Violence in Shakespeare: Suicide, Murder, and Combat in Shakespeare’s Plays

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Introduction

Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences reveled in shocking drama. While patrons liked a good comedy, they consistently packed the theatres to see the newest foray into treachery, debauchery, and murder. Scenes of bloodshed were staged with maximum realism. An account of the props required for George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar (1594), for example, lists three vials of blood and a sheep’s lungs, heart, and liver. Kyd’sSpanish Tragedy calls for an arbor with a dead body swinging from it (as described in Karl J. Holzknecht’s, The Backgrounds of Shakespeare’s Plays).

Some of Shakespeare’s most violent plays were by far his most popular during his lifetime. Although modern audiences are often repulsed by its gore and brutality, Titus Andronicus was a huge success in Tudor England, coveted by several of the finest touring companies. And certainly it is no coincidence that Shakespeare’s most profound psychological masterpieces have their share of sensational melodrama. Shakespeare often deviated from his sources to include more titillating details. Hamlet’s father is poisoned with a potion so potent that it immediately causes bubbling scabs on his body; King Duncan is lured to Macbeth’s castle to be slaughtered in his bed, and so on. Presented here are those characters who meet their ends violently — those who feel “death’s eternal cold” through murder, treason, suicide, and bloody combat. Suicide
We have no friend
But resolution and the briefest end.
Antony and Cleopatra (4.15.91-2)

Brutus (Julius Caesar)
Brutus, knowing that he has lost the battle with Antony and Octavius, convinces a servant to hold his sword as he throws himself upon it.

Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra)
Cleopatra chooses the deadly venom of two asps as her method of suicide.

Goneril (King Lear)
Goneril, the depraved scoundrel who concocts nefarious schemes against her father, Lear, and her husband, the Duke of Albany, commits suicide when her plots are exposed.

Juliet (Romeo and Juliet)
As she kisses her beloved Romeo one final time, Juliet stabs herself with Romeo’s dagger and falls dead upon his body.

Lady Macbeth (Macbeth)
Although we are told in Act 5, Scene 5 that Lady Macbeth is dead, it is not until the closing lines of the play that we learn her death was a suicide: …”his fiend-like queen,
Who, as ’tis thought, by self and violent hands
Took off her life. (5.7.100-2)

Mark Antony (Antony and Cleopatra)
Antony falls on his own sword but lives longs enough to meet one final time with Cleopatra.

Cassius (Julius Caesar)
Cassius, certain that he will soon be captured by Antony and Octavius, kills himself with his sword.

Ophelia (Hamlet)
Ophelia, driven insane by Hamlet’s cruelty and the murder of her beloved father, plunges from a tree branch into the current below. Although her fall is an accident, Ophelia makes no attempt to save herself, and thus her drowning is viewed as a suicide.

Othello (Othello)
When Othello discovers that his wife, Desdemona, whom he has murdered, is not guilty of adultery, he drives a dagger into his chest and falls dead beside Desdemona’s body.

Portia (Julius Caesar)
Convinced that her husband, Brutus, will not be able to defeat Antony and his army, Portia commits suicide in her Roman home.

Romeo (Romeo and Juliet)
Carrying the fast-acting poison he has purchased from an apothecary in Act 5, Scene 1, Romeo arrives at the tomb of Juliet. He believes her to be dead and drinks the fatal potion, exclaiming, “Thus with a kiss I die.” (5.3.121).

Timon (Timon of Athens)
Wandering through the wilderness, Timon can no longer take the hypocrisy of mankind. He is found dead in his cave — an apparent suicide.

Murder
Truth will come to light,
murder cannot be hid long.
The Merchant of Venice (2.2.76-7)

Desdemona (Othello)
Unjustly accused of adultery, Desdemona is smothered to death by her jealous husband, Othello.

Banquo (Macbeth)
Out horseback riding with his son, Fleance, Banquo is cornered by three murderers hired by Macbeth. Banquo is slain but Fleance escapes.

Lady Macduff (Macbeth)
Lady Macduff is chased down and slaughtered offstage by Macbeth’s henchmen. Her son is also killed by the murderers.

Polonius (Hamlet)
Acting as a spy for King Claudius, Polonius hides behind a curtain in Gertrude’s chamber to listen to her conversation with Hamlet. Hearing a noise, Hamlet stabs through the curtain and kills the old eavesdropper.

Cordelia (King Lear)
A murderer hired by the evil Edmund hangs Cordelia in her cell.

Emilia (Othello)
Emilia is stabbed by her husband, Iago, when she reveals his role in the plot against Desdemona and Cassio.

Lavinia (Titus Andronicus)
After being raped and mutilated by Tamora’s two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, Lavinia is murdered by her own father, Titus, to spare her further shame.

