Murder of the Sleepless Souls by the Society: Madness and the Theoretical Suicide in William Shakespeare’s Selected Tragedies


The concepts of madness and suicide have captivated and mystified generations of scholars. Shakespeare seems to be obsessed with the portrayal of insane characters and their ultimate self-killing in his tragedies. In fact, the Shakespearean tragic characters such as Othello (Othello), Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), Brutus (Julius Caesar), Ophelia (Hamlet), Timon (Timon of Athens), Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra), Goneril (King Lear), Mark Antony (Antony and Cleopatra), Cassius (Julius Caesar), Romeo (Romeo and Juliet), Juliet (Romeo and Juliet) and Portia (Julius Caesar) may have certain flaws in their characters but they would not have taken their own lives away unless there were strong and negative influences from the external forces in the society. In other words, they are made utterly frustrated and depressed by the people, their actions and behaviours. 


Therefore, they lose control over their minds, act irrationally (as the decision of committing suicide is not logical and it is the proof of madness) and lead themselves towards self-destruction. In this sense, they have not committed suicide; indeed, they are murdered by the instigators or social agents! It would be clearer to understand by an easy example- the so-called ‘suicide’ is similar to the way a murderer stabs and kills someone or someone who pushes another person down from the top of a building. The one we call ‘murder’ is committed by using weapons like knife, pistol etc. which we can see and touch but the murder in the guise of the ‘supposed suicide’ is committed by using weapons that we do not actually see or touch such as, spreading rumour, constantly pressurising someone psychologically, hurting someone’s self-esteem badly and the like. For instance, Iago drives Othello towards the point of insanity by spreading rumour about Desdemona. He suffers psychologically as his honour is at a stake and his self-respect is ruined. As a result, Othello murders his wife. However, after finding that Desdemona is not adulterous, Othello loses his rational mind and acts as a mad man; he stabs himself with a dagger and dies beside Desdemona’s corpse. 


Othello in Othello 


Othello, the Moor of Venice, has married Desdemona, a young lady from Venice. They have a strong bond between them since Desdemona has respected Othello’s love by eloping with him. She has deceived her father so that she can stay with Othello forever. Undoubtedly, Othello is a leader of great stature. The Venetians honour him because of his valour as a leader. However, great leader and stress are similar to the body and the shadow. He has much tension on him. But, only stress does not drive Othello towards ‘madness’. Indded, the combination of the stress, envy, and loss of honour act as catalysts in making Othello insane. Therefore, he does not hesitate to murder his wife. We see a mad Othello when he cries:


thou hast set me on the rack.

I swear ‘t is better to be much abus’d

Than but to know a little.



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