5. Timon of Athens
Another death which makes you think that Shakespeare just couldn’t quite be bothered. Timon of Athens is an allegory which stands up well in our credit-crunched times – it’s about a man who gives generously, but also borrows excessively and ends up in massive amounts of debt. Plagued by his financial troubles, Timon goes to live in a cave, far away from mankind, and just kind of dies there. His epitaph reads:
“Here lies a wretched corse, of wretched soul bereft:
Seek not my name: a plague consume you wicked caitiffs left!
Here lie I, Timon; who, alive, all living men did hate”
So, Timon died of bitterness and living in a cave. Must try harder with these deaths, Shakespeare!
Troilus and Cressida has never been the most popular Shakespeare play, and is largely unsure of whether it wants to be a tragedy or a comedy, with some bawdy humor taking place alongside the big issues of love and death. And the ending is strange, with Troilus and Cressida being split up and Cressida betraying him for another. There’s no real resolution to that situation, and then the Trojan hero Hector gets killed too, just to make sure the audience are thoroughly depressed when they leave. But what a death! Not only does he get to be killed by the great Greek hero Achilles (who spends much of the play sulking in a tent), he also gets dragged around Achilles’ horse to really drive the message home to those Trojans. The last two lines of the play are “Come, tie his body to my horse’s tail/Along the field I will the Trojan trail”. It may be a depressing death, but at least it’s a heroic one.
In case you haven’t had enough of suicide by now, here’s another one. But this one takes on the unusual method of clown+snake. By Act 5 of the play, Cleopatra is feeling a little fed up – her lover Antony has killed himself and Caesar has arrived to claim her as his own, and parade her through the streets of Rome. Determined to stop that happening, she instead elects to kill herself. Her first attempt fails when her knife is taken away from her, but when she succeeds it’s in the most theatrical style possible.
She dresses in her finest robes, and agrees to see a “rural fellow”, described in the script as a clown. He has a basket of figs, but it also contains the “pretty worm of Nilus” – a venomous snake, whose bite is almost certain to kill. Cleo puts on her crown, kisses her handmaiden (who falls down dead) and then applies an asp to her breast, with the words “With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate/Of life at once untie” and a slightly disturbing analogy about the snake being like a baby. Then she applies another asp to her arm and dies mid-sentence. Her other handmaiden follows suit, which leads to this most poetic exchange on Caesar’s servant’s return:
Dolabella: How goes it here?
Second Guard: All dead.
Truly a master of words was Shakespeare!
Set in Roman-occupied Britain, Cymbeline is a fiendishly complicated play including a foolish bet between two men that goes awry, lost heirs to a kingdom and the Shakespearean staple of a girl dressing as a boy. The girl in question is Imogen, daughter of King Cymbeline. She is hiding out in a cave in Wales, with her brothers (although she doesn’t know they are her brothers), when her stepbrother Cloten comes to find her, with the intention of raping her on her lover’s corpse. Such a lovely character deserves a horrible death and he gets it, with his head lopped off by one of Imogen’s long-lost brothers after insulting him with cusses like “rustic mountaineer”.
Confused yet? It gets more confusing. At this point, Imogen has taken some medicine which is actually poison, but which is actually not poison. She dies but doesn’t really die, and is placed next to the body of Cloten. Which leads to one of the all-time greatest Shakespearean moments as she wakes up next to a headless corpse, thinking it’s her lover (aptly named Posthumus). Her words of grief are, again, quite special:”O Posthumus! alas/Where is thy head?/Where’s that? Ay me!/Where’s that?”
Cloten’s death, along with some of the others on this list, was imaginatively re-enacted in the Vincent Prince film “Theatre of Blood“.
1. Chiron, Demetrius and Tamora
A triple bill of death to finish with, from the blood-soaked Titus Andronicus. The play starts with General Titus Andronicus returning from war with a lot fewer sons than he started with, and it’s no spoiler to say that he loses a few more along the way. There are 14 deaths altogether, including one near the end where someone is buried up to his neck and left to starve. But for sheer creativity, our number one slot goes to the fate of brothers Chiron and Demetrius and their mother Tamora.
Queen of the Goths Tamora is a prize brought back from war by Titus,who resents him for sacrificing her eldest son (this is not a good play to be a son in). Her sons take vengance by brutally raping Titus’ daughter and removing her tongue and hands so she can’t tell anyone. But Titus finds out anyway, and exacts an even worse fate on the brothers…by having them baked into pies and fed to Tamora. He unveils this plot in the final scene, as she’s just finishing up the pies with this speech:
“Why, there they are both, baked in that pie;
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.
‘Tis true, ’tis true; witness my knife’s sharp point.”
before stabbing her. He himself lasts another line before being stabbed, after which follows a bloodbath worth of Tarantino. Any student who thinks Shakespeare is tame really needs to read this play!