Study Guide

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Essay - Death

Death

Introduction

Death

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 spectator) as it proceeds, act by act, scene by scene, speech by speech, line by line. It makes its effect equally in its structural design, which becomes clearer and clearer as the action unfolds, and in its minute particulars of language and gesture which catch our attention and are, so to speak, the nerve-endings of the whole dramatic system. In the present century perhaps no critic has shown himself more aware of this Shakespearean dramatic life, in all its grandeur and in all its finesse, than Harley Granville Barker, to whose memory (coupled with Shakespeare's) I should like to pay tribute today. His first volume of Prefaces to Shakespeare (1927) is my exact contemporary; I was lucky enough to encounter his writings when I was a schoolboy, and I have reread them frequently since then, marvelling at so robust a common sense wedded to so sensitive an imagination. The last word on Shakespeare will never be said. Granville Barker, like the good exploratory critic he was, never wrote as though he thought he was saying it. But later critics who ignore his views, and the aspects of Shakespeare's plays to which they were directed, do so at their peril.

Granville Barker followed A. C. Bradley in believing that King Lear dies of joy, and I may as well say immediately that I share their opinion.2 Opinion, of course, it is and must remain. Shakespeare did not expound through Kent and Edgar (or rather, allow them to try to expound) Lear's final emotional state. This is not to say that he left it a mystery: on the contrary, in his theatre it must have been settled one way or the other, by Burbage's intonation and gesture, and had there been a continuous theatrical tradition from Burbage onwards it would be no mystery now. However, the theatres were closed in 1642, and when they reopened after the Commonwealth Tate rewrote King Lear as a tragi-comedy. When Shakespeare's tragedy returned to the stage it was for the actors to build a new tradition upon the foundation of the script. Whether any actor had made Lear die of joy between the restoration of Shakespeare's text and the publication of Bradley's study I do not know. If not, I am rather surprised that a critic discovered what lay more obviously in an actor's way. The crucial words are: ‘Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!’ They seem to me to express excitement: the emotion, not of Laertes' exclamation ‘Do you see this, O God?’ but of Lear's ‘Look, look, a mouse!’ If it is agreed that Lear's tone here is not one of flat despondency, then it rests with those who maintain that he dies of grief to show what change in Cordelia has excited him, and to show why any change confirming her death should excite him, since he has just been exclaiming against the injustice of meaner creatures' having life while she has ‘no breath at all’. Breath has been Lear's continual theme in his attempts to find life in her body: looking-glass, feather, voice (Shakespeare frequently tells us that words are made of breath), all point in the same direction. Colour he never mentions at all (though it is mentioned, whether present or absent, in connection with Juliet and Desdemona), and therefore the argument that Cordelia's lips have lost their colour seems a weak one.3 The inference (drawn from Lear's long digression about his attempted rescue and Kent's attempt to make himself known) that Lear has abandoned all self-deception when he reaches his last speech is also considerably weakened by the fact that this last speech itself includes a digression, albeit a short one, the line in which Lear asks a bystander to ‘undo this button’. That break in continuity is important, for it allows Lear to look away from Cordelia and then to look back and become excited by what he thinks he sees.4

The objection to Lear's dying of joy is not, I am sure, based on dramatic principles but upon principles quite different, those of tragic propriety. Many readers feel that, in a tragedy so deeply concerned with the theme of understanding, Lear must not be allowed to die in error but must die confronting his tragic situation. This argument, I think, would have weight only if the counter-argument was that Lear never did believe that Cordelia was dead. The poignancy of his final joy, in my opinion, rather heightens than lowers the tragic tone established by his opening words. As for the mass of illustration that is sometimes advanced in support of the thematic argument, I can only say, firstly, that to me a dram of the dramatic is worth a pound of the thematic when plays are in question, and, secondly, that if Lear dies with a poignant joy, his death bears a striking thematic relation to Gloucester's, whose

                                                                                flawed heart,
Alack, too weak the conflict to support,
'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly.

Moreover, if Lear's last speech is to contain no such fluctuation as Bradley detected, what is the dramatic point of all his earlier fluctuations? They would seem to lead up to nothing.

