Friday, 1 April 2016

Commemorating Shakespeare's 400th Death Anniversary on Apr 23, 2016

Cobbe Portrait of William Shakespeare, ca. 1610, Artist unknown, oil on panel. Collection of Archbishop Charles Cobbe (1686–1765)

No poet has figured oftener on this blog than William Shakespeare (WS). His sonnets, his plays, and his long poems have been the subject of numerous readings at KRG.
Twice we have celebrated his birthday (Apr 23, 1564) with all-Shakespeare readings. And on his 450th birthday we sponsored a week-long celebration in Fort Kochi which is recorded in eight posts on this blog in April 2014. There were workshops in acting, a one-man Shakespeare play world premiere, excerpts from his plays by college performers, lectures, a puppet show and Elizabethan singers.

Each age will re-discover WS and find that resonance which makes him the Universal poet expressing the thoughts and sentiments of humankind everywhere. Poetry may undergo elemental changes from Symbolism to Post-modernism to Existential drift, but such are the varieties of truth a poet expressed four centuries ago in incomparable language that they will be resurrected and told four hundred years hence, with the same verve and novelty that they held for viewers at the Thames-side Globe Theatre in the sixteenth century.

Reconstructed Shakespeares Globe Theatre, London
This is a personal tribute to the poet who has gripped my imaginative life for over half a century. In this exploration I intend to look at the way Shakespeare treats death in his works, for it is the common end to which all humankind arrives after the journey of life. Nothing could be more appropriate on his 400th death anniversary. 

The First Folio of Shakespeares plays - the posthumous book that saved half of them

2016 is the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeares death, and in this essay I propose to examine the Bards thoughts on death which are scattered throughout his plays, including some sonnets. WS was a poet above all else, and even when writing his plays his ear was that of the poet and his instrument blank verse – unrhymed iambic pentameter whose beat you can hear when an actor speaks the lines of any of the famous monologues:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.1
Of course, WS used other poetic forms too in his plays, and even plain prose.
In Shakespeare we find innumerable images of death. Caroline Spurgeon in her book, Shakespeares Imagery (Cambridge University Press, 1935), claims there are over fifty such. WS was well-schooled in the Bible to which there are hundreds of allusions in his plays. It was most likely he used the Geneva Bible of 1560 for his reading, since the King James version arrived only five years before he died. It is natural to expect that the images of death in WS would have a large intersection with what the Bible says. Yet the reader finds that WS goes his own way in thinking about death and scarcely echoes the Bible, particularly in its expressly religious notions of heaven and hell, judgment and damnation, sin and retribution, angels and the Trinity. In this respect he is at the opposite pole from Dante Alighieri who takes his symbolism in The Divine Comedy entirely from Catholic theology, and embellishes it further with his own vivid imagination.
One of Shakespeares most famous soliloquies concerns the existential choice of the individual between life and death:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?2
To be or not to be  Laurence Olivier

WS approaches death as a child of nature. He is curious to know what lies beyond
But that the dread of something after death –
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns – puzzles the will3
He returns to the mystery of the hereafter in another play:
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot.4
The ultimate event holds its horror, but more for the coward than for the man of honour:
Cowards die many times before their deaths.
The valiant never taste of death but once.5

Nelson Mandelas signature and the date December 16, 1977, appear in this smuggled Robben Island prison copy of Shakespeares plays, beside Caesars phrase

Caesar then muses on why death should pose a menace and through him Shakespeare addresses our fear in a clear and unsentimental way:
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.6
Death cannot be foretold, but it is a necessary end within the order of nature (consider what would happen in this world of decay, without death). The way it comes about is often compared to sleep by WS:
To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,7
Once again WS affirms an equanimity about death as an end to look forward to:
'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd.8
Sleep is often used by him as a metaphor of death:
Shake off this downy sleep, death's counterfeit,
And look on death itself!9
But sleep, deaths second self, is also a rest, whence the English phrase, Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day

Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.10
Ivor Brown notes in his biography titled Shakespeare (Reprint Society Edition, 1951, page 53) that WS was not religious and death for example, allured him more as a sleep and a forgetting than as a gateway to another and more vivid life. WS often makes death appear in keeping with the order of nature, as he compares it in poems to fallen leaves in autumn, a decay consonant with the rest of the natural world. Sonnet 73 is just such a meditation in which WS holds up the picture of the autumnal shedding of leaves as a metaphor of old age approaching:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.10
But he ends on an optimistic note :
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Make your love more strong, he says, in the face of certain death. Often, in Shakespeare's plays death comes as lightly as the closing line of a sonnet:
                                             I will be
A bridegroom in my death, and run into't
As to a lover's bed.11
WS wrote as one comfortable with his own mortality, who foreseeing death, writes the words for his gravestone, still seen in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon:
Shakespeares Grave at Holy Trinity Church
The epitaph reads in modern spelling:
Good friend for Jesus' sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
Elsewhere he says:
Death, death; oh, amiable, lovely death!
Come, grin on me, and I will think thou smilest12
If he had an expectation of surviving it was, in the first instance, through his words that he hoped to be remembered. As he says in his famous Sonnet 18:
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee
This, his verse will live on, and as he says in yet another sonnet:
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read
So great was the confidence WS had in his gifts, that he reiterates in another sonnet:
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I'll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o'er dull and speechless tribes;
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants' crests and tombs of brass are spent.14
This self-assurance of immortality through words so boldly expressed by WS stands in contrast to Keats who died very young and felt his end coming when he had been writing for four years scarcely:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,

