Echoes of Narcissus: Selfhood, Subjectivity and Suicide in the Early Modern Period

By Sinchan Chatterjee

Asserting that “the subject is born divided”, Lacan argues that the split between an individual and his ‘self’ is irreconcilable, since the very idea of the self is an illusory construct of the imagination created in the mirror stage. This quest for the tantalizing but unattainable ‘Other’ propels life forward.
Chronologically tracing the development of the rapidly evolving idea of the ‘self’, assessing it from social, political, cultural, literary and theological viewpoints, this paper questions how stable these markers really are, and if at all there is a binding, overarching idea of the self.Attempting a psychoanalytical study of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this paper seeks to establish how the realization, attainment or denial of the self not only forms the psychological backdrop, but also structures and organises the action of the play. Drawing on the Narcissus myth, the paper explores the complicated relationship between selfhood and suicide.
Keywords: Selfhood, Agency, Subjectivity, Identity, Consciousness, Suicide, Lacanian, Psychoanalysis, Signifier.

“Fool, why try to catch a fleeting image, in vain? What you search for is nowhere: turning away, what you love is lost! What you perceive is the shadow of reflected form: nothing of you is in it. It comes and stays with you, and leaves with you, if you can leave!”[1]

The idea of the ‘self’ as a separate, individual entity existing on its own right has always been at the core of all forms of art. It is the struggle for expression (or repression) of selfhood in a unique, distinct manner that informs every work of art. Various layers of ‘self’ are involved in the very process of the making of fiction – the self as artist, the self as character, the self as reader, and the self as critic. (The text, in a way, brings about a unification of all these selves, thus forming a site where diverse ‘selfhoods’ emerge and interact, thus making another self of the text itself). To undertake the task of formulating a definition of the ‘self’, however, would be a futile labour, because over time, across cultures, societies and borders, the very notion of the self has undergone radical transformations, so that one civilization would no longer recognise, let alone adopt or live by, the ideas of selfhood that their immediate predecessors conceived. While numerous philosophers, thinkers and artists have tried to address the question of selfhood and subjectivity, stressing on the importance of developing an individual consciousness, of thinking, doubting, and questioning, a chronological survey of the ‘self’ (as a goal to be striven towards) would reveal the developments in the context of selfhood as influenced, if not dictated, by the changing socio-political, economic, cultural and psychological factors.
One of the earliest depictions of the idea of ‘self’ was offered by Socrates, the cornerstone of whose philosophy was that the self is a dynamic entity: “…neither his manners, nor his dispositions, nor his thoughts, nor his desires, nor his pleasures, nor his sufferings, nor his fears are the same throughout his life, for some of them grow, while others disappear” [2] Plato also elaborates his concept of the self in the Republic and the Phaedrus, as a three-part structure constituted by Consciousness, Identity, and the Soul. Melding philosophy and religion together, Augustine held that the full meaning of the self can be discovered only through a spiritual connection arising out of complete submission to God. Thomas Aquinas opined that our definition of the ‘self’ depends upon the external environment with which we interact. Descartes believed in a rationalistic view of the self, asserting in his Meditations: “dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum (I doubt, therefore I thinkand therefore I am)”, convinced that committing oneself to a systematic doubting of all things is the only way to attain well-reasoned conclusions unique to every individual’s belief-system. The self is thus that which is not only capable of thinking, but can also think-itself thinking, and possesses a degree of self-consciousness.
However, going to the extent of questioning the act of questioning itself, Descartes wrote:
This alone is inseparable from me. I am—I exist: this is certain; but how often? As often as I think; but what, then, am I? A thinking thing, it has been said. But what is a thinking thing? It is a thing that doubts, understands [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses; that imagines also, and perceives. [3]
It was the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who introduced the Bundle Theory, separating the thought from the object that thinks: “I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.”[4] Alarmed by Hume’s thoroughgoing skepticism of the self as a mere powerless receptor and processor of impulses, Immanuel Kant dismissed Hume’s theory stating that the unique, powerful presence of the self can be traced the ‘unity of consciousness’[5] – which refers to the act of organizing, synthesizing and unifying experience in a logical manner. Thus, to Kant, the self is not merely an object, but a subject of “transcendental” status as it exists independently of experience, “above” or “beyond” sensory perceptions.
