Cassius’ suicide comes first, but it follows hard on the heels of a grievous error in judgment. When Pindarus, his bondman, who has better eyesight than Cassius, reports that Titinius , Cassius’ best friend, is being pursued by troops and is overtaken, Cassius assumes that Titinius has been captured by the enemy. Since it is Cassius who has sent Titinius to report on the nature of those troops seen in the distance, he feels responsible, and so, consumed by guilt, judges himself a coward, “to live so long/ To see my best friend ta’en [i.e., taken] before my face!”  (5.3.34-35). He immediately prepares to kill himself to atone for his supposed misdeed and to forestall what he believes to be inevitable capture by enemy soldiers.

Roman military suicides of honor, as we shall see also with Brutus, as well as in Antony and Cleopatra, often involve two people: the person determined to die and a friend or trusted servant willing to help.[xvii]  In Julius Caesar it is Pindarus who is called upon to be Cassius’ accomplice:

                                    In Parthia did I take thee prisoner,

                                    And then I swore thee, saving of thy life,

                                    That whatsoever I did bid thee do

                                    Thou shouldst attempt it. Come now, keep thine oath.

                                    Now be a freeman, and, with this good sword

                                    That ran through Caesar’s bowels, search this bosom.


And so, with his face covered, Cassius instructs Pindarus one final time: “Guide thou the sword” (5.3.44).

When Titinius, very much alive and uncaptured, soon reappears wearing a garland of laurel, he instinctively senses his friend’s error as soon as he spots Cassius lying on the ground, and he gently speaks to the bleeding corpse:

                                    Why didst thou send me forth, brave Cassius?

                                    Did I not meet thy friends, and did not they

                                    Put on my brows this wreath of victory,

                                    And bid me give it thee?…

                                    Alas, thou hast misconstrued everything.


Before adding to the suicides of honor on the battlefield, Titinius places the garland on Cassius’ brow, picks up Cassius’ sword—“By your leave, gods, this is a Roman’s part” (5.3.88)—stabs himself, and dies. Since Cassius is not only Titinius’ best friend but also his superior officer, it is a point of honor with him, as with Horatio in Hamlet, to join his beloved lord in death (though Horatio doesn’t get to complete his suicide). The deaths of these two close friends, Cassius and Titinius, are good examples of the way in which love and honor can mingle inextricably as motives for suicide.

When Brutus discovers the bodies of the fallen warriors, he delivers a tribute that is among the most moving passages in the play:

                                    Are yet two Romans living such as these?

                                    The last of all the Romans, fare thee well.

                                    It is impossible that ever Rome

                                    Should breed thy fellow. Friends , I owe more tears

                                    To this dead man [i.e., Cassius] than you shall see me pay.—


The sands in the hourglass are running out for Brutus, too, but just before his death and just after the deaths of Cassius and Titinius, Shakespeare provides a crucial scene that emphasizes the two most honorable kinds of death for Roman soldiers: dying heroically in battle or dying of self-inflicted wounds, or the equivalent, to prevent the ignominy of being captured and put on display for the jeering crowds in Rome. Young Marcus Cato represents the first kind. Son of the famous Marcus Cato the Younger, brother of Portia, Brutus’ wife,  and thus brother-in-law to Brutus, he proudly proclaims on the battlefield: I am “a foe to tyrants, and my country’s friend” (5.4.5); and when he is finally cut down by Antony’s men, Lucillius eulogizes him, saying he is as brave as Titinius and honored as Cato’s son.[xviii]

Lucillius, the eulogizer, exemplifies the second kind of heroic death. Pretending to be Brutus, he is captured by enemy soldiers and offers them money to “kill me straight:/ Kill Brutus, and be honoured in his death” (5.4.13-14). But this ploy, which does not work—one of the soldiers runs to tell Antony that Brutus has been taken—has another function: it protects Brutus and gives him a bit more time. When Antony confronts Lucillius and asks for Brutus’ whereabouts, Lucillius’ response acts as both dramatic prognostication and quintessential definition of the suicide of honor:

                                    Safe, Antony, Brutus is safe enough.

                                    I dare assure thee that no enemy

                                    Shall ever take alive the noble Brutus.

                                    The gods defend him from so great a shame.


Shakespeare allows Brutus to be the focus of the last scene in the play (5.5.), in which Brutus’ side is clearly losing the battle. As he and some of his soldiers sit down on a rock to rest, he whispers, first to Clitus and then to Dardanius, to assist him in suicide, and each of them moves away in horror. He then tries Volumnius, an old schoolmate: “Our enemies have beat us to the pit./ It is more worthy to leap in ourselves/ Than tarry till they push us.” Then more directly: “Even for that, our love of old, I prithee,/ Hold thou my sword hilts whilst I run on it.” But Volumnius rejects his plea: “That’s not an office for a friend, my lord” (5.5. 23-25, 27-29).

Finally, as enemy soldiers are within reach, and as Clitus, Dardanius, and Volumnius flee, Brutus gets Strato, a soldier whose “life hath had some smatch [i.e., hint] of honour in it,” to give him the required assistance. And after running on his sword, which Strato is holding for him, Brutus utters his well-known last lines: “Caesar, now be still./ I killed not thee with half so good a will” (5.5. 46, 50-51).[xix]

The responses of his friends and foes to his death are predictable; the former are relieved that he was able to die nobly; the latter venerate the memory of a great man. Strato declares that Brutus is “free from bondage,” and that “no man else has honour by his death” (5.5. 54, 57). Lucillius is grateful that the manner of Brutus’ death confirms what Lucillius told Antony not long ago.  

