7 OCTOBER 1882, Page 10


THERE are in Shakespeare's Plays about ninety deaths, taking place either on the stage or immediately behind the scenes, so that the tidings are told or evidence is given directly after the fact. Twenty-five occur in this latter manner,

but not at all for the classical reason that terrible sights were not to be represented before the people. In many cases, gory

heads are introduced, far more ghastly than a whole murdered body ; the plight of Lavinia in Titus karmic/us is proof that an Elizabethan audience was content to sup full of horrors, and the many battle-fields in the Historical Plays may well be sup- posed to have included representations of the dead and dying.'

The number above given is only that of named, and there- fore important, personages ; it might be increased by soldiers and attendants who are killed, as it were, by the way. The modes of death are very various, and yet not quite all which we might naturally anticipate. Cold steel, the dagger or the sword, accounts for about two-thirds of the whole ; twelve persons die from old age, or natural decay, in some cases hastened by the trying circumstances of their lives ; seven are beheaded ; five die by poison, including the elder Hamlet, whose symptoms are so minutely described by his Ghost ; two by suffocation, unless, indeed, Desdemona makes a third ; two by strangling; one from a fall, one is drowned, three die by snake-bite; and one, Renter, the armourer, is thumped to death with a sand-bag.

The modes of death of which we might have expected Shake- speare to speak are arrow and gun-shot wounds. The English Archers are said to have done so much execution in more than one battle of which we hear in the plays, that it is curious they are only twice named as employed in fight,—

" Arrows fled not swifter toward their aim, Than did our soldiers aiming at their safety Fly from the field," at the battle of Shrewsbury; and Richard, at Bosworth, cries, "Draw, archers, draw your arrows to the head !"

It may be, of course, that a flight of arrows was a difficult and, indeed, a risky thing to represent on a stage ; but this would scarce account for no mention of death by them, and it is pro- bable that by Elizabeth's day the use of bow and arrow had so passed from reality into play, that it only occurred to the poet now and then, as adding a certain picturesque detail to his words. He makes the Archbishop of Canterbury, when coun- selling the too ready Henry V. to invade France, speak only of the pastime of archery,-

" As many arrows loosed several ways Come to one mark."

The other allusions are merely metaphor, as " Cupid's arrows," and,— " Tbe slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."

Guns were still only pieces of heavy ordnance, and though Falstaff speaks of a bullet's swiftness, he is thinking of what we call a ball, probably of stone ; and Shakespeare uses all words connected with explosive artillery simply in relation to the battering of walls, and not to the death and wounding of men.

Not till the English civil wars did firearms play any consider- able part in personal slaughter.

It may be interesting to examine how Shakespeare has dealt with death by these various means, and how far his descrip-

tion tallies with observed scientific facts. In Arthur's fall from the tower and Horner's death, the physical causes were the same ; whatever the outward injuries, death resulted from failure of the heart's action, in consequence of some serious in. ternal lesion, not from fracture of the spine, for in both after the injury is given there is time for one, yet but for one, short speech, and the end when it comes is instantaneous. -"Hold, Peter, hold, I confess treason !" cries Horner, and is going to say more ; there is no apparent failure of power, but he dies at once, abruptly. There is nothing to be said of the eases of suffocation, since they are transacted off the stage, and no physical signs are described ; nor, for the same reason, of the various instances of beheading. The single case of drowning is beautifully divested of all violence, and that which might be so painful is rendered peaceful. Ophelia, having lost her reason, is unaware of her danger ; she is buoyed up at first by her gar- ments, and then, as they grow heavy, she is dragged down by them gently and gradually, so that there is no room for struggle, and the waters close over her almost without a ripple. Who that ever saw Mr. Millais' early picture on the subject can pos- sibly forget it, or fail to recognise that poet and painter had equally rendered the fact, and yet divested it of its most terrible

• elements In the deaths of Cleopatra and her maids, Shakespeare would .seem to have been for once at fault. We say her maids, because the only way to account for the sudden death of Tres is to sup- pose that she had met and touched the incoming basket of asps, on leaving the presence to fetch her mistress's robe and • crown. But, however this may be, Cleopatra and Charmian die almost instantaneously of the snake's bite, after the Queen -" applies" the serpents to her breast and arm, as though they were leeches.

"Dolt thou not see my baby at my breast, That sucks the nurse asleep P"

The poet was quite aware that he must make the effect of the asp very different to that of the viper's, which now and -then might lame a horse, or, very exceptionally, kill a keeper, after some hours suffering, in his own Arden. But there was no tone to tell him the mode of death from the bites of Eastern serpents ; his imagination is quite unfettered, and with true poetic feeling, he makes the poison swifter than the cobra's, yet .peaceful and painless. It were better he should not know or toll the agonies and the distortion which, in fact, must have marred the beauty of Egypt's Queen. What is there lacking in • accuracy is more than made up in the account of Gloucester's ,death by strangling. There has been a terrible struggle, and .every physical sign is intensified:- " See how the blood is settled in his face.

His face is black and full of blood, His eyeballs further out than when he lived, His hair upreared, his nostrils stretched with struggling, His hands abroad displayed."

