In today’s society we look upon the victims of suicide with feelings of compassion for the desperation that had preceded their demise. Elizabethans, however, viewed those who committed suicide not as victims but perpetrators guilty of a criminal offense. By closely examining Elizabethan’s laws against perpetrators of suicide alongside the funeral precession of Ophelia in Hamlet, we can better understand why Ophelia received a Christian burial regardless from the fact that she committed suicide and how this would make sense to Shakespeare’s audience. By doing some close readings of the text we can see the power struggle between Church and King, a reflection of Elizabethan England through the procession. Through close examination we can see
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Almost all the rest were declared felo de se” (Michael MacDonald). These narrowly constructed laws only excused raving lunatics, while regarding those who suffer from lesser mental disorders as being guilty of self-murder. “Technically, the law required that a suicide, to be convicted of self-murder, had to have killed himself in cold blood. Self-murder…had to be premeditated…and its perpetrator had to have been sane at the time of the fatal act” (Michael MacDonald). The Coroner’s Jury not only determined the cause of death, they also had to guess at the deceased’s state of mind.
Most people who were guilty of committing suicide were found to be sane, and only undisputable evidence of raving madness might result in their acquittal. According to Michael MacDonald, drowning was one the most frequent causes of accidental death in Stuart England. It was difficult in most cases to determine if a person drowned in a river or lake had committed suicide. Nevertheless large numbers of drowned bodies were labeled felones de se, which made drowning the second most common cause of death to be suicides with the most commonly found suicides being women.
There are stark similarities between the facts Michael MacDonald has presented and what has happened to Shakespeare’s character Ophelia, from