The conquerors, as befits them, are courteous and respectful. Mark Antony’s repeated irony in his earlier funeral oration for Caesar—“For Brutus is an honorable man” (3.2.79), finally understood as irony by the unsophisticated plebeians—is here converted into sincere admiration, in what amounts to a eulogy for Brutus: “This was the noblest Roman of them all”  (5.5.67). And Octavius, the future Emperor, who has the last line in the play, is equally deferential: “According to his virtue, let us use him,/ With all respect and rites of burial” (5.5.75-76).

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the suicide of Brutus’ wife, Portia, which may or may not qualify as a suicide of honor. Women have a relatively small role in this play about politics and war—the only other female character is Calpurnia, Julius Caesar’s wife—but they remind us that even public figures like Caesar and Brutus have private lives and wives who worry about their husbands.

In Act Two Portia gently chides her husband for not sharing with her the cause of his sleeplessness: his conflicted feelings about Cassius’ invitation to join the conspiracy against Caesar. She reminds her husband that she is not a mere woman, but “a woman that Lord Brutus took to wife,” and besides, “a woman well reputed, Cato’s daughter” (yet another reminder of Cato’s influence on this play). To prove her constancy, she shows him that she has given herself a “voluntary wound/ Here in the thigh. Can I bear that with patience,/ And not my husband’s secrets?” Brutus asks the gods to make him “worthy of this noble wife” and promises to reveal to her shortly what is troubling him (2.1.292, 294, 299-302).

Several scenes later, after Brutus has made good on his promise to impart his secret to her, she nervously awaits news from the Capitol, where the assassination is to take place. Portia appears in no further scenes, and no mention is made of her until the Fourth Act, where her death is mentioned twice: once in the reconciliation scene between Brutus and Cassius  after their bitter argument, and again, somewhat later in the same scene, when Messala brings Brutus word of Portia’s death. We need not get involved in the scholarly arguments about whether both scenes are necessary and intended by the playwright or whether in his haste Shakespeare forgot to delete one of the scenes. Suffice it to say that in the earlier scene, just after Brutus and Cassius have passed angry words, Brutus finally tells Cassius, “Portia is dead,” and Cassius, deeply affected by the news, responds, “How scaped I killing [i.e., being killed] when I crossed you so?” (4.2. 199,202).

With her characteristic concern for her husband’s welfare, “and grief that young Octavius with Mark Antony/Have made themselves so strong,” as Brutus tells Cassius, “she fell distraught,/ And, her attendants absent, swallowed fire” (4.2.205-208). Plutarch, in one of Shakespeare’s major sources, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, in Sir Thomas North’s Elizabethan translation (1579), explains that she choked to death on hot coals. It is not clear whether she feared for her own safety as well as her husband’s and so took her own life to avoid capture or whether, being “distraught,” she was not fully aware of the nature and consequences of her act. Seneca and other Stoic philosophers assert that suicide of honor is a conscious act on the part of the agent, so whether Portia’s death fits that description is left ambiguous. However, her determination to die, even in such a gruesome manner, reinforces her earlier contention that she is worthy to be the daughter of Cato and the wife of Brutus, not to mention the sister of the young man, also named Cato, soon to die heroically on the battlefield. [xx]

                                    Bravest at the Last

Antony and Cleopatra, one of Shakespeare’s longest plays and one of his last tragedies (c. 1606), is considered by some readers to be one of his greatest achievements. Following the later careers of Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar (hereafter identified as Caesar) after the defeat of Brutus and Cassius, Antony and Cleopatra in a limited sense is a sequel to Julius Caesar. It is a play in which love and honor are interwoven; in fact, the fusion of these motifs provides at least two overarching structural devices that hold the play together. One is frequently commented on: the constant movement between Rome and Egypt, representing Antony’s conflicted loyalties—the political and military ambitions associated with Rome, versus the excessive revelry and exoticism of Egypt symbolized by Cleopatra, the voluptuous serpent of the Nile. Thus he is torn between his honor, which emanates from Rome, and his love, who resides in Egypt.

Increasingly Antony is drawn to Egypt, a situation which pushes to the breaking point the growing tension between Antony and his Roman partner. The original triumvirate of Antony, Caesar, and Marcus Lepidus, formed after Julius Caesar’s assassination, is eventually reduced to two; and inevitably, as Roman history and Shakespeare’s play dramatize, in a full-scale war the two vie for supremacy. Octavius Caesar is the victor.

Another important structural device, on which less attention has been focused, is a series of parallels between the two lovers, Antony and Cleopatra, by which Shakespeare shows us how very human they are, flawed in their greatness, how very much alike in spite of basic differences, and how suited to each other.

A few examples will suffice. Superficially both Antony and Cleopatra call attention to the fact  that they are no longer young. Plutarch’s Lives, Shakespeare’s primary source here as in Julius Caesar, records that Cleopatra was 38 at her death, and that sources place Antony at 53 or 56  ( “The Life of Marcus Antonius,”  Lives 6: 88).  Cleopatra, who says she is past her “salad days” (1.5.72), is “wrinkled deep in time” (1.5.29; and Antony notes several times that his brown hairs are mingled with gray. Their greatness is emphasized by parallel titles and descriptions. To Charmian, for example, Cleopatra is an “Empress”; to Enobarbus, Antony is an “Emperor.”  On several occasions they are both compared to deities. Cleopatra, in Enobarbus’ famous description of her on her barge, is Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, and on a number of occasions Antony is described as the war god, Mars, traditionally the lover of Venus.

