For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, death— which modern society has sanitized and rendered largely invisible—was a brutally conspicuous presence. Early modern London, whose gates were decorated with the boiled heads of traitors and criminals, was a place in which public executions formed a regular staple of entertainment, where the corpses of condemned persons were available for public dissection, and where the fragility of life was repeatedly brought home by devastating epidemics of plague that swept away tens of thousands of citizens at a stroke. Magnificent pageantry might adorn the funeral processions of royalty and nobles; but every church in the kingdom contained a charnel house whose stench of putrefaction acted as a constant reminder of the grim facts of mortality. Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the drama of the period should be much possessed by death and preoccupied by the struggle to tame its apocalyptic menace.
"Death," Hamlet declares in the most famous of all his soliloquies, "is a consummation / Devoutly to be wished" (Hamlet, 3.1.62). He seeks to persuade himself that dying is no mere ending, but marks the fulfilment and perfection of mortal life. Behind his words lie centuries of consolatory writing, from the classical philosophy of the Stoics, for whom the encounter with death was the ultimate proving ground of wisdom and virtuous living, to the Christian ars moriendi, with its merciful translation to a better state. The prospect of mortality is seldom so reassuring for Shakespeare's characters, however; more typical than the calm resolve of Hamlet's final moments is the panorama of decay in the graveyard, with its parade of identically grinning skulls and the parables of levelling indifference they excite in the Prince's imagination: "Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till 'a find it stopping a bunghole?" (5.1.202–3).
In Measure for Measure it is the gross material realities of death, as much as its metaphysical uncertainties, that inspire Claudio's terror as he awaits execution:
Aye, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod. . . .
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling —'tis too horrible!
( Measure for Measure, 3.1.117–27)
This is what it means to be, like Cordelia in Lear's despairing phrase, "dead as earth" ( King Lear, 5.6.262). Claudio's apparent imperviousness to the salvific promises of religion, and his existential vertigo at the prospect of annihilation, give his speech a distinctly modern feel; but underlying his horror, as it underlies the sardonic humor of Hamlet and the gravediggers, is a historically specific anxiety about the social menace of death, its arbitrary cancellation of the entire system of differences on which the profoundly hierarchical order of Renaissance society depended; for the dead in Claudio's vision are consigned to an utterly chaotic condition, as "lawless and incertain" as the restless imaginings it inspires.
Such anxieties are traceable everywhere in early modern culture. They are especially apparent in iconic representations of universal mortality, like the Dance of Death, whose grinning cadavers sweep off representatives of every rank to their common end; or the Triumph of Death, in which the corpses of monarch and peasant, merchant and pauper lie promiscuously heaped together beneath the chariot wheels of King Death. But they also motivated the lavish pomp of heraldic obsequies and the increasingly worldly extravagance of the memorials crowding the aisles of parish churches and cathedrals. "Never," marveled Francis Bacon, "was the like number of beautiful and costly tombs and monuments erected in sundry churches in honourable memory of the dead" (Bacon 1861, p. 158).
If this fantastic elaboration of funeral art can be explained as a defiant reaction to the leveling assaults of death—especially in the recurrent epidemics of plague whose cartloads of corpses were stripped of all individual dignity—it also offered a secular answer to a crisis in the management of mourning created by the Protestant denial of Purgatory. The consequent abolition of the vast medieval industry of intercession deprived the living of any power to assist the dead. Haunted like Hamlet by the Ghost's importunate "Remember me!" ( Hamlet, 1.5.91), the bereaved had now to rely on the ambiguous consolations of memory and art—hence Hamlet's distress at the scanted mourning rituals allowed his father, or Laertes' rage at Ophelia's "maimed rites," and his bitter resentment of the "obscure funeral" and "hugger mugger" burial of Polonius, "No trophy, sword, or hatchment o'er his bones" (5.1.219; 4.5.84, 214–215); hence, too, Hamlet's dying insistence on the need for Horatio to remain behind, as a kind of "living monument" to "tell my story" (5.1.297; 5.2.349). The ending of Hamlet, with its self-conscious wordplay on "stage" and "audience" (5.2.378, 387, 396), itself constitutes an elaborate demonstration of the power of dramatic story and theatrical art to overcome the power of death.
The rivalry of art and death is, of course, a recurrent theme in the literature of the period—never more powerfully treated than in Shakespeare's Sonnets. At the heart of the sequence is a group of powerful lyrics in which the poet, performing his superb variations on a well-known trope from the Roman poet Horace (" exegi monumentum aere perennius, " Carmina, 3.30), sets the monumental claims of poetry against the ravages of Death and his thieving ally, Time. Death is a leveling "churl" (Sonnet 32) or "wretch" (Sonnet 74) who renders his victims "base" (Sonnet 74) by consigning them to anonymous "dust" (Sonnet 32) and the degrading ministrations of "vilest worms" (Sonnet 71); while his "mortal rage" (Sonnet 64) reduces even the loftiest memorials to "unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time" (Sonnet 55). Yet Shakespeare insists that his own "powerful rhyme," by its capacity to outlast death, can confer the immortality to which "the gilded monuments / Of princes" vainly aspire (Sonnet 55). It is this that enables the poet, despite his humble status, to assert a kind of parity with the beloved patron to whom his lyrics are addressed. The poet's mortal remains, consigned to the indifference of a common grave, may be "too base" to be remembered by his aristocratic "friend"; yet he can claim both immortality and a kind of equality by virtue of the "gentle verse" that memorializes his beloved's fame (Sonnets 74, 81).
