When watching a Shakespeare tragedy, I always look forward to seeing the death scene(s) “done right.” What this phrase means for this theatergoer is that I prize seeing the characters themselves, as “real” people, hope against hope that this death will not in fact occur, that fate can be averted and a happy ending achieved for all. A successful performance makes me believe that just this once, Richard III may possibly find that elusive horse and rally the troops, or Romeo will prolong his rambling speech for a few more stanzas, just until Juliet rouses herself (as no doubt he easily could). Occasionally I hope along with these characters that they will talk their way out of it, as pale Desdemona begs merciless Othello, “I hope you will not kill me” (5.2. 37), or believe in a miracle as haggard King Lear desperately vacillates between despair and hope, crouching over Cordelia’s body: “She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass; / If that her breath will mist or stain the stone, / Why, then she lives” (5.3.260-263). At other times, this suspense builds my wicked satisfaction at a villain getting his just deserts, as when Macduff delivers the gloriously chilling line, “Macduff was from his mother’s womb / untimely ripped” (5.11.15-16), to trembling, whey-faced Macbeth, at once bereft of magical protection by that most unforeseen of medical events—a Scottish cesarean section in the Middle Ages. I want to see the sneer wiped right off Macbeth’s face, replaced with a knowledge of the grisly death in store for him. Within a death scene, Shakespeare often builds words upon each other to heighten suspense and to stave off the inevitable, speeches temporarily interposed between a character and their impending death. When the words stop on a Shakespearean stage, life ends.
A recent performance of Spymonkey’s The Complete Deaths at Chicago Shakespeare Theater interjected comedy into the usual unalleviated pathos of such scenes, causing me to marvel at how some deaths can be both touching and uproariously amusing depending on atmosphere and tone. For an informative look at the entire performance and an important request for the same treatment of Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, which I heartily second, see my colleague Andrea Stevens’s recent review for City Desk. Adapted and directed by Tim Crouch and co-produced with Brighton Festival and Royal & Derngate Northampton, this dark comedy was enacted by the four members of the British comedy troupe Spymonkey, Aitor Basauri, Petra Massey, Toby Park and Stephan Kreiss, who work together as artistic directors and/or performers to craft and perform each show. A remarkable amount of physical activity went into each of the seventy-six deaths, which were counted down on one neon sign to the right of the stage, while another above the stage helpfully listed the person and play (i.e. Queen Gertrude, Hamlet). Particularly, I was impressed by Petra Massey’s girlish leaps and bounds to get up on Juliet’s tombstone, energetic asp-dance as a writhing, sensuous Cleopatra flanked by serpentine back-up dancers, and gravity-defying antics inside the giant plastic bubble during the rebellion against Toby’s vision for The Complete Deaths. During the bloodiest death scene that “went through” a variety of deaths at one sitting and utilized an Asian-themed chopsticks-and-sponges “sword-fight,” Aitor and Stephen went from sedate “touching” to all-out bucket-dumping, wrestling, strangling, and attempted murder in a pool of fake stage blood, the former furious at having his own successful hits ignored and Stephen’s accepted by the omnipotent neon sign, whose approving buzzer signaled the end of a character’s life. Playing out thespian animosity through the medium of successive stage deaths was a great choice, channeling vicious urgency into the most humdrum of minor character interactions.
The two deaths I laughed and cringed at the most, however, were acted out through objects, not people, using flies at the end of sticks and puppetry. One depicted Cinna the Poet’s violent death in (conscious) mistake for Cinna the Conspirator in Julius Caesar. Wandering out of doors in answer to a fateful impulse, “I have no will to wander forth of doors, / Yet something leads me forth” (3.3.2-4), the poet encounters a rowdy mob of plebeians looking for trouble. The company acted out the menacing lead-up to the murder with small marionette stick-figures on a table who surrounded the poet-figure menacingly, while a projector portrayed the marionettes’ maneuvers on the big screen overhead. Herding him into the midst of a circle, they shrieked, “Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses!” The figure, crying, “I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet! I am not Cinna the conspirator!” was then torn apart by a baying crowd and set ablaze, burning while the company stood calmly around, satiated (3.3.28-36). Seeing such calculated, yet uncontrollable violence consuming Cinna’s proxy effectively stimulated the viewer to imagine how horrific the actual encounter must have been, and reflect on how useless words are in some Shakespearean deaths to counter or even forestall violence and hate.
One of the most famous deaths in the Shakespeare canon, due to its unusual method of execution, is the drowning of George, Duke of Clarence by First and Second Murderer in a cask of Malmsey wine at the behest of Clarence’s wicked brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III. To portray this death, three members of the cast solemnly recited lines from the scene as ominous music played in the stillness, holding fly sticks, which they moved to vibrate the flies in time to the words:
FIRST MURDERER Take him on the costard with the hilts of thy sword, and then throw him into the malmsey butt in the next room.
SECOND MURDERER O excellent device!—and make a sop of him.
FIRST MURDERER Strike!
SECOND MURDERER No, we’ll reason with him.
All eyes were trained on the overhead screen, where the mason jar full of water sitting on the table acted as the offending Malmsey butt. Fly Clarence awoke and eloquently pleaded for his life:
CLARENCE How darkly and how deadly dost thou speak.
Your eyes do menace me. Why look you pale?
Who sent you hither? Wherefore do you come?
SECOND MURDERER To, to, to—
CLARENCE To murder me.
BOTH MURDERERS Ay, ay.
Despite pleading at some length (which was curtailed somewhat as the lead-up to the murder stretches to 190 lines in the original play), no argument fly Clarence can make will preserve him from his liquid doom. The two Murderer flies forcibly hold struggling, frantically buzzing Clarence down in the depths of the mason jar for an impossibly long time until he relaxes, floats to the top, and remains in place. Cue buzzer! No human-acted performance of Clarence’s death has ever moved me to such helpless laughter and strange emotion: seeing his murder in fly-form reveals the utter helplessness of the duke as a character, ganged up on and completely surprised at the sudden reversal of everything he believed in and thought he knew about his world, the kingdom, and his beloved brother, Gloucester. He dies knowing the awful truth of his brother’s betrayal, but such knowledge does not save him.
Seeing these deaths all at once is a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of what Shakespeare means to say about the precariousness of life and suddenness of death by the way he pictures, speaks, and writes last words and actions before snuffing out the candle that can never be relit. Through its surface buffoonery and slapstick, especially in its appreciation for allowing contemplative stage time to certain deaths such as Clarence’s and Cinna’s, The Complete Deaths illustrates Shakespeare’s philosophy of theatrical death at large: a good death is memorable and eloquent, a bad death is quick and obscure, because a good theater death needs to live on in audience memory. What weds the maudlin and absurd in this particular show, at least for me, is its full-hearted embracing of chaos as an existential concept contributing to tragedy and comedy alike insofar as such chaos recalls the uncertainty, inevitability, and apparent unfairness of death. In fearing, responding to, and experiencing their grotesque demises, Shakespearean characters mirror us, having no idea when, where, and by what method they will die. While laughing at the ridiculousness of some characters’ dramatic exits into the afterlife, we as the audience acknowledge our own fragility, apprehension, and find comfort in (still) being part of the dark comedy.
Lydia Craig is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in Victorian studies, with an additional focus on early modern drama. She holds an MA in English literature from Loyola University Chicago and a BA in English and history from the University of Georgia.