The “triple pillar of the world,” as Antony is called in the first scene of the play (1.1.12), and the Queen of Egypt have their less attractive side. Their jealous, violent natures are reflected in two parallel scenes in which each threatens and attacks an emissary from Rome. Thus, when Cleopatra learns that Antony has married  Caesar’s sister, Octavia, she strikes the messenger, threatens to have him whipped with wire, and then pulls a knife on him. Likewise, when Antony discovers Thidias, a Roman envoy sent by Caesar, taking liberties with Cleopatra, he orders his servants to “whip him,…/ Till like a boy you see him cringe his face,/ And whine aloud for mercy” (3.13. 99-101).

The most important parallels, however, between the two lovers cluster around their suicides, which are movingly and sympathetically presented. For both Antony and Cleopatra, love and honor—grief over loss of the beloved and fear of disgrace as epitomized in the Roman Triumph—are the twin motives, and Cleopatra’s monument, an appropriate backdrop for the death of Antony, serves to prognosticate her own impending death also. Early in the play each one alludes, unconsciously and by means of an apposite image, to his/her death. Cleopatra, thinking of Antony, feeds herself “with most delicious poison” (1.5.27); aboard Pompey’s ship, Antony suggests to his cohorts, through a reference to “soft and delicate Lethe,” a well-known river in Hades, that they drink themselves into oblivion (2.7.103).

Furthermore, both lovers use the conventional comparison of death to sleep. [xxi]  Antony, in fulfillment of an earlier statement that his armor will not be unbuckled “till we do please/ To doff’t [i.e. remove it] for our repose”  (4.4. 12-13), as he prepares for suicide tells his loyal soldier Eros to “unarm” and prepare for “sleep” (4.15.35-36). After Antony’s death Cleopatra, anticipating her own suicide and wondering whether Antony was merely a dream, longs for “such another sleep, that I might see/ But such another man!” (5.2. 75-77). And she envisions Antony rousing himself, as if from sleep, to praise her.

Though Antony in his preparation for suicide specifically mentions Dido and Aeneas, Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe, whose story greatly influenced Romeo and Juliet (not to mention A Midsummer Night’s Dream), provide a more striking parallel to Antony and Cleopatra. Though Antony and Cleopatra are middle-aged and experienced, in contrast to the other four, who are young and innocent, all three pairs are star-crossed lovers, with the incompatibility of Rome and Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra replacing the feuding families in Romeo and Juliet and the Ovidian tale. In all three cases a tomb is important as a meeting place (Friar Laurence expects Romeo to be reunited with Juliet at her tomb—though not quite in the way it happens); the men all commit suicide out of the misconception that their women are dead; the women subsequently follow the men’s example of self-inflicted death; and each pair of lovers is buried side by side. Unlike Romeo and Juliet,  Pyramus and Thisbe and Antony and Cleopatra are not formally married. But the latter two, with vaguely defined hope, seek to rectify the situation in suicide. Antony seeks to be “a bridegroom in my death” (4.15. 100); and Cleopatra,  as  she is “again for Cydnus,” the site of their first meeting (5.2. 224), calls Antony “husband,” a title which she could not use while he was alive (5.2. 278). [xxii]

The imagery of marriage reinforces the similarity of the two lovers, hence their rightness for each other, as well as the cruel irony of their situation, which allows them true union only in death. Moreover, since death is a normal concomitant of tragedy, and marriage a frequent characteristic of comedy, a play such as Antony and Cleoopatra that ends in death but anticipates marriage forces us to redefine the conventional boundaries between the two genres. [xxiii]

In addition to being a play about love, Antony and Cleopatra is also a play about honor. For Shakespeare, as we have seen, the suicide of honor, connected especially with the philosophy of Stoicism, was considered pre-eminently Roman.  To use Antony’s phrase, both Antony and Cleopatra are preoccupied with the “disgrace and horror” attendant on marching in a triumphal procession to Rome (4.15.66). Antony paints for Eros a bleak picture of having to follow “the wheeled seat/ Of fortunate Caesar”  (4.15.75-76), and Cleopatra describes for Iras an equally depressing scene of being on public display for “mechanic slaves/  With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers” (5.2. 205-206).

Antony’s suicide to vindicate his tarnished honor substantiates his earlier claim to Octavia: “If I lose mine honour,/  I lose myself” (3.4. 22-23). [xxiv]  Moreover, Cleopatra, who says about the clown with the basket of figs concealing deadly asps,  “ He brings me liberty” (5.2.233), a concept important for the Stoics, is equally determined to flee disgrace and a world which, without Antony, is “no better than a sty” (4.16.64). When the dying Antony previously suggests to Cleopatra, “Of Caesar seek your honour with your safety,” she immediately retorts, “They do not go together” (4.16.48-49).

Shortly after Antony stabs himself, Cleopatra, in a moment of fear that she might be surprised by Caesar’s guards, locks the door to her monument and temporarily refuses to let Antony in. But later, after she has determined to end her life, with “knife, drugs, [or] serpents” (4.16.26), she remains firm in her purpose. Subsequently she has the opportunity of trying out the first item on her list, a knife—or, more accurately, a dagger—which is wrested from her by Proculeius. Ultimately she achieves success by means of her third option, “the pretty worm of Nilus…,/ That kills and pains not” (5.2. 238-239).

Cleopatra demonstrates a stoical disdain of Fortune. She says that Antony’s suicide will cause “the false hussy Fortune [to] break her wheel” (4.16.46), and she contemptuously refers to Caesar as  “Fortune’s knave” [i.e., servant] (5.2.3). Indeed, for Antony, who in bygone days personified the Stoic ideal of austerity (if we can trust the judgment of Caesar), suicide is the only way to reassert his heroic identity. And among the Stoics the very embodiment of the suicide of honor is Marcus Cato of Utica, who, as mentioned earlier, kills himself to avoid falling into Julius Caesar’s hands; thus his reason for dispatching himself is not very different from Antony’s. Judging from Shakespeare’s references in Julius Caesar, it is likely that he was familiar with the details of Cato’s life, if not from Seneca, then almost certainly from Plutarch’s “Life of Cato Utican.”