The Sonnets create a kind of stage on which "the eyes of all posterity" can witness the spectacle of the patron's fame: "'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity / Shall you pace forth" (55); and the touch of swagger in "pace" recalls the postures of heroic self-assertion with which so many protagonists of Renaissance tragedy confront their deaths. So Macbeth, defying the chaotic "wrack" of the apocalyptic storm that he himself has invoked, prepares to die "with harness on [his] back" ( Macbeth, 5.5.50–51); or Othello reasserts his martial Venetian identity by transforming his suicide into a re-enacted triumph over the Turkish enemy; or Coriolanus calls on the Volscian mob to "cut me to pieces" with an insolent reminder of his conquest of Corioles ("Alone I did it. 'Boy'!" ( Coriolanus, 5.6.115).
But even in the bleak world of King Lear, where the force of undifferentiation is so overwhelmingly felt as to allow no room for such egotistic self-assertion ("Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?" 5.3.307–308), theatrical convention nevertheless contrives to impose a consolatory show of order upon the final panorama of desolation: The concluding stage direction, "Exeunt with a dead march," is a reminder of the extent to which Renaissance tragedy with its "industrious scenes and acts of death" ( King John, 2.1.376) self-consciously mimicked the arts of funeral. The dressing of the tragic stage in black hangings, like those that adorned both churches and great houses in time of funeral; the use of black costumes; the display of hearses, tombs, and monuments as stage properties; and the convention of ending the play with a funeral procession—all these served as reminders that tragedy was conceived above all as the drama of death. But because the obsequies of the great, organized with lavish attention to the prerogatives of rank by the College of Heralds, were imagined (like coronations and royal progresses) as a species of "triumph," the incorporation of funeral pomps in tragedy also symbolized the power of art to challenge the universal monarchy of death.
The tragic catastrophe enacted the human confrontation with death's arbitrary cancellation of meaning; and through its displays of agony, despair, and ferocious self-assertion, early modern audiences were encouraged to rehearse vicariously their own encounter with death. Thus tragedy served, in a fashion that was inseparable alike from its didactic pretensions and its entertaining practice, both as an instrument for probing the painful mystery of ending and as a vehicle of resistance to the leveling assaults of death; for even as it paraded the emblems of undifferentiation, tragedy offered to contain the fear of mortality by staging
Almost every tragedy of the period ends in a funeral procession of some kind, and this conventional expectation allowed playwrights to create striking theatrical effects by displacing the pageantry of death into other parts of the dramatic structure. Thus the national discord, which is the subject of Henry VI, is signaled as much by the disconcertingly abrupt obsequies of Henry V that open its action, as by the unpromising royal betrothal (a parody of comic ending) with which it concludes; while in Titus Andronicus the process of political and social disintegration is measured by the gap between the pompous interment of Titus's sons in the first act and the grotesque mock funeral of Tamora's sons, their heads encased in pastry "coffins," in Act 5.
Even more striking disruptions of convention could be achieved by transposing episodes of death and funeral into comedy—like the soberfaced travesty of burial rites which the repentant Claudio must perform at Hero's family monument in Much Ado About Nothing, or the mock deaths on which the plots of late romances like Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale depend. While the menace of death is always restrained by the expectation of a happy ending, such details are sufficient to remind the audience that the domains of folly and mortality are never quite as far apart as the symmetrically opposed masks of tragedy and comedy might at first suggest.
At one level, indeed, comedy—as the critic Marjorie Garber and others have shown—is deeply preoccupied with mortality, its action involving a symbolic expulsion of death from the stage world. But this comic victory is a fragile one, always vulnerable to some crack in the veneer of comic artifice. The concluding nuptials of Love's Labours Lost (a play that begins with a meditation on "brazen tombs" and the "disgrace of death") are suddenly arrested by the entrance of Marcade, like a blackclad summoner from the Dance of Death; Falstaff's parade of comic immortality never recovers from the moment when his mistress, Doll, "speaks like a death's head" ( Henry the Fourth, Part 2, 2.4.31); and even A Midsummer Night's Dream follows the ludicrous mock deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe with the sinister frisson of Puck's chanting—"[Now] the screech-owl, screeching loud / Puts the wretch that lies in woe / In remembrance of a shroud" (5.1.376–378)—before Oberon and Titania reappear to summon the fairy dance of exorcism and blessing in which the play ends.
The latest of all Shakespeare's comic performances, the tragicomic Two Noble Kinsmen, written with John Fletcher, seems to concede the ultimate impotence of the comic triumph over death, ending as it does with a melancholy prospect of wedding overhung by funeral: "Journey's end in lovers meeting," Feste the clown had sung in Twelfth Night (2.3.43); but the lovers' reunion that resolves the accidents of plot in this final play only fulfills the prophecy of the mourning Queens in the "funeral solemnity" that concluded Act I: "This world's a city full of straying streets, / And death's the market-place where each one meets" (2.1.15–16).
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