Friday, 21 January 2011

Friday 5: most unbearably sad death scenes in Shakespeare

You know you're watching a Shakespearean Comedy when everyone gets married at the end. And you know you're watching a Shakespearean Tragedy when everyone dies at the end. And you know you're watching a Shakespearean History when at least half the characters are named after places and a lot of them die.

Comedies aside, William Shakespeare is responsible for an awful lot of death scenes. Some of them are among the most famous death scenes in literature, bywords for tragedy and heartbreak. And others just seem to slip by almost unnoticed. Heck, some of these characters don't even have names. But for some reason, I find these lesser-known deaths infinitely more heartbreaking than the more renowned ones. So because I am morbid, I have compiled a list of my top 5 most unbearably sad death scenes in Shakespeare.

Caution: here be spoilers for Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 3, Julius Caesar, King Lear, and The Winter's Tale.

5. Lord Talbot and John Talbot, Henry VI Part 1
"And in that sea of blood my boy did drench
His over-mounting spirit, and there died,
My Icarus, my blossom, in his pride."
As the play begins, Talbot Sr is the Constable of France. He hasn't seen his son for seven years, because he's been kicking ass and taking names in France under Henry V. He's admired by the English, feared by the French, and a solid, reliable figure. But Henry V is gone, the young Henry VI is on the throne, and things are rapidly starting to fragment.

And so, about to go into battle, massively outnumbered, the noble Talbot knows he's not going to make it this time. He tells his son to get out while he still can, at least Mrs Talbot won't lose both her husband and her son, but the boy chooses death before dishonour, and is summarily slaughtered by the oncoming French. Talbot Sr survives long enough to deliver two utterly heartrending speeches of lamentation, then dies. The whole thing is pretty goshdarn upsetting.

4. Cinna the Poet, Julius Caesar
"Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses!"
Cinna the Poet, when we meet him, is about to have what is colloquially referred to as "a really bad day". Going about his business through the streets of Rome, despite a dream of deep foreboding, he little suspects he is about to run into a crowd of plebeians who have been, shall we say, a little riled up by the oratorical skills of one Mark Antony. One case of mistaken identity later, and poor Cinna the Poet is being torn to pieces, simply because he has the same name as one of those who conspired to assassinate Caesar and the immense misfortune to run into a textbook example of an angry mob.

There's something almost funny about this scene, and somehow, that makes it worse. I've always seen the sad side rather than the humorous side when it comes to black comedy, and this is no exception. And there's something so frighteningly real about these characters that this scene never fails to make me feel utterly wretched.

3. Father Who Killed His Son and Son Who Killed His Father, Henry VI Part 3
"These arms of mine shall be thy winding-sheet;
My heart, sweet boy, shall be thy sepulchre,
For from my heart thine image ne'er shall go;
My sighing breast shall be thy funeral bell;
And so obsequious will thy father be,
Even for the loss of thee, having no more,
As Priam was for all his valiant sons.
I'll bear thee hence; and let them fight that will,
For I have murdered where I should not kill."
These two deaths are simply awful. Well, the clue is in the character names: two men are fighting at the Battle of Towton. One of them discovers that the man he has just killed is his own son, and the other discovers that the man he has just killed is his own father. If you get on well with your parents, and even if you don't, just take a minute to really think about that. (No, really, take a minute. I'll still be here when you get back.) And you know what? This scene is even worse than that.

The Battle of Towton was the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil; approximately 1% of the entire population of the country was wiped out that day. 1% may not sound like a huge amount, so let's put it in perspective: British people, imagine that the entire population of Glasgow is slaughtered in one day. Americans, pretend that almost everybody in Los Angeles is dead and it happened in less than 12 hours. No wonder Henry VI spends the entire scene sobbing on a hill-top.

There's a peculiar kind of genius in this scene. With just two symbolic deaths, Shakespeare manages to convey not only the unthinkable loss of this one day, but also the chaos and disarray that comes from civil war. The first (and thus far only) time I saw this scene in performance was 24th May 2008; I am still haunted by it and expect I will continue to be so for many years yet.*

2. Antigonus, The Winter's Tale
"For this ungentle business
Put on thee by my lord, thou ne'er shalt see
Thy wife Paulina more."
Oh, The Winter's Tale, I love it dearly! I have no idea why, but I am deeply emotionally involved in this play. Considering how over-sensitive I am generally (I'm taking time out of my day to tell you that deaths of minor characters in fiction reliably make me cry, for heaven's sake) it's a miracle I ever make it to the interval with my nerves intact.

While I'm probably more of a Bohemian in temperament myself, I love the Sicilians. Camillo is my favourite character in the entire oeuvre. When I needed a superb name for my beloved ukulele, I went with Paulina. And while Antigonus does have his flaws (he never realises the depth of Leontes's jealousy and that baby Perdita is legitimate after all, and even though the alternative was immediate infant immolation, he still takes the baby to a far-off shore to be abandoned to the elements), he is also a good good man. Would Paulina have married him if he weren't? Of course she wouldn't!

When asked "what would you do to save this child?", Antigonus's instant response is "anything!". And when the bear comes out of nowhere looking for a snack, without a single thought, he sacrifices himself so that Perdita will survive. Emotional over-involvement + self-sacrifice + the wonderful Paulina left alone and husbandless for at least fifteen years = endless tears from my face. I almost wish I were exaggerating for comic effect.

1. First Servant, King Lear
"Hold your hand, my lord:
I have served you ever since I was a child;
But better service have I never done you
Than now to bid you hold."
This man is perfect in his brevity. In the midst of a most horrific torture scene, a lowly, nameless servant realises that true loyalty sometimes involves ignoring orders and doing what is right. He literally comes from nowhere to stand up for Gloucester against the viciousness of his employers Cornwall and Regan, and though his part is but a mere nine lines long before he is a corpse on the floor, he does at least manage to deliver a fatal blow to Cornwall before he goes. C.S. Lewis puts it best when he says "if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted". And I sob. Every. Damn. Time.

*Coincidentally, the Father and Son were played by the same actors who played the Talbots (Keith Bartlett and Lex Shrapnel) for the RSC's Histories Cycle. I spent a whole weekend watching them die as various different fathers and sons. Apparently it really stuck with me!


  1. One of the most poignant for those of us of a certain age occurs offstage. It is when Justice Shallow hears that a companion of his youth is dead and he can't quite believe it repeating "And is old Double dead ?".

    Jan Brock

  2. I've just noticed in number 3 that I put myself and invited everyone else to put themselves firmly in the hypothetical shoes of the Son rather than the Father. It's going to be interesting to see how feelings and opinions change as the years progress! (Although as 3 is a two-for-one agewise, I don't suppose that one will be going very far.)

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