There is, to be sure, besides the similarity of purpose, another major likeness  between the suicides of Cato and Antony: namely, that neither one is able to destroy himself immediately by falling on his sword. Cato, whose hand is weak from a swelling, cannot muster enough power to finish the job at once; and he eventually completes his task by disemboweling himself. (See Plutarch, “The Life of Cato Utican,” in Lives 5: 174-178.) Antony, whose sword thrust does not dispatch him immediately, but allows him to linger long enough to conduct a final interview with Cleopatra, eventually dies from the force of the wound. Critic Lois Potter has some interesting comments on relatively recent British performances  of Antony and Cleopatra in which Antony’s botched suicide and his prolonged death scene evoked laughter from the audience and, in the case of the Royal Shakespeare Company, even from actor Patrick Stewart, who played Antony (“Assisted Suicides,” pp.116, 119).

For Cleopatra the heroism of her suicide is in reality the final step of a gradual process by which she comes to understand and accept  Roman values. Much has been said and written about her influence on Antony, but perhaps not enough emphasis has been placed on the extent to which Antony has influenced her life and values. At the beginning of the play she seems disconcerted by the fact that Antony has been struck by  a “Roman thought” (1.2. 73), a note of gravity, as opposed to the Egyptian “mirth” to which he is more commonly disposed. But subsequently she learns more about, and participates in, the two major areas of Roman expertise as seen in the play: war and politics. She dons his “sword Philippan” (2.5. 23), used to defeat Brutus and Cassius at Philippi; participates in the Battle of Actium as a fledgling warrior and retreats; helps Antony arm for battle; appears on the battlefield after Antony’s minor victory over Caesar; promises a soldier who has fought exceptionally well “an armour all of gold” that was “a king’s” (4.9. 27); becomes adept very quickly at the art of policy, to the point of succeeding in making “great Caesar ass/ Unpolicied” ( 5.2. 298-299); and dies an unexceptionable Roman death, though the manner of her death by poisonous serpents is not typically Roman.

When Cleopatra first considers suicide, she wonders about its permissibility: “Then is it sin /To rush into the secret house of death/ Ere death dare come to us?” (4.16. 82-84). Unlike Hamlet, however, who ponders a similar problem in a more explicitly Christian context, Cleopatra answers her own question affirmatively: “What’s brave, what’s noble,/ Let’s do it after the high Roman fashion” (4.16. 88-89). Her final act, like Antony’s, reinforces her essential nobility.

In Antony’s death scenes Eros and Cleopatra reaffirm his heroic nature by the dignity of the titles they bestow on him. In ascending social order, Eros calls him “my dear master,/ My captain, and [as Enobarbus has called him],my emperor” (4.15.89-90), and Cleopatra, with less restricted language, refers to him as”noblest of men” and “the crown o’th’ earth” (4.16. 61, 65), among other appellations. Using a parallel technique for Cleopatra, Shakespeare has the Fifth Act re-echo with the abundantly occurring word “queen” and its equivalents. Cleopatra dons her robe and crown before applying the asps to her breast and her arm, thereby fulfilling her “immortal longings” (5.2. 272). Her death scene, one of the most memorable in Shakespeare, is the final dramatic affirmation not merely of her rank but also of her greatness.

In his thought-provoking essay, “Suicide as Message and Metadrama in  English Renaissance Tragedy,”  Richard K. Sanderson, who designates  Cleopatra’s death as the “most overtly ‘artistic’ of all Renaissance stage suicides,”  points out that this “supreme actress,”  who “dresses for the part she will play” (i.e., her own death), “performs the final scene before a sem-imaginary audience consisting of herself, her waiting women, her departed ‘husband’ Antony, and Octavius Caesar…” (p.204).

My concluding parallels in the death scenes of the hero and heroine concern the reactions of those closest to them and the response of Caesar. Without question a major factor in determining the final worth of Antony and Cleopatra is the willingness of their closest friends and subordinates to die for them, an honorable mode of death that we have noticed before. Enobarbus and Eros, the soldiers who are closest to Antony, and their counterparts among Cleopatra’s women, Iras and Charmian, all die in behalf of their master or mistress.

The punishment for desertion that Enobarbus inflicts on himself, a form of self-willed death for leaving Antony when he believes his general is bereft of his wits, is basically an extension of suicide; more simply, it can be identified as a broken heart. [xxv]  When Enobarbus, Antony’s second- in-command and one of the last holdouts to remain with him, finally runs away to join Caesar’s camp, Antony magnanimously sends after him all his worldly goods and possessions that he has left behind. To  atone for his guilt and dishonor, Enobarbus chooses to die in a ditch, in ancient Rome considered an appropriate burial place for worthless, anonymous slaves.

Iras, too, dies of a broken heart as Cleopatra kisses her one last time. Eros and Charmian, on the other hand, pursue more active kinds of self-destruction: the former, before Antony’s death; the latter, after Cleopatra’s. Like his master, Eros falls on his sword; and like her mistress, Charmian applies an asp.

The ultimate loyalty of these four—and I include Enobarbus, who more than compensates for his momentary defection—to follow a master or mistress even in death suggests that Antony and Cleopatra are worth dying for. And the sensitive, hardly jubilant reaction of Caesar, their enemy, to the respective suicides of Antony and Cleopatra adds one final positive element in the evaluation of character. That the basically emotionless Caesar weeps openly at the news of Antony’s suicide indicates how strongly he is affected by the death of his political rival and former brother-in-law, and that he admires Cleopatra’s suicide in spite of his disappointment at losing her for his triumphal procession is clear from his terse comment over her corpse: “Bravest at the last,/ She levelled at our purposes, and, being royal, / Took her own way” (5.2. 325-327).

