As might be expected, most commentary on death and dying in Shakespeare's plays centers on the final moments of his tragic protagonists. Karl S. Guthke (1992), for example, maintains that in these episodes, Shakespeare frequently challenges the ars moriendi (art of dying) tradition, especially the conventional view that one's dying words always represent the truth and that they may even be prophetic. Calling attention to Shakespeare's unconventional introduction of comic elements in scenes of tragic death, Catherine I. Cox (1992) argues that these allow the audience to accept the characters' fate and simultaneously anticipate the sense of freedom and communal reordering that will follow their deaths. T. W. Craik (1979) notes that the final scenes of Shakespeare's tragedies often feature a series of reversals: from hope that a character will survive to dread of impending disaster, then back again. Discussing the question of whether Shakespeare's tragic heroes achieve understanding of existential issues before they die, Walter C. Foreman, Jr. (1978) emphasizes these characters' final affirmations of human control—even though such affirmations may be illusory. Susan Snyder (1982) also explores the issue of self-assertion in the face of destruction, observing that a principal function of tragedy is to protest the inevitable.
Snyder's remarks on tragic self-assertion appear in her analysis of the most frequently discussed deaths in the Shakespeare canon: those of Lear and Cordelia. The demise of the old and exhausted king represents the natural consequence of human mortality, she argues, whereas Cordelia's murder incarnates our sense that death is monstrous. Examining the ending of King Lear in the context of early modern Christian belief, Ian J. Kirby (1989) declares that the play's evil characters all die in ways that signal their eternal damnation. By contrast, he contends, Lear dies in a state of grace, and his final words express not despair but rather the joyful conviction that he and Cordelia will be reunited in heaven. Addressing the issue of Hamlet's despair, Richard Fly (see Further Reading) maintains that although the prince falls into despondency midway through the play—after confronting and acknowledging the annihilating power of death—in his final moments he reaffirms the value of human existence. The critic finds evidence in the graveyard scene (V.i) that Hamlet's despair has lifted; he asserts that here the prince counters the clown's profession of the transiency of all human endeavor with a newly acquired, dispassionate attitude toward the fact of human mortality. Also evaluating the encounter between Hamlet's perspective and the gravedigger's, Michael Cohen (1987) contends that an important subtext in their debate is the issue of whether death levels all class distinctions.
Another noteworthy comic episode in the midst of Shakespearean tragedy is the Porter scene in Macbeth, where, Catherine I. Cox maintains, the clown presages both life and death, evoking our sympathy for Macbeth as a man who must be punished for his sins. The dramatic discrepancies in the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra are the focus of James C. Bulman (see Further Reading), who emphasizes the disparity between conventional expectations of heroic death and what is actually enacted. Bulman points out that Antony's claim to be an epic hero dying a noble death is sharply at odds with his botched suicide; the critic also calls attention to Cleopatra's procrastination and equivocation even as she prepares herself for a heroic death. Jean-Marie Maguin (1995) analyzes the deaths of Shakespeare's other pair of lovers who die entombed: Romeo and Juliet. The critic contends that, for them, death is both an escape and a resolution.
Reading the Henry VI trilogy as an “intersection” of tragedy and history, Alexander Leggatt (1996) turns to the deaths of Lord Talbot and his son John in 1 Henry VI. As with the deaths of heroes in Shakespeare's tragedies, theirs represent the end of an era, he argues, and they personify Shakespeare's concept of history as a compilation of individual tragedies. By the same token, Dorothea Kehler (1985) emphasizes the tragic elements of Richard II and the king's painful endeavor to acknowledge his personal mortality. For all his egotism and vacillation, Kehler maintains, Richard dies well, neither begging for life nor relinquishing it without a struggle. Paul M. Cubeta (1987) evaluates Falstaff's death—one of the most notable deaths in Shakespeare's histories. Though the fat knight's death scene is recounted rather than enacted, his ending is intensely realized, Cubeta remarks, and it is suffused with an ambiguous atmosphere of folklore, superstition, and Christian beliefs about the art of dying.
