Shakespeare and “Death with Dignity”

Recent events have brought the debate on so-called “death with dignity” and assisted suicide into the spotlight again. And yet, the argument is not really a new one. There is no less light than when William Shakespeare extensively dealt with the subject in his writing.
“Death with dignity” is essentially a code word for suicide, sometimes in the face of a terminal illness. As one humanist put it, he wants to kill himself on his own terms rather than die from some disease. He said it would be like telling God, “You can’t fire me . . . I quit.”
In the Netherlands, they accepted the basic concept of doctor-assisted suicide many years ago. But they have now reached the point where the level of involuntary deaths has exceeded the number of voluntary deaths.
“Dr Peter Saunders of the Christian Medical Fellowship told the Daily Mail that euthanasia in the Netherlands is ‘way out of control,’ saying that it proves that assisted dying is impossible to regulate,” as noted on
The Breitbart article adds that earlier this year a Dutch official told the British Parliament, “Don’t go there,” when he was asked about England’s consideration to legalize assisted dying.


Gaining traction

“Death with Dignity” is gaining greater traction in Western society—especially as we move away from God and Judeo-Christian morality, which states in the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt do no murder. That includes murder of self. It is God’s prerogative to give and to take life.
This may seem harsh to our culture, but what in God’s revelation has changed? There’s no divine sanction for suicide. I remember when a distraught believer once asked me if he would still go to heaven if he killed himself. I told him one sure wouldn’t want to find out the hard way that he would not. Thankfully, he chose to live. (Later, his problem resolved itself.)


Shakespear’s Hamlet

Suicide is one of the themes of one of the greatest plays in the history of the world, Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
There was a lot of biblical influence on William Shakespeare. Even the leading atheist of our time (Richard Dawkins, former Oxford professor) notes that there are some 1300 biblical quotes and references in the writings of the bard from Statford-upon-Avon. Dr. George Morrison wrote Christ in Shakespeare, noting the Bible’s impact on numerous passages where we can “trace its phraseology, and beyond its phraseology we can detect its thought.”
So what does Shakespeare, particularly in Hamlet, have to say about “death with dignity”? He obviously doesn’t use the phrase. What he does talk about is “self-slaughter.” The famous soliloquy of Hamlet (Act III, Scene I): “To be or not to be” can be paraphrased as: “Should I or should I not commit suicide?” Of course, the original sounds better.
This life, contends Hamlet, is filled with all sorts of problem that he catalogues: “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune;” “a sea of troubles;” “the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to;” “the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely [i.e., contempt], the pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes.”
Life stinks, says Hamlet. To paraphrase the references above: There’s bad luck; there are the bad things that naturally happen to us; we grow old; we deal with oppression and contempt; there are those we love who hate us; justice is denied because it is delayed; those in charge do what they want; and there are “the insults which the hard-working, patient person receives from the one who does not deserve credit” (Source for this last phrase:
In short, Hamlet asks, should I or should I not “shuffle off this mortal coil?” With a “bare bodkin” (an unsheathed knife), I could end it all, says Hamlet, and find “quietus” (release from life). So why not end it all and thus lose all these “fardels” (burdens), rather than “grunt and sweat under a weary life?” This would be “devoutly to be wish’d.”


Dreading after death

But what happens after death? “To die,—to sleep;—To sleep: perchance to dream:—ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause.”
He adds, “But that the dread of something after death,—The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn No traveler returns,—puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?” What if I kill myself, and God turns out to true after all?
He concludes this passage, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…” Better to not kill yourself than to find out the hard way that it was wrong — with tragic consequences — concludes Shakespeare’s Hamlet, thus ruling out “death with dignity” in the way the phrase is used today, i.e., suicide.
Earlier, in his first soliloquy in the play, Hamlet laments: “O that this too to solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” I wish I were dead, he cries. And then comes the rebuttal: “Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon [i.e., His law] ’gainst self-slaughter!”
In his last will and testament, Shakespeare himself wrote: “I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping and assuredly believing through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Savior, to be made partaker of life everlasting; and my body to the earth, whereof it is made.”
While our debate on “death with dignity” may seem new, it’s as old as God’s law on Mt. Sinai and as old as Shakespeare’s 17th century dramas. Our lives are not ours to take with impunity.

Dr. Jerry Newcombe is co-host of Kennedy Classics. He has written/co-written 24 books. He hosts Thursdays at noon. Follow him at and  @newcombejerry.

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