In the parallel death scenes in which the Roman general and the Egyptian queen face suicide with the courage valued by the ancient Stoics and, we assume, by Shakespeare’s audience (then and now) as well, it is difficult for us to withhold our admiration for two such lovers fleeing a petty, destructive world for that “better world” at which Cleopatra before her suicide can only hint (5.2.2.).

                                    The Front Line of the Spirit

The third member of the literary trio is Yukio Mishima, a Japanese writer born between the two World Wars who produced most of his important work after World War Two. Like Seneca and Shakespeare, he might be said to subscribe to the morale nuancée, for not all forms of suicide are equally acceptable to him. For example, in his 1956 novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (first English translation in 1959), a young Buddhist priest, physically unattractive and afflicted with a speech disability, burns down a beautiful Zen Buddhist temple. His original intention is to die in the conflagration, but at the last minute he changes his mind and escapes. The novel is based on a true story, but Mishima adapts the events to concentrate in some detail on the mind of a psychopath.

On the other hand, his best-known, frequently anthologized short story, “Patriotism” (1960), deals with what, in Mishima’s opinion, is one of the most heroic ways to die: the suicide of honor. Also based on a real-life incident, an unsuccessful 1936 coup against the Japanese government, “Patriotism” is thus grounded in the past but simultaneously foreshadows Mishima’s ritual suicide a decade after the story appeared.[xxvi]

“Patriotism” begins with a basic summary of the main events of the story, the double suicide of a young soldier and his wife, married for less than half a year, and the brief contents of their suicide notes. The summary reads almost like a newspaper story or an extended obituary, but toward the conclusion of the first paragraph the third-person narrator, with less than journalistic objectivity, offers an opinion of these deaths that no doubt represents the view of Mishima himself: “The last moments of this heroic and dedicated couple were such as to make the gods themselves weep” (p.93). [xxvii]

Having given away the plot, the narrator retraces his steps to focus more slowly on his major interests: the circumstances leading up to the suicides and the nature of those suicides. The events of the tragedy occur within a three-day period, February 26-28, 1936. On the morning of the 26th, thirty-one-year-old Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama is awakened by a bugle call, hurriedly puts on his uniform, and leaves the house. Already as her husband rushes out “into the snowy morning, Reiko [ his twenty-three-year-old wife] had read the determination to die” (p.96).

When he returns on the third day, he confirms her suspicion: “ ‘Tonight I shall cut my stomach’ ” (p.99).[xxviii] His wife’s response indicates her worthiness to be a soldier’s wife: “ ‘ I am ready,’ she said. ‘I ask permission to accompany you’ ”  (p.99).

The reason for his wish to die—and therefore for hers as well—is an impossible dilemma in which he finds himself, with either alternative to action compromising his honor; hence death is the only way out. Several fellow soldiers who are his close friends have participated in a failed coup d’état, and he surmises that he was not asked to take part, even though they knew he shared their political views, out of consideration for him  as a newlywed. He believes, “ ‘I shall be in command of a unit with orders to attack them. … I can’t do it’ ”(  p.99). But that would mean refusing his orders as an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army. Suicide will be for him, to use the Senecan phrase, “a becoming exit.”

Their preparations for death are relatively simple. The Lieutenant shaves, and he and his wife take baths. They share some heated sake—she never having had alcohol before—and then engage in passionate lovemaking for the last time. They dress, he in military uniform, she in a white kimono, and write their suicide notes. Despite their great love for each other and their short time together as a married couple, they face the prospect of death bravely, even happily. Reiko prepares some appetizers to go with their heated sake, as if she were getting ready for another party to entertain her husband’s friends.

Lieutenant Takeyama rejoices that in death he can unite the two most important parts of his life, his honor and his love: “A lonely death on the battlefield, a death beneath the eyes of his beautiful wife…in the sensation that he was now to die in these two dimensions, realizing an impossible union of them both, there was sweetness beyond words” (p.111).

Reiko, unquestionably devoted to her husband, is nonetheless overjoyed that he asks her to be a witness to his suicide and that he trusts her enough to take her own life subsequently; that is, “he did not intend to kill his wife first—he had deferred her death to a time when he would no longer be there to verify it” (p. 100). The only qualification to her happiness is that occasionally tears well up in her eyes as she realizes that she will never see her husband again, though the tears are not permitted to develop into sobs.

Mishima makes a significant contrast between the private world of Lieutenant Takeyama and Reiko—i.e., their home, where intimacy and warmth predominate—and the outside world where February’s wintry cold and snow are symbolic as well as literal. When Lieutenant Takeyama returns on the third day, he bolts the door to exclude the outside world from the last private moments he and Reiko will share. Although he is a soldier and used to performing in public, his self-inflicted death will be private, not viewed by anyone but his wife: “His was a battlefield without glory, a battlefield where none could display deeds of valor: it was the front line of the spirit” (p.104).

An aspect of this opposition between private and public, heat and cold, is that Reiko looks upon her husband as a sun god, and “she was ready, and happy, to be hurtled along to her destruction in that gleaming sun chariot” (p.97).  But after the Lieutenant’s suicide, cold permeates their home. As she sits down at her mirror to apply rouge and lipstick before killing herself, “she was conscious of the dampness and coldness of her husband’s blood in the region of her thighs, and she shivered” (p.116).

Moreover, in order to make it easier for people to find their bodies, she unbolts the door her husband locked hours ago and opens it a crack; not surprisingly, “at once a chill wind blew in… and stars glittered ice cold through the trees in the large house opposite” (p.117). With the death of her husband there is no more warmth.

