To be or not to be: Suicide and writers, 2 Parts

Frederic Leighton (1836-1896)-The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets over the dead bodies of Romeo and Juliet, 1855 (© Wikimedia)

Part 1: From Antiquity to the 19th Century


In spite of the great riches they have left behind and the immortality that many of them have achieved through their works, writers have long had a thing with suicide. In William Shakespeare’s most famous lines – Hamlet’s soliloquy at the start of Act 3 – the hero contemplates the pros and cons of killing himself, and these great words reflect a line of thinking that has shifted through the ages but which we find in Western literature as far back as the Greek and Roman classics.

Some of the world’s greatest masterpieces involve a famous suicide, from lovers like Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde, to heroes and anti-heroes such as Madame Bovary, Goethe’s young Werther, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. And quite a few writers themselves have taken their own lives. In part one we look at some of these stories from ancient Athens up to and including the 19th century.

Part 2: The Twentieth Century


In the second part, David Swatling looks at some of the most famous incidents of suicide in 20th-century literature — Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Yukio Mishima, Vladimir Mayakovsky — and discusses the rise in tolerance towards suicide as well as a greater scientific interest in “self-murder”.

Producer David Swatling

Broadcast: October 22 & 29, 1999