That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love15
Keats for his epitaph wrote: Here lies one whose name was writ in water. In the end a writer expects to live through his words, and he was grief-stricken that he would die with the vast lode of poetry within his mind still untapped.
WS makes another confident assertion about survival beyond death. He paints a picture of a human as more than a mind and a body for he says:
Mount, mount, my soul! thy seat is up on high;
Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die
While he is suggesting the religious and metaphysical notion of a soul, yet the basis for his belief is not a doctrinal source but an extrapolation from his own lifelong practice of creating vigorous characters who embody unique traits, experience scores of situations, contend with adversities, and in the end go to their death in his tragedies. He makes them die, yes, but the very drama of their lives and intense words (words he supplies for them) makes the reader conclude that Juliet, Cleopatra, Othello – all live on, not just on the dramatic stage where they will be played a hundred thousand times over the centuries, but as unique individuals WS created, embodying his belief in a soul.
Death came to WS as a natural consequence. He retired from the stage in London, at the height of his powers, but would have felt age catching up, for fifty then was equivalent to seventy-five now. The afflictions and aches that flesh is heir to were all there, urging him to retire and enjoy his senescence. WS writes in the sonnet quoted above:
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.17
What would be more natural than to return to the scene of his youth, the place of his family and hearth, the comfort of home and honour in quiet Stratford town, familiar since childhood? We know almost nothing of his personal life, for he left no diary of his thoughts and activities, and no Boswell was there to chronicle his life.

William Shakespeares house in Stratford-upon-Avon
Even in his sonnets WS is often wearing someones mask: the mask of the young man's mentor and well-wisher, or of a poet irked by a rival, or that of a jealous lover, and it is hard to discern when the poet is speaking for himself and baring his private thoughts. There is no doubt every sonnet bears the stamp of WS, often at the top of his form, at times descending from his customary pinnacle; but the stamp is not so much one of self-revelation as the interplay of images and a nimble mind debating with itself and offering viewpoints that ricochet off each other – as in the poignant Sonnet 87 when we hear the lovers rent heart groaning that his love has to end:
Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know'st thy estimate:
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.18
Prospero is usually accepted as a self-projection of WS in maturity, the poet on the brink of retirement. And this is his Valediction speech in the Tempest:
be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.19
Shakespeare as Prospero the magician

Death could move the poet to tears. Here is Sonnet 71 where he advises his partner,
No longer mourn for me when I am dead

Do not so much as my poor name rehearse.
But let your love even with my life decay,
The verse is affecting when you meditate and recite it slowly.
In spite of the difficulty of attributing to any sonnet the notion that it is the personal statement of WS, there is one that people point to as his testament, the grave 146th sonnet addressed to the soul of man. (Spurgeon, ibid.). Here it is in full and you can detect the note of personal anguish:
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Fooled by these rebel powers that thee array;
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body's end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
   So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
   And Death once dead, there's no more dying then.
The last three lines convey the message that it is the soul within the human that is to be nourished, and that is the path to overcoming death. The cry there's no more dying then is the note of hope on which this sonnet ends: death as a total fulfilment that forbids further recurrence of the joys and travails of life.
Of his own death the little that is known comes to us from the diary of Rev. John Ward, vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon where Shakespeare is buried. Writing forty years after the event he stated that the trio of men of letters – Ben Jonson, the dramatist, Michael Drayton, the Warwickshire poet, and Shakespeare – came together for ‘a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died [two days later] of a fever there contracted. What a glorious way to go! 

The Burial Register entry for WS marked with an X on April 25, 1616

In a sense, therefore, we are observing the anniversary of a fatal birthday binge, as Gregory Doran, Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, put it in the Dimbleby Lecture on Mar 16, 2016 (

1 Macbeth (5.5.20 – 24)
2 Hamlet (3.1.1749 – 53)
3 Hamlet (3.1.79 – 81)
4 Measure for Measure (3.1.117 – 18)
5 Julius Caesar (2.2.32 – 33)
6 Julius Caesar (2.2.34 – 37)
7 Hamlet (3.1.64 – 67)
8 Hamlet (3.1.63 – 64)
9 Macbeth (2.3.81 – 82)
10 Sonnet 73
10 Sonnet 73
11 Antony and Cleopatra (4.14.119 – 121)
12 King John (3.4.26 – 27)
13 Sonnet 81
14 Sonnet 107
15 John Keats, sonnet When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be
16 Richard II (5.5.112 – 13)
17 Sonnet 73
18 Sonnet 87
19 The Tempest (4.1.147 – 58)
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