In discussing the last scene of King Lear I have dwelt till now on Lear's emotions as they are dramatically presented. I turn, next, to their object, the body of Cordelia. We are so familiar with the play that it is worth asking whether, if we had been at the first performance, we should have known for certain that she was dead, and if so, when. To take the general aspects of the matter first, Shakespeare's is the first tragic treatment of a story which previously had ended with the king's restoration and might have been expected to end so again; but, on the other hand, the loss of the battle, the capture of Lear and Cordelia, and Edmund's significantly secret instructions to the Captain, are pretty clear indications of disaster to come; these are, however, followed by the exposure of Edmund and Goneril, the defeat of the former by Edgar, and the suicide of the latter, having previously poisoned her sister—events which, at the eleventh hour, seem to tip the scales back towards hope; at the same time, despite the interest of these events, we are subtly kept conscious (mainly by means of observations from Edmund) of the danger to the prisoners, so that when the reprieve is at last sent we feel little but apprehension. The entry of Lear carrying Cordelia's inert body realizes our fears, and his opening lines proclaim her death in tragic tones.5 This speaking picture of heroic bereavement is our immediate assurance that she is dead: were she now to revive, our humanity would be gratified but our exaltation would be diminished. Yet while Lear plies his futile attempts to find a spark of life in her, a glimmer of hope, almost as irrational as his, persists: like him, what we really want is a miracle—but, unlike him, we know this is what would be needed. This is what goes on in part of our minds, the part given over to sympathy. The other part, the part open to dramatic suggestion, observes that no one on stage—not even Kent—attempts to assist Lear in his repeated efforts.6 There is, accordingly, no real suspense as to whether Cordelia might revive, though there is a kind of false suspense, related to pity. Lear's own death, by contrast, is confirmed—after Kent's moving lines—by Edgar's simple ‘He is gone, indeed.’

Shakespearean deaths are, with few exceptions, as unequivocal as Lear's. Often—and by no means only in the earlier plays—they are given emphasis by a couplet, such as Arthur's

O me! my uncle's spirit is in these stones:
Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones!

or Richard's

Mount, mount, my soul! thy seat is up on high;
Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die.

or Brutus'

                                                                                          Caesar, now be still;
I kill'd not thee with half so good a will.

or Othello's

I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee; no way but this;
Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.

It would be interesting, though the present topic forbids it, to discuss why some of Shakespeare's characters die upon a couplet and others do not. Othello has not always been allowed his. When Edmund Kean reached the half-line ‘And smote him, thus’, he acted on the medical knowledge that ‘death by a heart wound is instantaneous’: an eye-witness reported of him:

He literally dies standing; it is the dead body only of Othello that falls, heavily and at once; there is no rebound which speaks of vitality and of living muscles. It is the dull weight of clay seeking its kindred earth.7

This was doubtless fine theatre, but the suppression of the couplet seems a great pity, since Othello's last thought, touchingly recalling the beginning of the scene, should not be of himself but of Desdemona, and the dying kiss, physiologically impossible though it may be, is his reconciliation.

The great liberty which Shakespeare takes in this scene is, of course, in connection not with Othello's death but with Desdemona's:

The revival of Desdemona from a state of suffocation, and her expiring without any fresh violence, we apprehend to be rather absurd; therefore, highly approve Othello's stabbing her with a dagger.8

This comment of a theatrical critic of 1770 shows both when and why this change in the stage business at ‘I would not have thee linger in thy pain’ was made. It became usual in the following century. But should realism be the arbiter of such matters? In Webster's Duchess of Malfi the heroine is strangled, suffers no fresh violence, is supposed quite dead, and yet recovers speech for a moment before she positively dies. It is probable that Webster is here imitating Desdemona's unexpected late utterances, as in The White Devil he had imitated Lear's pathetic hopes of Cordelia's recovery when portraying Cornelia hoping as vainly for Marcello's. If so, Webster may serve as a contemporary witness against the stabbing of Desdemona. But, as usual, the strongest evidence as to stage business is to be drawn from Shakespeare's lines. When Othello tells Gratiano, later in the scene,

                                                                      There lies your niece,
Whose breath, indeed, these hands have newly stopp'd,

his statement is conclusive that he used no other means than suffocation. The extreme improbability of Desdemona's recovery of speech, to utter her noble lie testifying to her loyalty to her husband and sparking off a fine exchange between Othello and Emilia, is clearly justified by something more than theatrical surprise. Theatrical surprise is, however, an important element in Shakespeare's intention. Why else should he allow Othello to emphasize, just before Emilia's entrance, that he has put Desdemona out of her pain and that she lies ‘still as the grave’?

I have mentioned already Othello's ‘And smote him, thus’, a magnificent coup de théâtre. Incidentally, I believe it supplies further argument (if further argument were needed) against the notion that Othello uses a dagger to dispatch Desdemona, for if he did use one, what would he do with it afterwards? To sheathe it, ready for his own suicide, would ruin the surprise of that splendid climax. It should not only be Cassio, but the audience, who think he has no weapon, especially in view of the way Shakespeare has made him lose not one sword but two. The long explanations involving Ludovico, Cassio, and the rest, serve a useful purpose besides conveying information: they separate Othello's loss of his second sword from his suicide with the dagger, thus preventing our suspicion that Shakespeare has cheated by concealing this dagger's existence from us, and also, it would seem, from Othello, whose poignant line ‘For in my sense, 'tis happiness to die’ immediately follows his loss of the second sword in the unsuccessful attempt to kill Iago. During the explanatory dialogue just mentioned, one more fact comes out which relates to Shakespeare's interest (in this scene) in surprise and in the equivocal treatment of death: Cassio says,

There is besides in Roderigo's letter,
How he upbraids Iago, that he made him
Brave me upon the watch; whereon it came
That I was cast; and even but now he spake,
After long seeming dead, Iago hurt him,
Iago set him on.

