Masaryk university brno faculty of education

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Department of English Language and Literature

Tragic Death in Shakespeare

Bachelor thesis

Brno 2012

Supervisor: Author:

Mgr. Jaroslav Izavčuk Pavel Smejkal

I declare that I worked on my bachelor thesis independently and that I used only the sources listed in the bibliography.


In Brno, April 2012 Pavel Smejkal

I would like to thank my supervisor Mgr. Jaroslav Izavčuk for his kind guidance, patience and valuable comments.

Bibliographical Description

Smejkal, Pavel. Tragic Death in Shakespeare: bachelor thesis. Brno: Masaryk University, Faculty of Education, Department of English Language and Literature, 2012. 49 p. Supervisor Mgr. Jaroslav Izavčuk.


Bakalářská práce je zaměřena na zkoumání tragických údělů hrdinů Shakespearových her a na jednání postav, které vede k těmto údělům. Cílem je charakterizovat některé konkrétní postavy, jmenovitě Hamleta, krále Leara, Cordelii, Romea a Julii, analyzovat je a poukázat na neodvratitelnost jejich osudů. Osudy jednotlivých postav se v práci protkají a bude možné rozebrat, do jaké míry jsou jejich životy předurčeny a do jaké míry může o svém osudu člověk rozhodovat sám.

Teoretická část se věnuje především životu dramatika Williama Shakespeara a pojetí smrti v jeho době. V praktické části se zaměříme na konkrétní postavy ze Shakespearových děl, charakterizujeme je a poukážeme na předurčenost jejich životů.
Klíčová slova

Smrt, osud, láska, odplata, tragika, jed, zkáza.


This bachelor thesis deals with the tragic destinies of the characters in Shakespeare’s plays and with acting of these characters that leads to these destinies. The aim is to characterize some of them, namely Hamlet, King Lear, Cordelia, Romeo and Juliet, analyze them and show the inability to change their destinies. Destinies of every character will join in the thesis and it will be possible to analyze until what extent their lives are predestined and until what extent one can make decisions about one’s life.

The theoretical part deals with the life of William Shakespeare and with the phenomenon of death in and around his age. The practical part deals with some characters in the play, they will be characterized and their destinies will be shown.

Key words

Death, destiny, love, revenge, tragic, poison, doom.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction…………………………………………………………………………..7

  2. Theoretical Part……………………………………………………………………....9

    1. William Shakespeare and Death…………………………………………………9

    2. Death in and around Shakespearean Time………………………………………12

    3. Shakespeare – the Man of all Times.....................................................................15

  3. Practical Part………………………………………………………………………...17

    1. King Lear – the Most Tragic Tragedy…………………………………………..17

      1. Cordelia………………………………………………………………… 18

      2. King Lear………………………………………………………………..23

    2. Romeo and Juliet – the Tragedy of Tragic Love and Death…………………….28

    3. Hamlet – the Tragedy of Revenge………………………………………………37

  4. Conclusion…………………………………………………………………………..43

  5. Works Cited………………………………………………………………………...46

  1. Introduction

This bachelor thesis deals with a tragic death in three plays written by William Shakespeare. These three plays are called King Lear, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. The major part of the thesis focuses on analyzing these three works. In all of these masterpieces, there are some characters that influence the whole play and can be called main characters. In the end these characters die, of course. In Hamlet there is Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, the man of many faces, seeking for revenge for the death of his father. In Romeo and Juliet there are two characters, which can be analyzed. It is Romeo and Juliet. They are in love but the society stands against their love and only their death solves the problems between two families. And in King Lear there is poor Lear who becomes a pawn in the intrigues of his two daughters, and Cordelia, the only daughter who truly loves Lear. Lear finds out late that he left behind the wrong person. Each of these characters dies and, in some way, their tragic death helps to solve the situation. The tragic death is an instrument used to make things better between people.

William Shakespeare became one of the most influential playwrights in English literature. Some critics still believe that Shakespeare existed but was not able to write so many works and that these were written by somebody else. Assuming that the author is a real historical figure and he really wrote all of the plays, and the majority of critics would agree with this opinion, his works and characters are interpreted in many ways. If we take Hamlet into consideration, for example, this character’s ambiguity causes a lot of problems, when someone tries to interpret it. Hamlet looks like a complete idiot at first sight, but the reader cannot be sure whether he really is an idiot or only acts like one. He can really be trying to revenge his father’s death by all means or he can only be trying to persuade everybody else that he is acting in his father’s name and still act only for his own profit. His death, as well as the death of other characters in play, means the end of one sad era and the beginning of a new one.

This thesis is divided into two parts. The first part deals briefly with the life of the Poet and the phenomenon of death in his time. People saw death differently than they do now and the author himself faced it many times. It can help us connect the destinies and the tragic endings of some of the characters. The second, practical part, deals with the characters themselves. The description of them starts with author’s inspiration for the character and continues with describing of his/her qualities, the importance of each character in the particular play, the relationship between the characters are shown and ends with the death. By analyzing these personalities, the importance of the destiny and the tragic death can be shown.