Deaths in Shakespeare's comedies always occur offstage, Marjorie Garber (1980) points out. Yet the recognition of human mortality is intrinsic to these plays, she contends, and each of them contains at least one character or speech that reminds us of the inevitability of death. Garber also notes that after Measure for Measure, where death takes center stage, Shakespeare wrote no more comedies. Both Phoebe Spinrad (1984) and Robert N. Watson (see Further Reading) have examined the motif of death in Measure for Measure. Assessing the prison scene (III.i) in terms of traditional Christian views on preparation for death, Spinrad traces Claudio's unsteady passage toward repentance. The critic also remarks that Angelo's puritanism and Isabella's martyr-like isolation constitute figurative prisons from which they will be released only when they accept death as an integral part of life. By contrast, Watson views Measure for Measure's accommodation with death as halfhearted. Despite its gestures toward pardon and redemption, he argues, the play mocks the hope of individual survival in some transcendent sphere. Evaluating accommodation with death in The Winter's Tale, Cynthia Marshall (1986) focuses on the animation of Hermione's statue in Act V, scene iii. This scene offers an image of the restoration of the earthly family in heaven, she maintains, but even as the vitalization of the statue dramatizes the Christian concept of resurrection, Hermione's transformation remains a mystery.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “I Know When One Is Dead, and When One Lives,” in Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. LXV, 1981, pp. 171-89.
[In the following essay, originally presented in 1979, Craik reviews the final scene in King Lear together with scenes in other plays where Shakespeare treats life and death with dramatic ambiguity.]
I am very grateful to the British Academy for inviting me to deliver this lecture. For my title I am indebted, obviously, to Shakespeare himself, but it was a colleague of mine at the University of Durham, Dr Derek Todd, who provided the stimulus. In his book I Am Not Prince Hamlet Dr Todd writes as follows:
‘I know when one is dead, and when one lives’, says Lear as he carries in Cordelia: a statement which turns out to be strangely false, for he alternates several times between believing her alive and believing her dead.1
Dr Todd's remark made me curious to examine this scene afresh, and also to examine other scenes in which death and life are, or may be, treated with dramatic equivocation. The more often I read Shakespeare's plays the more firmly I believe that they are thoroughly dramatic. The truism is intentional. It seems to me impossible to stress too strongly that the life of a Shakespeare play lies in the effect it makes on a spectator (or on a reader who reads as if he were a...
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SOURCE: “Wild Laughter in the Throat of Death,” in Shakespearean Comedy, edited by Maurice Charney, New York Literary Forum, 1980, pp. 121-26.
[In the following essay, Garber argues that although no character introduced into a Shakespearean comedy ever dies, the knowledge that death molds and informs life is implicit in every one of them.]
I don't want to become immortal through my work. I want to become immortal through not dying.
It may seem perverse to argue that Shakespearean comedy is really about death and dying, but that is nonetheless what I should like to propose. More precisely, Shakespearean comedy is about the initial avoidance or displacement of the idea of death, the cognition and recognition of one's own mortality—and then, crucially, the acceptance, even the affirmation, of that mortality. In a sense, therefore, what we are speaking of is a process of neutralization, in anthropological terms a removing of the experience of death from a sacred to a neutral zone—a desacralization, a normalization, a refusal to privilege death. Shakespearean comedy is a ritual of the lifting of mourning, and the revels moment of applause that marks its close is the comic theater's counterpart to the shared feast of the mourner.
Let me explain. One significant hallmark of Shakespeare's comedies is that no character ever brought to life in...
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SOURCE: “Measure for Measure and the Art of Not Dying,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 74-93.
[In the following essay, Spinrad analyzes the eventual acceptance of death as a part of life by the major characters in Measure for Measure. The critic examines this acceptance in terms of sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century religious writings that view life on earth as a form of imprisonment, and pays particular attention to Claudio's conduct in the prison scene (Act III, scene i).]
In many ways, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure may be considered a culmination of the Morality tradition that extends from Pride of Life to Doctor Faustus: a tradition that poses the moment of death as an understanding of life, offers the soul a last chance on earth to choose salvation or damnation, and dispatches the soul accordingly. But in Measure for Measure, the soul is not dispatched. And in this respect, Shakespeare's “problem” play mirrors the “problem” of life itself: that even though death offers the perfection of salvation to an imperfect world, we are often afraid to accept the terms of the offer; and that when we have overcome our fear and are ready to embrace death as a release, the kindly offer may be withdrawn.1
This is not to suggest that Measure for Measure is a grim...
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SOURCE: “King of Tears: Mortality in Richard II,” in Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 39, No. 1, 1985, pp. 7-18.
[In the following essay, Kehler emphasizes the tragic and psychological aspects of Richard II as she traces the king's emotional journey from a conviction that he is invulnerable to a recognition of his mortality.]
