The Bard is often praised for his beautiful verse, and the depictions of romance and fantasy contained within his plays. But he’s equally famous for the gruesome and creative deaths he inflicts on his characters. Some are taken from history or myth, others are from Shakespeare’s own imagination. From poison to drowning, there’s a myriad of interesting ways to die in our Top 10 Most Interesting Shakespearean Deaths.
10. King Hamlet
In Shakespeare’s longest play, there are lots of interesting deaths. But my personal favorite comes right at the start, with the death of King Hamlet, the father of our Danish hero. In fact, the King is dead at the opening of the play but in great Shakespearean tradition, he appears again as a ghost. And in this case, he’s all too ready to spill the beans on how he died. The perpetrator was his brother Claudius and the method of dispatch was poison in the ear as he slept. Yes, in the ear. Poisoning someone’s food is obviously far too straightforward and common, but a drop of ear-poison? Genius!
The ghost doesn’t hold back on describing his death – it’s probably quite a relief to be able to talk about it someone – and Shakespeare gives over a full 50 lines to it (no wonder the play’s so long). But the key bit is here:
“Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man”
Juice of cursed hebenon! What a way to go…poor Hamlet senior.
9. George, Duke of Clarence
Another of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Richard III is a little incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t have an intricate knowledge of British medieval politics, thanks to everyone having similar names and the crown constantly passing from one side to the other in a most annoying fashion. But the character we’re focussing on is the Duke of Clarence, also known as the title character’s little brother.
You have to feel for George – both of his brothers got a shot at being King and what did he get? Locked in the Tower of London on a trumped up charge and eventually brutally murdered. But at least his death was memorable – stabbed and then drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. He also gets a really, really long death scene with the murderers repeatedly telling him to prepare to die, while he monologues on and on. It’s almost an anti-climax when one of them finally decides to do it:
“Take that, and that: if all this will not do, (Stabs him) I’ll drown you in the malmsey-butt within.”
8. Lady Macbeth
Another play with a fair helping of both deaths and ghosts, it seems strange that the death of one of the main characters happens off-stage in a slightly oblique way. But Shakespeare did enjoy a good bit of obliqueness. The death of the Queen is announced to Macbeth in Act 5, Scene 5 with an underwhelming “The queen, my lord, is dead”, to which he replies that he basically has a lot of other stuff going on in his life right now and doesn’t really care. The exact cause of death is unknown, but it’s assumed she killed herself (probably by throwing herself off the battlements of the castle) after a slow descent into madness. An interesting way to deal with such an important character.
7. Romeo and Juliet
Another famous play, another suicide or two. No-one ever claimed that Shakespeare was uplifting, did they? These two die as a result of teenage love and, quite frankly, teenage overreaction. If they’d just told their parents from the start that they wanted to date, maybe they could have all sat down together and worked something out? But no, there are duels (that end with the death of the wonderful Mercutio, as well as the snidey Tybalt), secret marriage and exile before Juliet decides that the rational solution to all this is to fake her own death. Romeo rushes off and kills himself over this before he really has time to think it through (or indeed wait for the messenger who would have cleared the whole thing up) and, upon waking, Juliet decides to kill herself too, forgetting that she’s only about 14 and probably would have met someone else soon anyway. Maybe that nice chap Paris? Oh wait no, he got killed pretty arbitrarily by Romeo a few minutes beforehand. It’s all a bit unnecessary really, but that’s the nature of tragedy for you…
As we get into the more obscure plays, the deaths get more obscure too. Take the jolly romp of Coriolanus, about a Roman commander who makes enemies of pretty much everyone, including his own son. It’s pretty inevitable that he’ll die at the end, and he senses it might be coming when he’s surrounded by a baying crowd shouting for his death. Coriolanus offers a suggestion of what they might want to do “Cut me to pieces, Volsces; men and lads”, which is quickly taken up the crowd shouting “tear him to pieces!”. That’s led some people to think that he is literally cut into pieces by his killers, but the stage direction given just after his death by stabbing suggests not – “AUFIDIUS stands on his body” implies that there’s still a body to stand on. Pity – it would have been more interesting if he’d actually been dissected at the end.