It was only during the Renaissance, however, that a greater emphasis began to be laid on the importance of selfhood and subjectivity. Stephen Greenblatt, in his book Renaissance Self-fashioning: From More to Shakespeare[6], describes the process of constructing one's individual identity according to a set of socially acceptable standards. Highly influenced by the art and literature of the time, such as conduct books and portraiture, the physical and mental fashioning of the new self became an act of formation and expression of subjectivity and individuality. While in the medieval period, "self-presence" was a matter of locating oneself within the wider cosmic order of things by exercising the intellect or rationality, the modern idea of ‘self’ stressed on autonomy and singularity of an individual person as the object of one’s own reflective consciousness. In other words, the self is the source of subjectivity. To sum up, Charles Taylor writes, "The modern subject is self-defining, where on previous views the subject is defined in relation to a cosmic order".[7]
In Lacanian psychoanalysis, at the end of the mirror stage, the initial relationship between the infant and her Ideal (‘I’) becomes the foundation for the child's social relationships and for the child's self-image as a social being. For Lacan, "who we are" can always only be assessed in relation to other people. The self is thus greatly dependent on our socio-cultural environment, which simultaneously defines and limits reflexivity. According to G.H. Mead, the individual needs somewhere to look from, an ‘outside’ position from which it can perceive of itself, in order to create the self as an object. We turn to those around us to gain this objectification, by which we can form a knowledge of who we are. Thus the formation and continuation of the self is fundamentally social: “. . . it is impossible to conceive of a self arising outside of social experience”[8]. Thus, being external and outside of our control, our very point of reference, the foundation ground on which we build the plinth of our self-awareness is itself shaky.
Moreover, always existing in a structure of social hierarchy wherein freedom is not absolute or unfettered, our sense of self must perpetually undergo a process of repression, conscious or otherwise, in accordance with changing modes of behavior or speech to conform to different sets of rules, verbal and written. Therefore, the autonomy we seem to enjoy over our own selves is an illusion, because in an eternal act of duplicating, masking, dissociating and dividing our self, we no longer remember the original, if such a thing did exist. Thus, the discourses we use to maintain self-identity or self-awareness are bound by their cultural rootedness.
Talking about the otherness of the image the subject conjures in the mirror stage, in the Lacanian model, “I” am never fully ‘myself’ because my ego, my "I", comes into being only in relationship with an image that is ‘not me’ –the infant’s perception of her image in the mirror does not correspond to the actual physical reality she experiences. Thus, the ‘self’ is never self-aware, and consequently, what it experiences as "itself" is a misrecognition, a ‘méconnaissance’ (a French word, meaning to "misconstrue" or "misrecognize"). Throughout the life of the individual, the ego thus sustains its sense of singularity and autonomy through a misrecognition of the actual conditions of its existence -- especially of the fact that its existence depends on others and on the symbolic systems of culture. Believing in this illusion and keeping it intact is central to the very condition of human survival. Kierkegaard writes, “In every instant a self exists and is in the process of becoming. The self does not actually ‘exist’, but is only that which it is to become. In so far as the self does not become itself, it is not its own self, and not to be one’s own self is despair.” [9]

Suicide, often seen as a desperate measure of a deranged individual, or the result of prolonged ‘despair’,  may also be interpreted as the ultimate act of manifestation of the self, an empowering act of taking control, of asserting one’s will, of constructing the self through its destruction. Camus’ “only serious philosophical question”[10] is central to the psychological and sociological movement that has radically altered ideas of selfhood in the modern time. Until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, suicide was dominated by Christian taboo: "Hands off yourself," Augustine declared; "Try to build up yourself, and you build a ruin!"[11] The power to impose a shape upon oneself was dreaded by the state as an aspect of the more general power to control identity. In the writing of Burckhardt, we discover instances of the family, state and religious institutions imposing a rigid, far-reaching discipline upon their middle-class subjects. An unhealthy anxiety about ‘sin’ was implanted in the mind of man, filling him with fear for feeling the unnatural, devilish impulse of violating God’s purpose by killing himself.  It was then viewed from the Enlightenment onwards in a more sympathetic light, through the influence of rationalist humanism. (What held modernity back from becoming modernity is Christianity, and suicide illustrates this issue like no other: once the everlasting “Cannon ‘gainst Self-slaughter” (Hamlet) got unfixed, Renaissance humanism opened the way to modern, radical ways of thought.)