Reiko’s concern with her physical appearance before death is an interesting touch. Both she and her husband reflect some of their author’s obsession with physical beauty. Mishima emphasizes that both the Lieutenant and Reiko are exceptionally good-looking. In their final rounds of lovemaking they gaze tenderly on each other’s body, knowing that this is the last time they will have such an opportunity. Lieutenant Takeyama, “not without a touch of egocentricity, rejoiced that he would never see this [i.e., his wife’s beauty] crumble in death” (p.105).

There seems to be a “touch” of egocentricity” in Reiko also. As she puts on her makeup one last time, we are told, “This was no longer makeup to please her husband. It was makeup for the world which she would leave behind, and there was a touch of the magnificent and the spectacular in her brushwork” (p.116). When she unbolts the door, part of her motive is that she “did not relish the thought of their two corpses putrifying [sic] before discovery” (p.117).

In works as diverse as “Patriotism” and Antony and Cleopatra there are some noteworthy resemblances.[xxix]  Cleopatra, too, wants to look her best in death. As with Reiko, Cleopatra’s lover is already dead (though she hopes to see him again), but instead of a humiliated figure marching before Roman mobs for their entertainment, she wishes to put on an impressive display, even in death, for Caesar, who will find her corpse. “Give me my robe. Put on my crown,” she instructs her female attendants (5.2.271), and after her death Charmian fixes her crown, which is slightly “awry” (5.2.308). Like Cleopatra, who, with the help of Iras and Charmian, hauls the dying Antony up to her monument, Reiko assists her lover in his final moments, and as with Cleopatra, Reiko is the center of attention in the last scene of the work.

All four lovers hope to see their partners again in the world to come. Antony, who temporarily believes that Cleopatra has betrayed him to Caesar and who mistakenly believes that she has died, intends to commit suicide in order to “o’ertake thee, Cleopatra, and / Weep for my pardon” (4.15.44-45). When Iras dies shortly before her mistress, Cleopatra worries that “if she first meet the curlèd  Antony, /He’ll make demand of her, and spend that kiss /Which is my heaven to have” (5.2. 292-294). Similarly, Lieutenant Takeyama tells Reiko they will soon be meeting their friends, presumably the soldiers that he would be responsible for arresting, “ ‘in the other world. They’ll tease us, I imagine, when they find I’ve brought you with me’ ”  (p. 109).

Though Cleopatra and Reiko die in different ways—one by serpents and the other by means of a small dagger given to her by her mother as part of her trousseau—Antony and Lieutenant Takeyama die from sword wounds and in each case their death is prolonged. Indeed, there are characteristics in common between the venerable samurai tradition of honor among Japanese soldiers and the code of honor among Roman soldiers.

A major distinguishing feature, however, between the suicides in “Patriotism” and those in Shakespeare and Seneca is the overwhelming, even repellent, physical detail with which Mishima describes the deaths of the young couple, especially the Lieutenant’s. Following a prescribed ritual, the young soldier pierces himself with his sword, cuts as deeply as he can, until he eviscerates himself. [xxx] Then, with some assistance from Reiko, who loosens his military collar and becomes at that point a participant as well as a witness, the Lieutenant manages to cut his throat, giving himself literally the death blow. Reiko soon follows by stabbing herself with her dagger.

Mishima himself, sharing some of the disaffections of Lieutenant Takeyama’s fellow soldiers toward the government, committed suicide in much the same ceremonial fashion as the Lieutenant, but with some deviations in style. Mishima’s ritual disembowelment was performed publicly, and his assistant was reportedly a male lover, not his wife. Additional assistance was given by a third person when Mishima’s lover was unable to complete the final act that Mishima had called for: decapitation.

Seneca, Shakespeare, and Mishima all tend to make distinctions among various kinds of suicide, accepting some and condemning others. As a rule, though, all three writers treat the suicide of honor with respect and even enthusiasm. In some cases, such as “Patriotism” and Antony and Cleopatra, love and honor are inseparable, and the combination makes the respective suicides all the more positive. For all three major writers, suicides who die without relinquishing their honor leave this world, in Seneca’s useful phrase, in a “becoming exit.”


[i]    Citations from Seneca’s Moral  Essays are from the 3-volume Loeb Classical Library edition, edited and translated by John W. Basore. Future citations from the Moral Essays  will be given in abbreviated form : e.g.,

1: 2.251. if the title of a specific essay is given in the text  (e.g., On Anger), only the volume and page number (s) will be cited: 1:251.

[ii]    The citation from Epictetus is taken from Vol. 1 of the 2-volume Loeb Classical Library series, edited and translated by W.A. Oldfather.

[iii]    Citations from Seneca’s Epistulae Morales are from the 3-volume edition in the Loeb Classical Library, edited and translated by Richard M. Gummere. Future references to this work will be in abbreviated form.

[iv]    Plutarch’s  “Life of Cato Utican”  [i.e., Cato the Younger]  is a very reliable and readable biography. See Sir Thomas North’s  1579 translation (with which Shakespeare was quite familiar) : Plutarch’s Lives 5: 109-179; for Cato’s last hours, including his death, see pp. 174-178. For Cato’s  participation in (and influence on) Roman politics in the later Roman Republic, see Lily Ross Taylor, Party Politics in the Age of Caesar, especially  Chapter 6, “Cato and the Populares,” pp.119-139, and chapter 8,” Catonism and Caesarism,” pp.162-182. Taylor deals very briefly with Cato’s death, on p.167.

[v]    Tacitus’ account of Seneca’s last days, including his death, is taken from the Annals, in Volume 4 of the Loeb Classical Library edition of the works of Tacitus. John Jackson is the editor and translator of the Annals.

