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 this category—“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.” 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 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.
His own death by suicide, which occurred after the cruel and unpredictable Nero informed him that his earthly existence was no longer desirable, was thus a state-sanctioned alternative to legal execution. 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 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 Socrates, one of his idols, the aged Roman philosopher and former mentor of Nero, who accepted his fate bravely, rebukes his friends for weeping, reminds them of the lofty philosophic precepts which teach us how to behave in adversity, and then, simply and unhesitatingly, cuts his arteries to end his life.
More than fifteen centuries after Seneca’s death, Shakespeare focused on the suicide of honor, primarily 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.
Even in non-Roman contexts Shakespeare cannot be pinned down to a single approach (i.e., Christian prohibition); for example, within a play 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!”—but at the end of the play, when Hamlet lies dying, his best friend and former fellow student 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. His spontaneous utterance as Hamlet wrestles with him for the poisoned cup, “I am more an antique Roman than a Dane,” 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.
‘Tis Honor to Deprive Dishonorèd Life
One of Shakespeare’s early works, which centers on suicide to redeem lost honor, is his long narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece (l594). 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 the 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 by her 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.”
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 honor I’ll bequeath unto the knife / That wounds my body so dishonorèd. / ‘Tis honor to deprive dishonored life.” And in the line of that stanza she concludes that in her death, “mine honor is new born.”
Per Contra - Fall 2006
The Green Thought - Paul D. Green