William Shakespeare always did death well. Even his own. His plays are a veritable graveyard – 74 deaths in all, according a new play titled The Complete Deaths, out later in the summer of 2016.
Even that number must leave out the deaths alluded to in the various plots; soldiers killed in war, peasants wiped out by famine, sailors meeting a watery end in a shipwreck. Lovers, fathers, mothers, kings, he spares no one. In his sonnets, he cries out for “restful death”. Not so in his plays. Shakespeare kills and kills with gusto.
Stab, poison and behead
A pie chart recently compiled by the The Telegraph suggests Shakespeare was excessively partial to death by stabbing. It accounts for nearly half the deaths in his plays. The Roman conspirators stab Caesar, Hamlet stabs the eavesdropping Polonius, Macbeth stabs Duncan, after having a fit about a dagger (“Is this a dagger which I see before me”). Othello stabs himself after he learns his wife, Desdemona, had been faithful to him after all. This is right after he has smothered her with a pillow.
If you can’t stab them, behead them. Macbeth’s severed head is brandished by a victorious Macduff at the end of a battle and people keep getting beheaded in his history plays, quite understandably. Poisoning is also a favoured method of murder; sometimes a character is stabbed and poisoned for good measure. Sometimes, a character will just get baked into a pie.
When they are not being murdered, people in Shakespeare’s have the extraordinary ability to die of extreme emotion. They collapse from grief or a broken heart or shock that their daughter has married a “Moor”. Taking the matter quite seriously, an article in the British Medical Journal asks, “Did Shakespeare himself believe that people die as a result of intense emotion, especially grief?”
It patiently goes on to explain that a disease called the long QT syndrome can cause catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia in a person under emotional stress. People with ischaemic heart disease are also vulnerable to death by extreme emotion. Shakespeare knew none of this, but he did know that grief can make the body fail.
Death makes a good play
He also understood the theatricality of death, as if it were a vanishing trick or an optical illusion, a person making an exit from stage left. Death is often performed in his plays. Juliet pretends to poison herself to escape being married off, a plan that goes horribly wrong. In The Winter’s Tale, the statue of a long-dead queen stirs to life. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a group of workmen essay “The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe”.
The final scene of this play within a play shows Thisbe mourning over the body of her dead lover. “His eyes were green as leeks,” she says, before stabbing herself with the same sword that killed him. All the while, the audience in the play is laughing uncontrollably at poor Thisbe’s trials. The actors are just that bad.
It is another matter that Shakespeare writes the same story as high tragedy in Romeo and Juliet. There, the death of the two lovers has a very different effect: “The sun for sorrow will not show his head”.
Tragedy melts into comedy and back again into tragedy, the dead can come to life and then die again a few minutes later in Shakespeare’s plays. It is a sense of absurdity, of meaninglessness that is ultimately tragic.
Macbeth, hearing that his wife is gone, cannot even summon up a reasonable grief: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more. It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.”
Death makes a good play, Shakespeare found, which might explain his more elaborate death scenes. Think of Cleopatra sultrily giving up the ghost with an asp clasped to her bosom and devoted serving maids following her into the afterlife. But a play also makes a good death.
Stephen Greenblatt finds that Shakespeare’s plays offered an outlet for grief in severely Protestant Elizabethan England, which had clamped down on Catholic rituals of mourning and declared the dead beyond prayer. Theatre tapped into “the great reservoir of passionate feelings” that could no longer be expressed in everyday life. A death in a play could be the occasion for an emotional release.
In Hamlet, Greenblatt suggests, the grief is personal. The prince of Denmark had nearly the same name as Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, who had died a few years ago at the age of 11. When he wrote the play, his father was seriously ill. The loss of a son and the impending loss of a father pushed the playwright to vertiginous heights of tragedy. In the years since Hamnet died, Greenblatt says, Shakespeare had also been brewing a secret skill, how to express the inner life with intensity.
As he wrote tragedy in his later years, Shakespeare often did away with causal explanations or an explicit rationale for a character’s actions. The “passionate feelings” that made up an individual’s inner life often had no reason. So Hamlet is filled with irresolute melancholy as he contemplates his own death. And King Lear wanders through the howling desolation of the moors, driven half mad by the perfidy of his daughters and the loss of his kingdom, raging about the “tempest in my mind”. He is one of the Shakespearean characters who die of extreme emotion.
Abjuring his art
So if you can die more satisfactorily, more truly, more beautifully in a play, why wait to die in real life? Apparently William Shakespeare chose to "shuffle off this mortal coil" on April 23, 1616, though nobody is very sure. It is also not very clear what caused this event.
One account mentions a bout of drinking which brought on a fever. Others say he knew the end was near and so put his papers in order, which suggests a more lingering illness. There is also a rumour that he contracted syphilis, which is why he has Lear spitting and hissing about “the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, corruption”.
Whatever the case may be, it is hard to imagine the death of William Shakespeare, the actual, historical scene, at least. But that, precisely, is the point. The good playwright probably does not want you to. Not for him the coughing and gasping, the physical indignities of real death. Besides, there were other kinds of demise that were more important.
During Shakespeare’s lifetime, his great rival and contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, had been killed in a pub brawl, apparently after a fight broke out over the tab. Shakespeare takes the squalid event and turns it into a great symbolic struggle. If a poet’s verse cannot be understood, he writes in As You Like It, “it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room”. Marlowe's unmannerly end is restored to dignity. Shakespeare also suggests that mere mortality does not kill a poet. Artistic death is to be feared more than physical death.
To take care of that in his own case, he wrote a play, probably his last play. The Tempest, first performed in 1611, tells the story of an enchanted isle where the deposed duke, Prospero, rules by the power of his magical art. In the epilogue to the play, when all is resolved, Prospero stands alone on the stage, talking directly to the audience. He has abjured his art, given up his wand and his book of spells: “Now my charms are all o'erthrown,/ And what strength I have's mine own,/ Which is most faint: now, 'tis true.” As the curtains come down, he asks for the audience’s indulgence and applause.He knows he is a magician taking his leave at the height of his powers. He is William Shakespeare, taking his last bow, knowing he will probably live forever.
Photo credits: Jaideep Vaidya.