Play, Death, and Heroism in Shakespeare

By Kirby Farrell | Go to book overview

Chapter 1

Introduction

One afternoon as I was musing over Juliet's play-death and botched resurrection in Romeo and Juliet, I heard my three-year-old daughter Helena and her friend outside the window rescuing one another. With gusto one of them would clutch her breast, cry out "Help, I'm dy-y-ying," then expire in the grass. The other would spring to her side, make scrabbling "nurse" motions with her hands, and then pull the victim to her feet and back to life. Although they took turns dying, each ritualistic replay culminated in heroic deliverance. As the excitement of the game mounted, the "nurse" was inspired to telephone her late grandmother in heaven. The phone call seemed to get through to heaven all right, but was poignantly inconclusive. After saying hello, the heroine gawked at the invisible telephone she held in her fist, unable to go on. She assumed that somehow the silent grandmother was only playing dead, but she had no myth by which to recover her: no account of Persephone or Eurydice, no Renaissance frescos of the elect ranked across the face of heaven in a corporate portrait of eternal bliss. In that moment the child stumbled upon the problem Aeneas discovered during his famous excursion into the underworld:

... facilis descensus Averno;
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.

To descend into death is easy: to return, difficult.

As I thought about the girls rescuing each other from play-deaths, I recalled Romeo's dream that Juliet's kiss had brought him back to life and made him an emperor, and his heroic vow to preserve her from the "monster" death by joining her in the grave (5.3.104). The friar also

-3-

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