  1. Theoretical Part

    1. William Shakespeare and Death

William Shakespeare is one of the most important poets and playwrights in

the history of English literature, even in literature in general. Every student of this language should be familiar at least with some of his works. Henry N. Hudson in Shakespeare’s Life, Art and Characters claims:

Shakespeare by general suffrage, is the greatest name in literature. There can be no extravagance in saying, that to all who speak the English language his genius has made the world better worth living in, and life a nobler and diviner thing. And even among those who do not “speak the tongue that Shakespeare spake,” large numbers are studying the English language mainly for the purpose of being at home with him (7).
As Joseph Quincy Adams writes in his book, no one can say precisely when

Shakespeare was born. The year is known for sure. William was born in 1564. The precise date could be either Friday, April 21, Saturday, April 22 or Sunday, April 23. The Poet was baptized three days later, on Wednesday, April 26.

On Saturday, April 22, or Sunday, April 23, 1564, an important event took place in the Shakespeare home in Henley Street: a son and heir was born to John and Mary. A few days later, on Wednesday, April 26, he was baptized with the name “William.” The entry in the baptismal register reads: “1564, April 26, Gulielmus, filius Johannes Shakspere” (Adams, 21).
The period in which the Poet came to the world did not belong to the happy ones. Stratford became one of the places struck by plague, or the so called “Black Death.” The plague came to Stratford in the summer of 1564 so the author was only an offspring. Shakespeare was very lucky to survive this. Fortunately the plague did not hit the house where the young author lived. He actually escaped from his tragic death very early. Samuel Schoenbaum in William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life writes: “In plague the bell tolled most often for the very young and enfeebled old. Richard Symons, the town clerk, buried two sons and a daughter; in Henley Street, where the Shakespeares lived, Roger Green lost four children” (Schoenbaum, 26). It appears that nobody could escape this disaster. A lot of people died but Shakespeare and his family became an exception. One can only speculate, if some kind of divine intervention let Shakespeare live and let him become a genius of his time.
The story of William Shakespeare’s life is a tale of two towns. Stratford bred him; London gave him, literally and figuratively, a stage for his fortune. In an unpretentious market-town he was born and reared in a house which has miraculously survived erosions by time and tourism. Before achieving his majority he took for his bride a local girl past the bloom of youth; she bore him three children, one of whom, the only son, died young. In London Shakespeare became a common player in plays, then a popular writer of plays (Schoenbaum, 3).

Marriage is one of the most important things in everyone’s life and Shakespeare makes no exception. He married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of Richard Hathaway of Shottery. She was seven or eight years older. The question whether the marriage was happy or not cannot be answered but Anne gave William three children. The first daughter, by the name of Susanna, was born in May 1583. Almost two years after that Mrs. Shakespeare gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. “Shakespeare took them to the Stratford church, and christened them Hamnet and Judith, after his friend Hamnet Sadler and Hamnet’s wife Judith” (Adams, 79). After the baptism of his two children, he left Stratford and set to a new life in London. Unfortunately for the Poet, his son died at the age of twelve, in August 1596. This unfortunate event definitely left its marks in Shakespeare’s works as he was not prepared to face it.

The year 1616 did not start well for the Poet. He was surprised as well as angry about the marriage of his daughter Judith. She married Thomas Quiney who was six years younger. Shakespeare was not fond of this marriage and as it turned out, Thomas was far from being an ideal husband. Anyway, soon after the marriage Shakespeare got ill and this illness became a fatal one in the end. As it could be seen, the death was all around the Poet for the whole time those days. And, eventually, it came for him, as well.
Death was also stalking at the old homestead in Henley Street. On April 17, Shakespeare’s sister buried her husband, William Hart, in the Stratford churchyard. Six days later, on April 23, the poet breathed his last - as tradition has it, on his birthday. The body lay in state at New Place for two days, and then, on Thursday, April 25, was interred, not in the churchyard, where his father and mother and other kindred had been laid, but in the church itself (Adams, 472).

Therefore the day when William Shakespeare died was most likely April 23 and the world probably lost its greatest poet and playwright. However, Shakespeare still lives these days as a subject for researches and as a nice reading for others.

    1. Death in and around Shakespearean Time

Death always was and still is an almighty power that denies all differences

between people. Every society has to deal with death because every other creature must eventually die no matter what. Shakespearean time was not different. Death was for many the only thing and hope that can make everybody the same, be it either a rich one or a poor one. But death, on the other hand, represented the power that brings the order of the world into a chaos (Hilský, 476).