            As Gidden neatly summarises it, “No longer bound to fixed, culturally given identity positions, modern subjects, perhaps for the first time, face the burden and the liberation of constructing their own identities – we have no choice but to choose how to be and how to act”. We can thus determine the nature of our identity and define our ‘self’ through conscious choices, by exercising our subjectivity. Giddens refers to this process as “the reflexive project of the self”.[12] It is this choice of how to be, and whether or not to be at all, which forms the core of Hamlet’s dilemma.
The staging of Hamlet contributed greatly to the development of that general feeling which George Williamson has aptly called “the metaphysical shudder ... which brought death into the world of early seventeenth century thought” and which Lawrence Babb terms “the despondency of the late English Renaissance”. However, Shakespeare's depiction in Hamlet of his hero's self-construction and destruction is not simply identical to those patterns of self-fashioning and self-cancellation, but also points beyond the cyclicity of the process of creation, destruction and reconstruction in an attempt to offer a redemptive vision of the possibility of salvation.
Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide, unnatural behavior and inconsistent speeches inform almost the whole length of the play. His intellect, sensitivity, and moral scruples and religious, ethical codes of conduct prevented him from following his deepest desires, and instead, caused him to seek a means of terminating the intolerable burden of existence. As Margreta de Grazia percipiently observes, “Suicide is at the heart of the modern, neurotic Hamlet”.[13]
Timothy Bright’s Of Melancholie (1586) has been suggested as a source of Shakespeare’s depiction of madness. “Melancholy” was used by Bright to indicate the disease itself and its symptoms, including depression, sadness, misery, frenzy, hysteria, hypochondria and morbidity. The motifs of melancholy and a deep-rooted sadness resulting from anxiety are spread throughout Hamlet: e.g., “out of my weakness and my melancholy” (II.ii.577); “There is something in his soul / O’er which his melancholy sits on brood” (III.i.164-165), and “This something-settled matter in his heart, / Whereon his brains still beating puts him thus / From fashion of himself” (III.i.173-175). [14] T.S. Eliot speaks of this “intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object, [as] something which every person of sensibility has known...”[15] The idea of madness, infirmity of mind and insanity are thus closely associated with the figure of Hamlet, who displays clear signs of neurotic behavior: “make mad the guilty” (II.ii.537); “I am but mad north-north-west.”(II.ii.360-361). Further, on his confrontation with the ghost, Horatio apprehends that it might deprive his over-sensitive friend of reason and “draw [him] into madness” (I.iv.74-75), a fear which proves true later in the play. Other instances where Shakespeare draws our attention to the theme of madness are Hamlet’s letter, sent to Ophelia as a set of “wild words”, the use of the words "distracted” and “crafty madness” (III.i.5-8), and Hamlet’s clarification to the queen: “That I essentially am not in madness, / But mad in craft” (III.iv.187-188).
