Characters

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Death

"Death, be not proud" is an exhortation from the speaker to Death himself, who is personified through the attribution of human motivations to him as well as Donne's capitalization of "Death" throughout the poem. Death, then, might be considered the primary character in this sonnet. Donne's depiction of Death is very much guided by his purpose in writing. He is admonishing Death for having been too "proud," and consequently he presents Death as a rather pitiable creature for being so wrong about himself and his own power.

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Death, as Donne describes him, is "poor Death," a being whose own misplaced pride might cause him to "swell" without any justification. Death may once have been called "mighty and dreadful" by others, but here, he is not described as being so—on the contrary, he is reminded that he is actually a "slave" to what humans may do to summon him. It is his task to offer them "soul's delivery," helping them move beyond this world into their eternity with God. He is therefore more a servant to human beings than he is a terrifying figure in his own right. Should human beings commence a war, Death must then arrive to dispatch the slain; even "desperate men" are more in charge of their own destinies than Death. Death, in this poem, is a pitiable figure who, in the end, will "die," even though nobody else he has ever encountered will actually remain in the state of true death.

The Speaker

The speaker, possibly Donne himself, has a very sneering attitude toward Death and his capabilities. His tone is defiant; he is not afraid to describe Death as a "slave," nor to chide him for being unnecessarily "proud." We may also assume that the speaker is a pious person who is sufficiently convinced that he will spend "eternity" with God after his own death and therefore no longer frightened of the prospect. This speaks to the strength of his faith.

Unnamed Characters

The poem refers in passing to other characters, namely "kings" and "desperate men," who might have some influence over death. "Kings," we can infer, would have dominion over death because a king might be able to issue capital punishments to his subjects, thus bringing them to Death before Death had planned. "Desperate men" might mean murderers or those determined to commit suicide, both of whom would also be able to summon Death at their will rather than at Death's will.

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