12 December 2015

Suicide in Popular Culture, the Media and Society: Shakespeare, Morrissey and Writing What You Know


Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

The prologue to literature’s greatest love story and most fabled suicide. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet tackled suicide in the late 16th century and has remained a cornerstone of popular culture this entire time. Although the thirst for the play seems to be drying up on stage and replaced with adaptations of modern day classics, it has remained within our cultural sphere through the movie industry. Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version, Romeo + Juliet, portrayed the classic tale within a modern, suburban and hip-hop culture setting. Since 1996, Gnomeo & Juliet (2011) starring James McAvoy and Emily Blunt, and Romeo & Juliet (2013) starring Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld have both kept Shakespeare’s play alive within popular culture for another decade.

The premise of the play, as we all know, is about two young lovers from rival families who struggle to be together amidst a territorial war between their loved ones in Verona. Their family’s grudge ultimately leads to the death of both Romeo and Juliet during act five, scene three. At the beginning of act five, Romeo, who is in exile in Mantua, is told by Balthasar that Juliet is dead. Romeo declares that a life without his beloved is worthless and plans to take his own life by Juliet’s side. “I will lie with thee tonight.” Romeo heads to Juliet’s tomb with poison in hand. His intention is clear as he enters the tomb. After the distraction of fighting Paris, Romeo leans over Juliet’s body. Still believing that she is dead but merely in a coma, Romeo kisses Juliet one last time and drinks the deadly poison and thus commits suicide. Juliet awakes from her coma as Friar Laurence enters the tomb. She asks for her love and is told by the Friar that both Romeo and Paris are dead. Now in a similar state to how Romeo was, when he heard of her death by Balthasar, she also plans to take her own life. Alike Romeo, she takes one final kiss and stabs herself with her love’s dagger. (In Luhrmann’s modern adaptation, she shoots herself with Romeo’s gun)

Both Romeo and Juliet come to the same conclusion: Neither wants to live a life without the other and suicide is the only option. Although the pair of star-cross’d lovers have families, friends and wealth, none of that matters once they think they’ve lost their one true love. Society would usually view this as a selfish act on the part of Romeo and Juliet. They are choosing to pain their families and friends because they can’t have what they most desire. However, the audience does not take society’s view with Romeo and Juliet. Instead, the audience feels sorry for the young lovers and believes their actions, although stupid on the part of Romeo for believing that Juliet was dead, are painfully justified. Society’s view doesn't make a single appearance in the audience’s mentality as we appreciate the love that Romeo and Juliet hold for each other. After their deaths, the Capulet and the Montague families are blamed for them taking their lives as it was their tribal grudges that didn't allow the young lovers to be together. When William Shakespeare wrote the tragedy, England was very much a religious nation. Although battling internally with Catholics and Protestants, and on the verge of civil war, both sectors of Christianity believe in the existence of an afterlife and heaven. Therefore, when Romeo and Juliet take their lives, both believe that they will be with each other for eternity in heaven and a medieval audience would've believed the same. This conclusion may not resinate with a 21st century audience due to the increase of atheism but, the audience’s view of their suicide hasn't changed.

Romeo and Juliet wasn't the only instance of suicide that William Shakespeare wrote. In Hamlet, Ophelia takes her own life after the death of her father. In Othello, Othello kills himself with a dagger after murdering his love. And in both Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, real life suicides of history are played out with five suicides in Antony and Cleopatra with both Antony and Cleopatra taking their own lives and the suicides of Brutus and Cassius in Julius Caesar. There was a foundation of suicide and constant depiction of it within Shakespeare’s work. The persistent portrayal of the act suggests that Shakespeare held great intrigue for suicide. As the old saying goes, ‘write what you know’. Perhaps Shakespeare’s suicidal depictions wasn't just intrigue but more suggestions of his disposition and depressive mind. We may not know what state of mentality he was in but do those who don’t think about suicide, write about suicide? Or is it a topic that is openly written about by every writer?

Written by Johnny Marr and Morrissey, There Is a Light That Never Goes Out, was released in October 1992 by the alternative rock group The Smiths. Alike most of The Smith’s work and Morrissey’s solo records that followed, the lyrics often suggest misery, depression, heartache or death. This single from the album, The Queen Is Dead, is no different.

And if a double-decker bus 
Crashes into us 
To die by your side 
Is such a heavenly way to die 
And if a ten-ton truck 
Kills the both of us 
To die by your side 
Well, the pleasure - the privilege is mine 

The song insinuates that he would rather die beside the driver (whom we assume is his lover) than be dropped off home and leave her side. Although not technically suicide, wishing one’s own death conforms to the depressive mind and unstable mentality of suicide. The trend in Morrissey’s lyrics suggests the contemplation of such an act and in an interview with Larry King on Larry King Now in August 2015, he talks openly about depression and suicide.1 King asks Morrissey about his battle with depression which Morrissey responds with an honest account of his struggle. Morrissey calls his illness the “black dog” and suggests that depression shows one is a “sensitive and open human being.” Larry King then asks “You’ve never thought, I hope, of harming yourself?” Morrissey firstly rejects the idea with a joke but then opens up with an assumption about depression within society: “It crosses everybody’s mind. Everybody thinks about it. Even people who mistakenly assume that they're happy. They think of just disappearing and having enough and, many people do.”  His assumption of everyone thinking about suicide at some stage conforms with his lyrics and why his music, both with The Smiths and as a solo artist, connects with so many people. Morrissey then gives his honest opinion of the act of suicide: “…Taking control and saying no more, no more of this silliness and it’s admirable.”

This wasn't the first time that the singer announced his thoughts about suicide. He previously appeared on ‘Desert Island Discs’ in November 2009 where he gave his opinion to presenter Kirsty Young.2 After being asked: “Have you thought about being in control of your death? Have you thought about shuffling off this mortal coil at a time of your choosing?” Morrissey replied "Yes I have. Yes I have, and I think self destruction is honourable. I always thought it was. It's an act of great control and I understand people who do it.” Morrissey’s viewpoint is conflicting of society’s as he suggests that suicide isn’t a selfish or cowardly act. In fact, it’s the polar opposite of society’s view. But, is this because he is a depressive? Does Morrissey hold this view because of his state of mind and doesn't think of himself as selfish? Moreover, does he suggest it’s admirable because he’s not “fearless” enough to end it himself and therefore declares those who go through with it as valiant beings?

After the Larry King interview, NME published a statement online from the Samaritans, criticising Morrissey’s comments.3 However, as we assumed that Morrissey was probably this way inclined, the fallout amongst society was minute. We are fully aware from Morrissey’s lyrics of his state of mind and it backs up the suggestion earlier that Shakespeare wrote about suicide so much because he may have contemplated taking his own life and writers inevitably write what they know. Although we know that Morrissey has suicidal tendencies, society doesn't view him in the same way that it views the act of suicide. Instead, society holds Morrissey in high regard and respects his lyrical genius.

Notes
1 Larry King ‘EXCLUSIVE: Morrissey Opens Up About Ongoing Battle With Depression (VIDEO) | Larry King Now | Ora.TV’ 19th August 2015 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=175hsU0kpFs
2 BBC Radio 4 ‘Desert Island Discs, Morrissey’ 4th December 2009 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00p068y
3 NME ‘Samaritans criticise Morrissey following singer's 'suicide is admirable' comments’ 21st August 2015 http://www.nme.com/news/morrissey/87734

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