People at some times in history really needed to deny death, to hide it from the world and never speak about it. It could be the cause of our age when almost nobody is able to accept his own mortality. James L. Calderwood in his book Shakespeare and the Denial of Death writes: “On the whole, Middle Ages was not such a time, or if it was, the denial was accomplished so gracefully as to render death somewhat transparent. Transparent but by no means invisible” (9). Of course, death was connected to something bad, especially when the person committed a bad deed. For those who lived virtuous lives death meant only a natural ending of something.
However, during the Middle Ages the principal cure for sin was hell. On canvas and from the pulpit, the nether regions were painted in such ghastly colors that death paled by comparison. Hell’s full assortment of roasting, racking, boiling, flailing, and eviscerating was offered up in words, paint, and sculpture for the edification of those who lusted after sin. Death, on the other hand, though sometimes associated with Satan, was more often seen as the servant of God, doing his bidding. The spectre appeared as part of an inevitable and universal process, fetching Everyman to a final audit and settling of accounts. For the virtuous it was all as natural as the seasons (Calderwood, 9).
The look at death changed throughout the time very significantly. During

the fifteenth century death became an obsession for the people. Death was horrified and hellified, all kinds of terrible pictures or murals appeared all around Europe. “Choreographed in paintings and murals all over Europe, the rotting mummies of the danse macabre1 promenaded their unbelieving partners toward eternity. Death’s role in these dances graduated from gentleness toward increasing violence as the sixteenth century approached” (Calderwood, 10). The sixteenth century continued in this fashion but there appeared some kind of reaction to the obsession as well. The “invisible” death also made an entrance here. The important part of dying in the Middle Ages creates the so called ars moriendi.2 The man had to be prepared for his death in the best way he could. He was about to stand before his last judgement and he needed to prepare to face death.

Closer look should be made on the situation in Elizabethan England, to the second half of the 16th century and a few years in the 17th century. “In the late sixteenth century the sacred current flowed from both God and Queen, and it consisted in both grace and gold. But it had many other sources. And Elizabethans needed all the sources they could find after the breakdown of religious certainties occasioned by the Reformation” (Calderwood, 12). People in this era were obsessed with power and with the rank in society. They wanted to gain power no matter what it cost. Of course, when they get the power, they wanted to stay alive and, in the matter of fact, stay alive or deny death. Some of Shakespeare’s characters could be examples of accumulating as much as they can by all means. “The art of being much or of acquiring much is fairly ardently practiced at all times. Certainly it is a passion of Shakespeare’s characters, whether they seek to eat their way to greatness like Falstaff, hoard they way to it like Shylock, or slaughter their way to it like Macbeth. By these and many other means, the men and women of the plays heap wood on the sacred bonfire that keeps death at bay” (Calderwood, 14). On the other hand, there are characters whose death is in some way inevitable in order to make the world better or to find peace, respectively. Hamlet, who has to die in his father’s name. Romeo and Juliet and their unfulfilled love that ends in a tragedy which finally connects their two families together. And at last King Lear, who has to die to find peace and to connect with his beloved daughter. These characters will be analyzed in the practical part of this thesis.

Still there were some “tools” to make one immortal, or namely, to make the King immortal. The idea of “the King’s Two Bodies” quickly spread throughout the Elizabethan England. The King had, next to his natural body, a state, mystical body (Body Politic). The natural body was mortal but his mystical, state body was immortal, making the King immortal as it was said even in their law system. Shakespeare used the metaphor of King’s two bodies in Hamlet. The appearance of a ghost in the first scene can be seen as a state body, meanwhile the message about the murder of the King, that Hamlet gets from the ghost, contains a lot of information about the decay of his natural body (Hilský, 464).

The last thing one could do in the defence against the almighty and annihilating death were the funeral ceremonies. The funeral of a King, Queen or a Prince was a great event, played with strict rules clear scenarios. The position of the dead was enlarged because death itself erased his/her position in the society. Nobody could disturb this ceremony, it was taken even worse than the death itself. Going back to Hamlet, Hamlet is really offended by the marriage of his mother right after the funeral. The same thing happens to Laertes, as his father is not even properly buried despite being a high ranked officer. (Hilský, 478).

    1. Shakespeare, the Man of all Times

Shakespeare was a genius and nobody in a rich history of literature did

not come any closer to him. His plays were read throughout the centuries and are being read even now. The universality of the Poet has parallel, the only book that could be comparable is the Bible, which still counts and is read throughout the world. Why is Shakespeare in this way universal? He had a lot of space and means to become the greatest but this was true for many of his contemporaries. The answers are very clear and have a lot to do with his unique style of writing as well as with his mastery of picturing the characters. As Hilský points out, Shakespeare did not invent the stories of his plays, he borrowed many of them. The thing is that he was able to implant his own rhetoric and style into works. Nobody else could imitate what Shakespeare does with the language. He mastered the play with the language, he works with nonsense and puns. He created the unique language of love in his Sonnets or in Romeo and Juliet (29).