This last detail comes as a surprise, and a gratuitous one, for the letters ‘found in the pocket of the slain Roderigo’ have already convicted Iago of setting him on to murder Cassio, and as for stabbing him, Iago made no secret of that at the time. The point does seem to be being made in this tragedy that murder is not only impossible to hide but also remarkably difficult to effect. Perhaps Iago's failure to dispatch Roderigo neatly makes Othello look less like a bungler, supposing we had thought him one. In any case, this reported revival of Roderigo raises a question of performance in the scene where Cassio wounds him (mortally, to judge from his exclamation ‘O, I am slain!’) and Iago finishes him off. Was Kean right, when he played Iago in 1814, to ‘throw his eye perpetually towards the prostrate body’, having already ‘given and repeated the atrocious thrust, till it may be supposed no life remains’, instead of, as was usual, stabbing Roderigo once and then walking away ‘with perfect ease and satisfaction’?9 Is the dramatic effect at the time the all-important thing, or will the memory of the scene so played persist to the detriment of the report of Roderigo's brief revival in the last act? This is, I think, an open question.

Having begun my examination of Shakespeare's equivocal death scenes with King Lear and Othello, and brought in Webster for purposes of analogy, I may seem to be suggesting that such treatment of death particularly belongs to the Jacobean Shakespeare. There is, I think, something to be said for that view, and I shall be returning to it later. But equivocal death scenes are not confined to his Jacobean plays. In one of his earliest, the Third Part of Henry VI, Clifford enters mortally wounded at the battle of Towton:

Here burns my candle out; ay, here it dies,
Which, while it lasted, gave King Henry light.
O Lancaster, I fear thy overthrow
More than my body's parting with my soul!

In a long speech he laments Henry's weakness and foresees his ruin, ending as follows:

The air hath got into my deadly wounds,
And much effuse of blood doth make me faint.
Come, York and Richard, Warwick and the rest;
I stabb'd your fathers' bosoms, split my breast.

With that he faints, and upon their cue his victorious enemies enter. They speculate on Clifford's whereabouts, Warwick affirming confidently that ‘whereso'er he is, he's surely dead’. As he speaks this, ‘Clifford groans and then dies’; but his death, though attested for a reader by the Quarto's stage direction, is deliberately kept in doubt for an audience:

Rich.
Whose soul is that which takes her heavy leave?
A deadly groan, like life and death's departing.
See who it is.
Edw.
                                                                                And now the battle's ended,
If friend or foe, let him be gently used.
Rich.
Revoke that doom of mercy, for 'tis Clifford;
Who not contented that he lopp'd the branch
In hewing Rutland when his leaves put forth,
But set his murd'ring knife unto the root
From whence that tender spray did sweetly spring—
I mean our princely father, Duke of York.
War.
From off the gates of York fetch down the head,
Your father's head, which Clifford placed there;
Instead whereof let this supply the room.
Measure for measure must be answered.
Edw.
Bring forth that fatal screech-owl to our house,
That nothing sung but death to us and ours.
Now death shall stop his dismal threat'ning sound,
And his ill-boding tongue no more shall speak.
War.
I think his understanding is bereft.
Speak, Clifford, dost thou know who speaks to thee?
Dark cloudy death o'ershades his beams of life,
And he nor sees nor hears us what we say.
Rich.
O, would he did! and so, perhaps, he doth.
'Tis but his policy to counterfeit,
Because he would avoid such bitter taunts
Which in the time of death he gave our father.
Geo.
If so thou think'st, vex him with eager words.
Rich.
Clifford, ask mercy and obtain no grace.
Edw.
Clifford, repent in bootless penitence.
War.
Clifford, devise excuses for thy faults.
Geo.
While we devise fell tortures for thy faults.
Rich.
Thou didst love York, and I am son to York.
Edw.
Thou pitied'st Rutland, I will pity thee.
Geo.
Where's Captain Margaret, to fence you now?
War.
They mock thee, Clifford; swear as thou wast wont.
Rich.
What, not an oath? Nay, then the world goes...

(The entire section is 7585 words.)

Criticism: Comedies

Marjorie Garber (essay date 1980)

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.

Woody Allen

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 entire section is 2694 words.)

Phoebe S. Spinrad (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 8304 words.)