Gertrude (Hamlet)
The Queen drinks from the poisoned chalice of wine intended for Hamlet. She dies exclaiming, “The drink, the drink! I am poison’d” (5.2.320).

Claudius (Hamlet)
Hamlet stabs Claudius with the poisoned rapier and then forces him to drink from the poisoned goblet.

Titus Andronicus (Titus Andronicus)
Saturninus kills Titus Andronicus after Titus reveals that he has baked Tamora’s two sons in the meat pie that Saturninus and Tamora are eating.

Tamora (Titus Andronicus)
Tamora is stabbed to death with a butcher’s knife by her arch nemesis, Titus Andronicus, at the gruesome dinner party arranged for the Emperor.

Regan (King Lear)
Regan is poisoned by her sister, Goneril, after she sets her sights on Goneril’s lover, Edmund.

Assassination and Execution
There is no sure foundation set on blood,
No certain life achieved by other’s death.
King John (4.2.104-5)

Hamlet’s Father (Hamlet)
Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, assassinated Hamlet’s father by pouring the “juice of cursed hebenon” (1.5.63) in his ear while he slept in his orchard. Hebenon is a folk name for Henbane, the expressed juice of the fresh plant, Hyoscyamus niger. Other folk names for Henbane include Black Nightshade, Cassilago, Devil’s Eye, and Jupiter’s Bean. The death of Hamlet’s father was inspired by a real event in 1538, when the Duke of Urbino was killed by a poisoned lotion rubbed into his ears by his barber.

Duke of Clarence (Richard III)
The pitiful Clarence is wrongfully arrested and jailed in the Tower by his brother, Richard. One night as he awakens from a terrifying nightmare, two henchmen sent by Richard burst into his cell. Clarence pleads for his life but one of the assassins stabs him. To ensure Clarence is dead, the first murderer drowns him in a “malmsey-butt”, a cask of sweet wine also containing the severed heads of two hogs.

Richard II (Richard II)
King Richard II, usurped by Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, is taken to the Tower of London. Contemplating remarks made by Bolingbroke, a nobleman named Exton mistakenly believes that Bolingbroke desires Richard dead, and he takes his henchmen to Richard’s cell and kills him.

Henry VI (3 Henry VI)
The pious but ineffectual Henry VI is stabbed to death in his Tower of London cell. His assassin is the villainous Richard, Duke of Gloucester, soon to become Richard III.

Coriolanus (Coriolanus)
A group of merciless conspirators, spurred on by the leader of the Volscians, Aufidius, surround and stab Coriolanus in the play’s final scene.

Julius Caesar (Julius Caesar)
Conspirators fearing a return to tyranny close in on Caesar and stab him to death.

Duncan (Macbeth)
The noble King of Scotland is murdered in his sleep by Macbeth during his visit to Macbeth’s castle, Dunsinane.

Aaron (Titus Andronicus)
Aaron, sentenced to death by the new emperor, Lucius, is to be buried up to his neck in the sand and starved to death.

Killed in Combat
I have no words;
My voice is in my sword.
Macbeth (5.8.6-7)

Macbeth (Macbeth)
Macduff and Macbeth fight ferociously in hand-to-hand combat, before Macduff appears holding Macbeth’s severed head.

Mercutio (Romeo and Juliet)
Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt, the cousin of his darling Juliet. Enraged that Romeo will not defend his honor, Mercutio challenges Tybalt to a duel. Romeo attempts to separate the two, but Tybalt fatally wounds Mercutio. As he dies, Mercutio cries, “A plague o’ both your houses!/They have made worms’ meat of me.” (3.1.108-9).

Tybalt (Romeo and Juliet)
Romeo challenges Tybalt to a duel after Tybalt kills Romeo’s cousin, Mercutio. The fight is short and Romeo leaves Tybalt dead on the ground.

Richard III (Richard III)
The Earl of Richmond, later Henry VII, slays the outrageous villain on Bosworth field.

Hamlet (Hamlet)
Hamlet is stabbed with the end of Laertes’ poisoned rapier.

Laertes (Hamlet)
During the final climatic fencing match, Laertes and Hamlet scuffle and their rapiers are accidentally exchanged. Hamlet grabs Laertes poisoned rapier and wounds Laertes. Laertes soon dies from the injury.

Hotspur (1 Henry IV)
Young Prince Hal duels and mortally wounds the honor-driven Hotspur on the battlefield. Hotspur manages to render a final speech, but dies before he can finish his last thoughts.

Edmund (King Lear)
The malicious villain is mortally wounded in a duel with Edgar.

Paris (Romeo and Juliet)
Romeo kills Paris in a duel before Juliet’s tomb. Romeo promises the dying Paris that he will lay him beside Juliet.