Of the deaths by poisoning, two are minutely described. One 'takes place off the stage, and is only named to us ; two are sudden,—the Queen in Hamlet, and Romeo, In these last cases, -the agent was clearly hydrocyanic acid in some form, a veget- able extract, such as laurel-water, killing almost at once, and painlessly, leaving no time for thought, but only for the cer- -tainty of quick-coming death. King John, on the other hand, is poisoned by a corrosive irritant, probably mineral, compara- tively slow in its action, of which burning heat is the chief ;symptom :— • "There is so hot a summer in my bosom,

• That all my bowels crumble up to dust. against this fire Do I shrink up P None of you will bid the winter come, To thrust his icy fingers in my.maw, Nor let my kingdom's rivers take their course Through my burned bosom, nor entreat the North To make his bleak winds kiss any parched lips P"

'The elder Hamlet, again, dies by vegetable poisoning. There is • strong reason for thinking that the true reading of the drug is not the usual " hebenen," but "hebona" or yew juice, for the symptoms are precisely those caused. by this, and by no other. • Whether, in the then state of anatomy, Shakespeare really believed, contrary to the truth, that such a juice poured into the ear would so course through the body, is not clear. It is probable that he took the old story, so far as he needed to do so, but having made it responsible for the mode in which the ' foreign element was introduced into Hamlet's frame, used then his own observation and curious plant-lore for the efforts which the body made to cast it out.

The many cases of death by steel are very closely studied from nature. Those who have carefully examined the dead on

a battle-field, or in the streets after an ente:tte, are struck with the fact that while the expression on the faces of those who have died by gunshot wounds is one of agony and distress, the dead by sword have a calmer expression, though their wounds often seem more painful to the eye. A very careful observer, who was through the Indian Mutiny, entirely confirms this.

After giving several instances, lie says, "A rapid death by steel is almost painless. Sabre edge or point divides the nerves so quickly as to give little pain. A bullet lacerates." This is in

entire accordance with Shakespeare's diagnosis. York, in Henry IT, dies "smiling;" so young Talbot in Sorry VI,, 1, "Poor

boy ! he smiles." In the great majority of cases, there appears to have been no acute pain ; and such distressful sensations as were felt, when there was time to feel anything, were those of cold. Death, therefore, resulted from haemorrhage, of which an exceeding chilliness, without pain, is always the consequence. Hotspur and Warwick both speak of this chill, " the earthly and cold hand of death," the "cold, congealed blood." The only instances in which acute pain wrung " groans" from the sufferer were those in which death was long delayed, when, as with Clifford, "the air has got into my deadly wounds ;" and Montague also groans from the delay. There is a most striking passage in Jeremy Taylor's sermons in which he speaks of wounds to the same effect, but attributes the painlessness of a wound at

first, wrongly as it would seem, only to the heat and rage of the fighter, who has no time to feel. "I have known a bold trooper

fight in the confusion of a battle, and, being warm with heat and sago, received from the swords of his enemy wounds open as a grave ; but he felt them not, and when, by the streams of blood, he found himself marked. for pain, he refused to consider then what he was to feel to-morrow ; but when his rage had cooled iuto the temper of a man, and clammy moisture had checked the fiery emission of spirits, he wonders at his own boldness, and blames his fate, and needs a mighty patience to boar his great calamity."

Shakespeare carefully discriminates between the wounds which pierce the heart and are at once fatal, and those which allow a few minutes, or even moments, of life. A stab which causes instant death wrings from the dying person one sharp cry of momentary agony, or sometimes purely spasmodic and mechanical, and then all is silent ; and with the cry there is a sharp, convulsive movement of the limbs. So, Polonius utters one loud " 0 ! I am slain !" Aaron imitates the squeal of the

dying nurse, " Weke, weke Prince Edward, in Richard III., " sprawls," after his first stab. Those who do not die at once, but bleed to death, or are choked in blood, speak a little, know they are dying, but are not in pain, and have no convulsive movements.

We now come to the deaths of old age and by natural causes, and of these there are comparatively few. Comedy puts away

from it the idea of death altogether ; and great tragedies aro,

as a rule, concerned with violent ends. Yet here, where there is little seeming variety, Shakespeare's observation has anti- cipated that of modern skill. Miss Nightingale has pointed out how constantly the mental state of the dying depends on their physical conditions, . As a rule, she tells us, in acute cases interest in their own danger is rarely felt. " Indifference, except- ing with regard to bodily suffering, or to some duty the dying man desires to perform, is the far more usual state. But patients who die of consumption very frequently die in a state of seraphic joy and peace ; the countenance almost expresses rapture. Patients who die of cholera, peritonitis, &c., on the contrary, often die in a state approaching despair. In dysentery, diarrhoea, or fever, the patient often dies in a state of indifference."

Now, in Shakespeare, the majority feel indifference or calm acquiescence ; Gaunt " plays nicely " with his name ; Henry IV. has no thought of 'the future, but only some faint interest still in the things of life ; Mortimer cares only for his funeral ; Bed- ford is acquiescent, neither hopeful nor fearful, "Now, quiet soul, depart when Heaven please." There are a few exceptions, and they exemplify with force what Miss Nightingale has laid down. Queen Katherine, dying of long decline, has visions of eternal peace ; while Beaufort, whose faculties are about him to the last, has the most vivid and keen remorse for murder, the only crime which the sinner, as a rule, seems unable to forget.

In Shakespeare, again, those who in perfect health know or believe they are to die take the conviction according to their physical temperaments, not according to their lives. If there be seeming exceptions, it is because some foreign conditions are

introduced, as when Richard is visited with terrible dreams, and something like craven terror as the result of them. But he has been drinking heavily before he goes to rest, and recovers him- self in the morning before and in the battle. As an instance of a contrast between two physical temperaments, we may take the terror of the sensitive Claudio, so full of young life and vigour, and the stolid indifference of the brutal Barnedine.

Of course, this whole subject is capable of being worked out in much greater detail, but as in a former paper, it has seemed worth while giving a few hints for study, founded on what has occurred to the present writer while reading Shakespeare through, under somewhat unusual conditions.