A few references to Bright’s treatise show clear parallels between the melancholy man in Bright and in Hamlet and underscore his suicidal tendencies. Bright asserts that “the causes of all diseases are breaches of dutie ... From the same also do arise the works of melancholie”[16]. Corrupted in his own inner being, especially when torn between the obligations to his Christian ideals which prevent him from murdering Claudius, and to his father’s spirit which demands retribution, Hamlet is caught in a limbo, an indecisive space where he can act on neither impulse. It is essentially this inability to act, this failure to transform his desires into actions, to realize his goals, which eventually corrodes his sense of purpose, and therefore his sense of identity, breeding a deep feeling of melancholy. Because we base our opinion of our ‘self’ by measuring the goals and plans we formulate for ourselves against the consequences of our actions, Hamlet is trapped in a nightmarish world where the reality of his inability to act eats away at his noble dreams and aspirations towards attaining justice. As the shadow between his idea and reality increases, as the gulf between his emotion and response keeps widening, Hamlet’s sense of self becomes increasingly fragile and disintegrated.
We remember that Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he has lost all his “mirth, forgone all custom of exercises” and lost delight in “this goodly frame, the earth” (II.ii.289-290). The symptoms of Bright’s melancholic and of Hamlet have much in common: “Their dreames are fearfull… Their resolution riseth of long deliberation because of doubt and distrust” (Melancholie, pp. 130-131). Elaborating on the theme of dilatoriness, which is integral in Hamlet criticism, Bright writes: “Thowe contemplations are more familiar with melancholic persons then with others, by reason they are not so apt for action ...” (Melancholie, pp. 200).
It may be argued that the third soliloquy, “To be or not to be…” is an extension of the argument of the first soliloquy in “For in that dreame of death, when wee awake, / And borne before an everlasting Judge...” Reviewing the advantages of annihilation, Hamlet reflects that continued existence entails enduring “outrageous fortune” whereas opposition to the “slings and arrows” can offer the extermination of one’s troubles. The word ‘conscience’, in its common Elizabethan meaning of “clear knowledge” or “inward apprehension,” validates the non-action of staying alive; Hamlet regards it as cowardly in comparison to self-destruction. Our knowledge of present evils is more valid than our incomplete knowledge or mere suspicion of future evils (which we “know not of”), and therefore we resolve but fail to act. In every resolution Hamlet has made and failed to honour, he has destroyed an idea of his ‘self’ that he had painstakingly built. When he fails to turn any of his ambitions into reality, Hamlet has discarded all the images of his ‘self’ that he had constructed, unable to follow any ideal. Exhausted, in despair, Hamlet turns to the comforting promise of death to deliver him from the fatiguing cycle of making, chasing and breaking illusory ideals. Hamlet’s acceptance of Laertes’ challenge while fully aware of the implicit plot against his life, reveals him as more than a modern psychic man whose suicide is a result of mental disturbance (the oedipal Complex culminating in the Death Drive) -- the act of self-annihilation becomes an act of reclaiming voluntary agency. Thus, his death-drive may be interpreted as a search for Truth, ever-lasting and eternal, beyond the self, which is the last and hardest temptation to conquer.
