• StevenF

Death and Shakespeare

I happened to pass by a cemetery yesterday. There was a large group of people, mostly dressed in traditional funereal black, mourning the loss of a loved one. I also noticed a mariachi band, so my assumption was that the deceased was probably Hispanic.

I don't know, there was something touching about it that kind of grabbed at my heart. Every day, families and friends like these mourn the loss of a loved one. Somebody they cared about and loved, somebody who influenced their lives in some way is suddenly...gone.

Sometimes death comes suddenly, without any warning. Sometimes it is expected and slow and drawn out. Sometimes death takes the young, far before one feels it is their time. Others live a long life well into old age.

But no matter when it happens, death is usually a sad occasion for those left behind. Even when we think we're prepared for it, we are often unprepared for how great a hole is left behind when a person we love passes away.

And yet, death is inevitable. All of us will lose people we love, and all of us ourselves will eventually die. There's no escaping it.

And furthermore, the only thing we will take with us when we die is ourselves—who we were, the kind of life we lived, how we treated those with whom we shared this world, the memories that we have.

As I said in a previous post, I've been on a bit of a Shakespeare kick lately, so he and his words have been on my mind a lot recently.

Shakespeare often addresses death and mortality in his works. I've been struck by the words of Richard II in the play of the same name:

for within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,

Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,

Allowing him a breath, a little scene,

To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,

Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh which walls about our life,

Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus

Comes at the last and with a little pin

Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

The gist of the speech is that Richard, who is king and has believed in his destiny as king, now faces mortality and overthrow and contemplates the fact that his crown, his status as king, and his power are essentially worthless and that he is as subject to death as any other man.

No matter how rich you are, how powerful you are, how accomplished you are, how famous you are, death will come for you just like it will anybody else. It makes no distinction between souls. All must face it.

Earlier in the same speech, Richard says, "for what can we bequeath / Save our deposed bodies to the ground? / ...nothing can we call our own but death / And that small model of the barren earth / Which serves as paste and cover to our bones."

I recently watched the David Tennant version of Hamlet, and the graveyard scene struck me as Hamlet talks about how the gravedigger is throwing around carelessly the skulls of some of the dead. He says, "That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once," and then goes on to comment about how the skull could have belonged to a politician or a courtier, but now wonders if the skulls of these once renowned people "cost no more the breeding but to play at loggets with them," with the game of loggets kind of being akin to something like horseshoes where sticks are thrown at a stake, and the person who gets his stick closest to the stake is the winner. In other words, these once alive individuals are now just bones that are worth as much as sticks in a game of loggets.

Hamlet talks about how these skulls could have belonged to a lawyer, who can no longer sue for the way his remains are currently being treated, or a "buyer of land," whose "fine pate" is now "full of fine dirt." Hamlet continues that the "very conveyances of [the landowner's] lands will hardly lie in this box." In other words, all the lands the landowner amassed in life are nothing to him now that his remains lie in this small parcel of land.

When Hamlet finds out one of the skulls belongs to Yorick, a man he actually knew and whose shoulders he was carried on as a child, Hamlet says, "Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft," and asks, "Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?" This jester, once full of life and merriment, who could make people laugh, is just a skull and bones now.

Hamlet, who contemplates suicide earlier in the play calls death "the undiscovere'd country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns."

And I suppose that's true. While we all think we might know what lies beyond this mortal realm, none of us know for sure what comes after death. Unlike Macbeth, whose view of life is rather dark and nihilistic when death comes knocking at his door—

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

I prefer to believe that life has great meaning, that what we do, what lessons we learn, and how we treat others follows us to the great beyond. I believe in an afterlife. I believe in God. I believe things will be good there. But I don't know for sure. I feel like I know, but it's just my faith in all that that causes me to believe it.

Unlike Hamlet, who says, "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause" or Claudio in Measure For Measure—

The weariest and most loathed worldly life

That age, ache, penury and imprisonment

Can lay on nature is a paradise

To what we fear of death.

—I am not afraid to die. I don't ever recall ever being afraid of death. It's probably due to the Mormon faith I was raised in. We just had a pretty positive view of death and what would come after, and it's pretty ingrained in me now.

But even though I don't subscribe anymore to everything that Mormonism teaches, I do have very positive feelings about what comes after this mortal life, and that certainly colors how I view death. But no matter how I feel about what comes after this life, the fact of the matter is, none of us can escape death. It's going to happen to all of us, whether we like it or not, whether we want it to or not, whether we fear it or not. I guess what struck me most as I passed by that cemetery yesterday was how great it was that somebody was so loved and cared for and had such an influence on the people at that cemetery that so many of them were gathered to mourn the loss of the deceased. When my mom died, it was enormously painful to lose her. It left a deep hole in my heart to have her no longer here. I still miss her so much. But I think how great it was that the kind of person she was to me and so many others was such that losing her did hurt so deeply and left such a gaping hole.

I think that's the most telling thing when a person dies—how do those who are left behind feel about that death? What influence did the deceased have on those who are left behind? I hope whatever my legacy is in life, that when I die, I will be remembered well and missed. I hope people will remember me and my associations with them with fondness. Death is always hardest on those left behind. Funerals are more for the living than they are for the dead. And death is just a part of life. So live the best life you can while you're still here, that's what I say.

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