[vi]   Citations of Shakespeare are from The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd edition, edited by Stephen Greenblatt et al.

[vii]   Another excellent study of Ophelia’s suicide is by Barbara Smith,  who also attempts to contextualize it in some detail, by investigating theological, legal, and political aspects of suicide in the Early Modern  Period, as well as relevant moral and psychological concerns.  Smith seems to accept that Ophelia’s death is a complicated form of suicide, but that madness is not its chief cause.  At the beginning of her erudite essay, she states her basic purpose:  …“The play, sympathetic to Ophelia’s mental state, rejects the simplistic rigidity of canon and civil law and allows Ophelia salvation” (pp.96-97).  In a number of ways, then, her view is similar to Hanford’s and Kirkland’s.

      In an enlightening essay about the treatment of Shakespeare’s   plays in Japan,  we get another perspective on Ophelia.  Tetsuo Kishi notes that in 1886 a “competent and prolific hack called Robin Kanagaki (1829-1894) published a Japanese version of Hamlet,  ‘The Portrait of Hamlet Drawn in Japanese Style’ ”  (p.111). This Japanese version takes many liberties with Shakespeare’s plot (pp.111-113). Among those liberties is that Ophelia’s death is hardly “doubtful” :  she deliberately kills herself by “throw[ing] herself into a large pond in the castle garden,”  knowing that Hamlet has killed her father (p.112). Kanagaki’s version of Hamlet was “never wholly staged until 1991” (p.111).

[viii]  As Stephen Greenblatt  observes in his notes on Hamlet in the Norton Shakespeare (p. 1711, note 4), lines 55.1 to 55.4  (printed here, as in the Norton text,  in italics) appear in Quarto  2 [the Second Quarto edition of Hamlet, the so-called Good Quarto of 1604] but not in the First Folio edition of 1623, containing almost all of Shakespeare’s plays that we acknowledge today.

      For an analogous scene in King Lear, in which Edgar tries to discourage his father, Gloucester, from jumping off a cliff, see King Lear 4.6. 1-80, the Conflated Text edition in the Norton Shakespeare, pp.2548-2550. Edgar, too, connects suicide with demonic instigation.

       And for the concept of Satan as a psychologist who attempts first to investigate, and then to destroy, his victims, see Paul D. Green, “Suicide, Martyrdom, and Thomas More,” pp.145-146. Also, see Michael  MacDonald,

“The Medicalization of Suicide in England,”  pp.71 ,72, 74, 81. This essay is a compendious study of changes  in attitudes  toward suicide in England from the mid-16th to the late-19th century.

[ix]   MacDonald, “Ophelia’s  Maimd  Rites,” pp.315-316, note 19, suggests a less positive interpretation of

Horatio’s near-suicide: “It is possible to hear in the final exchange between Hamlet and Horatio an echo of the famous objection , derived from Pythagoras by way of Cicero, that the suicide forsakes his duty like a soldier who deserts his post…”

[x]  In a provocative essay, Derek Cohen uses the suicide of Othello as a way of bringing together some of the complex issues of the play, especially patriarchy and racism.

[xi]  In “Macbeth’s Suicide,” Arthur Kirsch analyzes the bleak environment of  Macbeth in some detail, concluding that, from beginning to end, Macbeth and his wife have implied death wishes:  Lady Macbeth’s death wish is fulfilled in her suicide, whereas for Macbeth, who , by the end of the play, has also lost all reason to live, the fulfillment of his death wish comes, we infer, in his climactic battle with Macduff.  Kirsch examines much of the play through the perspective of Freudian and Augustinian theory.

[xii]  See Arthur Kirsch, “Macbeth’s Suicide,” pp.271-273, 291, and 292. See also Michael C. Clody, “Orpheus,  Unseen: Lucrece’s  Cancellation Fantasy,” p.450.

[xiii]  Citations from The City of God are from the Penguin Books edition, translated by Harry Bettenson.

[xiv]  The concept of the body as a “prison”  from which the soul is freed by death  is commonly found in Plato,  especially the Phaedo.

[xv]  For an intriguing essay on the impact of  Lucrece’s rape and subsequent suicide in helping scholars and theater directors  determine  whether Lavinia in Titus Andronicus is actually a suicide rather than,  as she is usually considered,  a murder victim, see Sonya  Freeman Loftis, “The Suicide of Lavinia: Finding Rome in Titus Andronicus.”

[xvi]   Katharine Eisaman Maus, the editor of Julius Caesar  in The Norton Shakespeare,  in her note to Act 5, Scene 1, line 100-102, states that  the reference is to “Plato, who rejected suicide” and whom “Brutus admired” (p. 1606, note 2). Without making  a final decision on the philosopher or philosophy involved in Brutus’ controversial remark,  Sacharoff  finds a “small but significant piece of evidence  for the Platonic element in Brutus’ thinking.”  He makes his point by quoting Plutarch’s Life of Brutus:  “Now touching the Grecian philosophers, there was no sect nor philosopher of them, but he heard and  liked it: but above all the rest, he loved Platoes sect best” (p.119). It is indisputable that Shakespeare knew Plutarch’s Lives in Sir Thomas North’s Elizabethan translation.

[xvii]   Today we might refer to this procedure as assisted suicide, though in our own time this term has very different implications from those in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. For a brief but lively discussion of “assisted suicide” in Shakespeare, including some non-Roman plays, such as Romeo and Juliet  (with the Apothecary as Romeo’s “assistant” ), see Larry R. Kirkland, pp.662-663.