“Man is aware of himself, of his past and future, which is death, of his smallness and powerlessness. . . . Man transcends all other life because he is for the first time, life aware of itself”.[17] It is precisely this acute consciousness of the implications of his own death which serves to distinguish Hamlet’s suicidal tendencies from the impulses of an ordinary neurotic person. In life, Hamlet seeks to arrive at his true self via a hit-and-trial method, negating the impossibilities to end up with an only remaining possibility. However, seeing through the illusory nature of the façade, Hamlet gains the awareness that the slate is never blank, as it demands the construction of an ideal, a new self (knowing it is unattainable) for survival. A ‘self-less’ vacuum could never truly exist, except in death, which guarantees the repose of eternal sleep after life’s fitful fever. Talking about the relationship between suicide and selfhood, Montaigne claims, “Death is a remedie against all evils… The voluntariest death, is the fairest. Life dependeth on the will of others, death on ours… To live is to serve, if the libertie to die be wanting.”[18]
What most troubles Hamlet about the question of existence is the fact that it is a question at all. “No person has the choice about whether ‘to be’: by definition, a person already is, and his birth now lies in a pre-history beyond his choice.”[19] Paradoxically, in contemplating suicide, this choice comes into being: non-existence is revealed as an alternative state, to accept which becomes a final act of exercising control over oneself, of exerting one’s will, and thus merging with the image of the self  --  shadowy, floating and unreal, as seen in the watery mirror. Like Narcissus, literally dying to kiss the reflection of his self in the pool, all act of suicide becomes an acceptance of the impossibility of ever truly attaining the ideal. Culturally located in a time that associates the blasphemous abandonment of self-fashioning as a rejection of the desire for freedom, Hamlet sees through the illusory nature of the self to arrive at the understanding that denial of the self, that total renunciation and complete abnegation of the self (for no cause whatsoever) may be the only way out of the imagined order. What is paradoxical in Hamlet, is that he uses his subjectivity, to erase his subjectivity, that he asserts his selfhood by exercising a decision that will eliminate his selfhood.
Emotionally oppressed and spiritually tormented by the burden of the knowledge that there is no self to strive towards, that action is just as ineffective as inaction, that selfhood is contingent and to embark on an ideal is a futile project, Hamlet’s dying is not an attempt to be united with his ideal self in his imagination, but rather a coming to terms with the fruitlessness of life and even death itself. (He does not actually kill himself, but lets himself die, so to speak). In dying, he robs the mirror of the image, and divests his own consciousness of all vain notions of the ‘self’. Burdened by the haunting palimpsest of all the selves that he has been and not been, Hamlet’s demise (although not technically a suicide), coming after all his deliberations and contemplation on the art of dying, portrays his death as a means of embracing the fact of self-lessness, and transcending all logocentric boundaries, illusions of purpose, meaning and existence, of attaining Nirvana (an enlightened insight into the futility of chasing the image of an illusory self), and thus escaping the perennial circle of construction, destruction and reconstruction of the self. It is precisely Hamlet’s final awareness of himself as no-self, which sets him free from the tedious processes of unreal life, which function on the continuous building and breaking of different shadowy versions of the ‘self’.


[1] Ovid. Metamorphoses. Penguin, 2004. Bk. III, pp. 109
[2] Plato, and Kenneth James. Dover. Symposium. Cambridge University Press, 2012.                                                          [3] Descartes, Meditations. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
[4] Strawson, Galen. The Evident Connexion: Hume on Personal Identity. Oxford University Press, 2013.
[5] Kant, Immanuel, and Marcus Weigelt. Critique of Pure Reason. Penguin Books, 2007.
[6] Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: from More to Shakespeare. University of Chicago Press, 2005.
[7] Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[8] Leader, Darian. Introducing Lacan. Icon Books, 2000.
[9] Kierkegaard, Sor̜en. The Sickness unto Death. Penguin, 2008.
[10] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. Hamilton, 1965. 
[11] Augustine, Saint, and Maria Boulding. The Confessions. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
[12] Giddens, Anthony. Introduction to Sociology. Norton, 1994.
[13] Grazia, Margreta de. Hamlet without Hamlet. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
[14] Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Dover Publications, 1992.
[15] Eliot, T.S. “Hamlet and his Problems”, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. Faber and Faber, 1920.
[16] Bright, Timothie. A Treatise of Melancholie. Rpt. Cambridge University Press,1986. pp- 240.
[17] Fromm, Erich. Man for Himself: an Enquiry into the Sociology of Ethics. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971.
[18] Montaigne, Michel de. Essays. Project Gutenberg, 2006.
[19] Pollin, Burton. “Hamlet, A Successful Suicide”, Shakespeare Studies, vol. I. 1965.

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Ovid. Metamorphoses. Penguin, 2004.
          Plato, and Kenneth James. Dover. Symposium. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
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 Setu, July 2020

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