Love's Labor's Lost, which initially depicts an attempt to defeat death through fame, comes to a remarkable comedic close as Marcade enters to announce the French king's death, displacing courtship with mourning. Death also stalks Richard II, contemporaneous with Love's Labor's Lost, transforming it from a parvum opus, a lesser history play important chiefly as prologue to the masterly Henriad, to the self-contained story of a pitiful and terrifying confrontation with mortality. However much England's fate is bound up with its king's, however much dramatic importance accrues to Bolingbroke, our interest is focused above all on the eloquent, tormented individual who dominates the play. As Larry S. Champion observes, “conceptually Richard II is more nearly tragedy than history” (70). Expanding the boundaries of earlier Shakespearean history plays, Richard II diffuses into what Polonius calls “tragical-historical,” presenting a de casibus protagonist whose plight is Everyman's....
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SOURCE: “Falstaff and the Art of Dying,” in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 197-211.
[In the essay below, Cubeta evaluates the secondhand account of Falstaff's death in Henry V (II.iii) with particular reference to fifteenth- and sixteenth-century religious writings on how one should prepare for final judgment. Noting that Falstaff has always been more interested in the art of living than the art of dying, Cubeta relates the spiritual ambiguity of the fat knight's death to the moral ambiguity of his life.]
Once the historical myths and dramatic concerns of The Henriad served by Falstaff's comic vision have been resolved by his legendary repudiation, Falstaff the character can no longer exist: “Reply not to me with a foolborn jest” (Shakespeare, 2H4 V.v.55).1 On that command to silence, the newly crowned king has destroyed his fool and jester. Falstaff could undergo a mock-magical death and resurrection at the end of 1 Henry IV, and he essentially “dies of a sweat” at the end of 2 Henry IV, when he races recklessly to Westminster Abbey “to stand stain'd with travel, and sweating with desire to see” Hal newly crowned (V.v.24-25). But Falstaff the man cannot be dismissed or lie forgotten in Fleet Prison, abandoned by king and playwright. The Shakespearean investment in the saving grace of that comic...
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SOURCE: “The Death of John Talbot,” in Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre, edited by John W. Velz, Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1996, pp. 11-30.
[In the following essay, Leggatt evaluates the deaths of Lord Talbot and his son John in 1 Henry VI as Shakespeare's earliest portrayal of tragic heroes meeting their end.]
Our habitual division of Shakespeare's plays into comedies, histories, and tragedies, each play fitting one category, is largely based on the Folio of 1623. But title-page evidence suggests that in Shakespeare's time the lines could be drawn differently and the divisions were not so absolute. The Quarto texts of Richard III and Richard II identify them as tragedies. The play we know as 3 Henry VI was first published as “The true Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixt. …” King Lear in its Quarto version is a “True Chronicle Historie.” The Folio division that has shaped our thinking probably does not reflect the way Shakespeare himself thought of his plays. Certainly the layout of the Folio obscures the fact that the history play as a genre, while it sometimes goes its own way, frequently intersects with the established, traditional genres of tragedy and comedy—for Shakespeare, more often with tragedy. The plays the Folio presents as the Henry...
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SOURCE: “Dualism and the Hope of Reunion in The Winter's Tale,” in Soundings, Vol. LXIX, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 294-309.
[In the following essay, Marshall argues that the statue scene in The Winter's Tale suggests a modification of orthodox Christian eschatology by denying the dualism of body and soul. Relating this scene to a sixteenth-century heresy known as mortalism—which held that both soul and body were dead until judgment day, when both would be resurrected—Marshall emphasizes the communal as well as the miraculous nature of Hermione's reanimation.]
In Shakespeare's England, the doctrine of bodily resurrection was avidly proclaimed and enthusiastically credited. John Donne, for instance, wrote in 1627 of how one's arm could be “lost in Europe,” his leg “lost in Afrique or Asia, scores of yeers between,” yet when God “beckens for the bodies of his Saints … that body that was scattered over all the elements, is sate down at the right hand of God, in a glorious resurrection.”1 Advancing scientific knowledge and philosophical skepticism have gradually undermined belief in bodily resurrection; in our own century, the Anglican commission on Christian doctrine resolved: “we ought to reject quite frankly the literalistic belief in future resuscitation of the actual physical frame which is laid in the tomb.”2 This radical shift in mainstream...
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SOURCE: “An Art of Dying,” in The Music of the Close: The Final Scenes of Shakespeare's Tragedies, University Press of Kentucky, 1978, pp. 29-71.
