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.