[xviii]  At the end of Plutarch’s “Life of Cato Utican” he briefly mentions Cato’s son as having died honorably at Philippi: Plutarch’s Lives 5:179; also, in somewhat more detail, the death of Cato’s son is mentioned in “The Life of Marcus Brutus,”  Plutarch’s Lives 6:232.

[xix]  Plutarch, “Life of Brutus,” reports two possible versions of Brutus’ suicide: one, that he “ran him selfe through” with his own sword, and the other, that Strato held his sword for him (6:235)—the latter, of course, being the version Shakespeare chose.

[xx]  Plutarch’s account of Portia’s death does not really clarify the situation. In the last paragraph of his Life of Brutus (6: 236), he writes that two sources, including Valerius Maximus, “doe wryte, that she determining to kill her selfe… tooke hotte burning coles, and cast them into her mouth so close, that she choked her selfe.”  But to further the complication Plutarch adds: “There was a letter of Brutus found written to his frendes, complaining of their negligence, that his wife being sicke, they would not helpe her, but suffred  her to killl her selfe, choosing to dye, rather than to languish in paine.”

[xxi]  In her essay “Death Imagery in Antony and Cleopatra,”  Katherine Vance MacMullan notes that several pervasive images of death found in earlier Shakespeare plays and reappearing  in Antony and Cleopatra are used for “purposes of characterization and for establishing  the important relationships of the play” (p.408). These “emblematic death images,” used for both Antony and Cleopatra,  include “images of death and love,  of  sleep and death [emphasis mine], and of light and darkness” (p.408).

[xxii]  In Plutarch’s description of Antony’s death scene, Cleopatra “dried up his blood that had berayed his face, and called him her Lord, her husband  [emphasis mine], and Emperour, forgetting her owne miserie and calamity, for the pitie and compassion she tooke of him”  (“Life of Marcus Antonius,”  Lives 6: 80).

[xxiii]  See the thoughtfully detailed analysis of Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra by Martha Tuck Rozett, who attempts to show the abundance of comic elements  in these two tragedies, one early and one late. As she puts it, “In particular, I wish to examine the comic structures implicit in the double suicides, which in both plays turn upon essentially comic acts of trickery”  (p.153). See also Lois Potter’s  relevant comments below, in the text,  on recent British performances of Antony and Cleopatra

[xxiv]  Jacqueline Van Houtte cogently reminds us that at various times in the play,  Antony has a variety  of motives for suicide (what she calls his “bewildering improvisation of motives “  )[p.5:  The cited page is not that of the original article, but of the Gale Biography in Context printout].  “In considering suicide,” she continues, “Antony cites, in chaotic succession, his rage at Cleopatra, his fear that Cleopatra and Caesar are colluding, his love for Cleopatra, his desire to em  ulate her  [after Mardian, Cleopatra’s eunuch, has falsely asserted that Cleopatra has already committed suicide], his desire to emulate Eros, and his refusal to become a trophy in Caesar’s triumph” [p.5]. Nonetheless, as  I believe, at the actual moment of his self-stabblng, his dominant motives are to follow  the example of his love, Cleopatra, whom he believes to be already dead, and to reclaim his lost honor. 

[xxv]  In a perceptive essay that focuses on Enobarbus’ death scene, David Read concentrates on the strangeness of Enobarbus’ death, noting, among other issues,  parallels and contrasts with other Shakespearean deaths  from a broken  heart (King Lear,  Gloucester, and Cleopatra’s Iras: pp.564-565, 575), and pointing out similarities between the “easy “ deaths of Enobarbus and Cleopatra, in contrast to Antony’s “hard” or “hard-edged,”  more conventional  Roman death  by sword  (e.g., pp.568 and 579).

[xxvi]  John Howard Wilson, in his article, “Sources for a Neglected Masterpiece,”  notes  that in 1965 Mishima directed and starred in a film called The Rite of Love and death, based on his short story  “Patriotism.” Mishima plays “the part of the army officer who commits seppuku” (p.278). Wilson’s article is primarily  about Paul Schrader, a “film theorist, screenwriter, and director”  (p.265) among whose  achievements  is a film about Mishima that Wilson felt had been unfairly neglected.  His article describing the film attempts to explicate the complex relationship between Mishima’s politics, his art, his life, and his long-standing death-wish. See also the lengthy New York Times review of the film by Japanese writer Michihiko Kakutani and the scholarly article by Hisaaki Yamanonchi.

[xxvii]  Quotations  from “Patriotism” are cited from the New Directions edition Death in Midsummer and Other Stories by Yukio Mishima.

[xxviii]  This ritual act of suicide among high-ranking members of the Japanese military is often referred to as “hara-kiri,” but it is generally known that the Japanese themselves more frequently call it “seppuku.” Both terms mean ‘cutting of the belly.’  Stephen Morillo points out that “more or less ritual forms of suicide appear in the earliest Japanese war tales from the twelfth century onwards” and that seppuku originated in wars between 1180-1185, “during which the warrior class of Japan rose to power” (p.242).

[xxix]  According to critic Tetsuo Kishi, the first Japanese to translate the whole Shakespeare canon into the Japanese  language (including, in each play, descriptive and analytic passages not in the original) was Shoyo Tsuboochi, “by far the most prominent figure in the history of Shakespeare in Japan” (pp.110-111).  (The first play that he translated was Julius Caesar  in 1884.) Given Mishima’s familiarity with Western literature and his fixation on suicide, it is more than likely that he was quite familiar with Shakespearean tragedy, either in Japanese translation or in English, including Antony and Cleopatra.

[xxx]  In his enlightening essay  Stephen Morillo hypothesizes that in seppuku “the choice of disembowelling is probably based on the ancient Japanese belief  that the soul resides in the belly” (p.255, note 46).


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