[In the essay below, Foreman diagrams the variety of ways in which Shakespeare's tragic protagonists meet their ends. Looking closely at the deaths of the central characters in both the minor and major tragedies, he considers the depth of the characters' understanding of themselves and the world, their sense of identity, their will to be in control of their fates, and the creativity of their confrontations with death.]
I will be a bridegroom in my death.
Death, that first and most obvious characteristic of a Shakespearean tragedy, so often becomes for the tragic figures a thing to be desired. At least from Richard II on, a death wish is either acted on or deeply and extensively felt by nearly all of them. Actually there seems to be an almost absolute distinction between these alternatives: Timon excepted, those central characters who most profoundly wish for death, those characters for whom the death wish becomes a way of life, do not kill themselves. For the tragic figures who do kill themselves, death is desirable as an alternative to shame, to a life that must henceforth be lived on someone else's terms, or to continued existence in a world that no longer has in it a unique person whose death has made it, for the tragic hero, empty of...
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SOURCE: “King Lear and the Psychology of Dying,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 4, Winter, 1982, pp. 449-60.
[In the following essay, which is informed by psychoanalytic theory and the writings of such twentieth-century students of death and dying as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Snyder reads King Lear as a representation of the process of dying. She traces the king's journey as he responds to his imminent mortality with denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance of the inevitable. She then declares that the play's final scene reflects the paradox of mortality—that it is “both unnatural and inevitable.”]
Pondering “the theme of the three caskets,” certain choices-among-three in literature and legend, Freud concluded that in King Lear Shakespeare had somehow pierced through the myth's defensive disguises to its original unpalatable meaning. The right choice—the third casket, the third woman—is really death. While students of Shakespeare may well object that a straightforward identification of Lear's third daughter with death says at once too much and too little about the loving Cordelia, many of them have nevertheless heard a ring of truth in Freud's formulation of the play's underlying action: “Eternal wisdom, in the garb of primitive myth, bids the old man renounce love, choose death and make friends with the necessity of dying.”1...
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SOURCE: “‘To what base uses we may return’: Class and Mortality in Hamlet (5.1),” in Hamlet Studies, Vol. 9, Nos. 1 and 2, Summer and Winter, 1987, pp. 78-85.
[In the essay below, Cohen assesses the encounter between Hamlet and the gravedigger, reading it as a debate about whether death levels all social and economic distinctions.]
Critics are in general agreement that the first scene of Hamlet, Act 5, derives its power from an almost exclusive concentration on death.1 But none of the critics, so far as I know, points out that class considerations are hardly less important than death as the scene's subject matter, and that there are really two competing subtexts in the scene, one that argues that death is the ultimate leveller of all class distinctions, another that argues, with almost equal persuasiveness, that class distinctions continue even after death.
The First Clown begins, in the scene's and the play's dominant mode, with a question: “Is she to be buried in Christian burial when she willfully seeks her own salvation?” More than a third of the play's scenes begin with a question in the first speech, and each of this scene's sections is introduced by a question—from Hamlet:
Has this fellow no feeling of his business a sings in grave-making?
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SOURCE: “The Passing of King Lear,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 41, 1989, pp. 145-57.
[In the following essay, Kirby analyzes the moment of Lear's death in terms of medieval Christian thought and Shakespeare's stagecraft, contending that even though providence does not preserve Lear and Cordelia in the temporal sense, the king dies suffused with joy and in a state of grace. Kirby also discusses the deaths of the villainous characters in the play, as well as those of Gloucester, Kent, and Cordelia.]
Generations of scholars have grappled with the problems posed by the ending of Shakespeare's King Lear: not one of the solutions proposed to date has commanded general and lasting assent. As Bridget Lyons put it:
Lear's words just before his death have always eluded the attempts of critics to label what he sees, does or feels at the moment that he utters them.1
Such critical attempts have been varied in the extreme: for G. R. Hibbard, they range from the ‘sentimental wishful thinking’ of writers such as Paul N. Siegel to the ‘reductive nihilistic rant’ of Jan Kott.2 Reactions to these attempts have been equally varied: what to one scholar is sublime is ridiculous to another. As a result, one senses the tendency, at the present time, to feel that this is perhaps one of the Shakespearian mysteries we are...
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SOURCE: “‘Horn-pypes and Funeralls’: Suggestions of Hope in Shakespeare's Tragedies,” in The Work of Dissimilitude: Essays from the Sixth Citadel Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Literature, edited by David G. Allen and Robert A. White, University of Delaware Press, 1992, pp. 216-34.