The other reason for Shakespeare’s universality is the choice of characters in the plays. Characters like Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Othello or Lear’s Fool and many others are the masterpieces of his works. They are so different that every other human can see himself/herself in any of them. Hilský says that Shakespeare created archetypes which address spectators and readers all over the world throughout centuries and works in every time as a mean of self-knowledge (29). This is perfectly true as people tend to be indecisive like Hamlet, they love their children like Lear or are jealous like Othello.
A lot of writers try to tell the reader or the spectator how they should behave, react and think. Shakespeare does not do that. He only shows the people real situations. The reader/spectator creates his/her own opinion about the situation, the Poet does not want to give them his own will. Hilský writes: “Shakespeare’s world is a stage, where Shakespeare placed a lot of mirrors – mirrors of the characters, mirrors of the plot, mirrors of the situations, mirrors of speech and also mirrors of the mirrors. But the mirrors cannot be understood only as a reflection or imitation of a reality but mainly as mirrors of imagination” (Hilský, 29)3. Shakespeare’s works are beautiful because everybody can find what they want in them. The interpretation of the plays is no easy thing and that is why many scholars still try to find something new and they are really successful. Shakespeare is, and always will be, the greatest author of all times.

  1. Practical Part

    1. King Lear – the Most Tragic Tragedy

Two characters of this play will be analyzed, Cordelia and Lear. These two are soul mates, loving each other but the only thing that can bring them together is their tragic death. Lear finds out too late that he was blinded by the words of his two other daughters. The only real treasure rests in silence. But let us start with Cordelia, woman who was punished because of her goodness.
The origin of the plot

The story of an old king who wants to divide his kingdom, having no boy heir, between his daughters was well-known in Renaissance and Shakespeare had a lot of sources to work with4. The oldest version of the story can be found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Britonum. Another source is the version from the Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. “While Shakespeare may have learned the outlines of the Lear story from many sources, - tradition, or the works in prose and verse just mentioned, - it is certain that he was familiar with the version given in his favourite source book of British history, the Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, by Raphael Holinshed”( Charlton, 14). The name Cordelia probably comes from Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene. The most significant source for the story is an anonymous play called The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir and his three daughters.

In fact, there are two plots in this tragedy that happens parallely. The first one is the plot of King Lear and his three daughters, the second one of Earl of Gloucester and his two sons, Edgar, the good one and Edmund, the bad one. These two plots eventually join.

      1. Cordelia

Women in the tragedy

Before turning to the matter of death and the destiny of Cordelia, we have to

divide the women characters into two groups: the good one and the bad ones. These characters are divided according to their hidden intentions. Goneril and Regan are speaking of their infinite love towards their father:
Goneril: Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter;

Dearer than eye-sight, space and liberty;

Beyond what can be valued rich or rare;

No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;

As much as childe e’er lov’d, or father found;

A love that makes breath poor and speech unable;

Beyond all manner of so much I love you.

(King Lear, Act I, Scene I, 54-60)

Words are such a powerful weapon and Goneril uses them very well here. Lear wanted to hear this and he gets it. In fact, Goneril has a lot of people she might love but she loves only her father, according to what she says here. She does not care about her future husband or about her sisters. The same could be applied for Regan:

Regan: I am made of that self metal as my sister,

And prize me at her worth. In my true heart

I find she names my very deed of love;

Only she comes too short: that I profess

Myself an enemy to all other joys

Which the most precious square of sense possesses,

And find I am alone felicitate

In your dear highness’ love.

(King Lear, Act I, Scene I, 68-74)

These lines show a good example of meaningless words. Goneril and Regan obviously long only for the treasures that their poor father wants to give them. They speak of never ending love to their father. Goneril, in addition, dares to speak about silence but it is Cordelia who can show the power of silence. These two characters represent the bad ones in the play. On the other hand, we have Cordelia, a poor child, the youngest of all of them. At first King Lear loves her and wants the best for her. But what happens when she does not fulfil his dreams about how she loves him? Her words are not meaningless because she says nothing of how much she loves him. Nevertheless, the words cannot really express a true love and Goneril is right, in fact. The only bad thing is that she does not really mean it.
Cordelia: You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me: I

Return those duties back as are right fit,

Obey you, love you, and most honour you.

Why have my sisters husbands, if they say

They love you all? Happily, when I shall wed,

That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry

Half my love with him, half my care and duty:

Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,

To love my father all.

(King Lear, Act I, Scene I, 95-103)

Unlike her sisters Cordelia truly says that she loves his father the same as she would love her future husband. That is it. Lear asked Cordelia to tell him what she feels to him and she answered with all her heart, sadly for her, her heart does not share the wishes her father had. And the tragic destiny of Cordelia can start to fulfil.

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