[In the following excerpt, Cox discusses how Shakespeare's tragedies often combine death and the comical to foster our acceptance of the protagonists' unavoidable fate and our anticipation of the freedom and social reordering made possible by their deaths.]
As death converges with humor in Shakespeare's tragedies, our sense of the grotesque reaches its highest pitch. Death is now literal and ominous. It cannot be averted as in the comedies by a symbolic gesture of humility but must be confronted at its most hideous and awesome. As death becomes more terrifying, so its convergence with gaiety becomes increasingly discordant. Many critics, such as Susan Snyder in The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies, see in Shakespeare's mingling of “Kings and Clownes” intimations of tragic absurdity. Commenting on the gravemaker scene in Hamlet Snyder insists that the graveyard questions the grounds for all action; for death, which renders human remains indistinguishable, indicates a meaningless world.1 Images of death, however, do not for the Renaissance Christian negate all meaning. The...
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SOURCE: “Last Words in Shakespeare's Plays: The Challenge to the Ars Moriendi Tradition,” in Shakespeare Jahrbuch, Verlag Ferdinand Kamp Bochum, 1992, pp. 80-90.
[In the following essay, Guthke examines the death scenes of several principal Shakespearean characters, and maintains that Shakespeare repeatedly questions the traditional idea that a dying individual's last words reveal whether that person will be damned or saved. The critic argues that Shakespeare contests this belief by assigning these characters death speeches that focus on this world rather than the hereafter—or giving them no last words at all.]
Why does Hamlet decide against killing Claudius when the opportunity presents itself? The opportunity, Hamlet realizes on reflection, is no opportunity, since Claudius is praying; if he were to be stabbed in the back at this moment of “the purging of his soul” he would go straight “to heaven,” no matter how sinful his life (III.3.85; 78).1 The real opportunity for revenge would be
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, Or in th'incestuous pleasure of his bed, At gaming, swearing, or about some act That has no relish of salvation in't— Then trip him that his heels may kick at heaven, And that his soul may be as damned and black As hell, whereto it goes.
The condition of the soul at the moment of...
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SOURCE: “Shakespeare, Hypnos, and Thanatos: Romeo and Juliet in the Space of Myth,” in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, edited by Jay Halio, University of Delaware Press, 1995, pp. 37-48.
[In the essay below, Maguin calls attention to parallels between Romeo and Juliet and the classical legend of Psyche and Cupid, which, like the play, conflates sleep, death, and the allure of love and suicide.]
Proverbial wisdom records that sleep is the image of his brother—or, as the Elizabethans put it, his “cousin”—death. Such utterances hark back to classical myth and folklore that make Hypnos, or Sleep, and Thanatos, or Death, two fatherless sons of that primitive, complex, and awesome divinity Nyx, or Night. Let me first emphasize the dynamics of the proverbial phrase. The model is Death, not Sleep. Sleep is a younger sibling, patterned on Death, like him in looks. A dictionary of proverbs is a wonderful storehouse of dominant associations and a measurement of significant imbalances in polar associations. It takes more than a popular mind—the instinctive intelligence of a majority of people, irrespective of class and culture—to try and correct the proverbially stated imbalance in the Sleep-Death association; rather, it takes a rhetorically trained mind used to a strategy of subversion of the norm, inclined to poetic difference, and above all guided by hope, desirous of assuaging major...
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Andrews, Michael Cameron. “Shakespeare (1).” In This Action of Our Death: The Performance of Death in English Renaissance Drama, pp. 129-48. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.
Surveys death scenes and speeches in the plays written during the first half of Shakespeare's career, with particular attention to the English histories.
———.“Shakespeare (2).” In This Action of Our Death: The Performance of Death in English Renaissance Drama, pp. 149-68. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.
An overview of deaths represented and described in Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Coriolanus,and Antony and Cleopatra. Andrews judges that Cleopatra surpasses every other character in Renaissance drama in terms of transforming death into victory.
Bulman, James C. “Antony, Cleopatra, and Heroic Retrospection.” In The Heroic Idiom of Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 191-213. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985.
Compares the death of Antony to the deaths of other Shakespearean military heroes and judges it to be much more ambiguous due to its ironic treatment of heroic conventions. He finds a similar disparity between heroic vision and reality in the death of Cleopatra.
Butler, F. G. “Erasmus and the Deaths of Cordelia...
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