Play, Death, and Heroism in Shakespeare

By Kirby Farrell | Go to book overview

Chapter 4

Heroism and Hero Worship

Socially conceived, Shakespeare's imagery of play-death and resurrection expresses fantasies about self-effacement and autonomy. Shift the focus to the supremely autonomous figure of the hero, male or female, and the dynamics of play-death appear again, but in a new light. In the hero autonomy becomes tantamount to superhuman purpose, and hero-worshippers tacitly play dead in order to share vicariously in it. Alternatively a hero may force others to sacrifice themselves to his or her appetite for aggrandizement. Although most of my examples come from the early histories, my concern in this chapter is not primarily with traditional heroic roles such as the milites, but with systems of belief and the social behavior they energize. 1

A logical place to begin is where Shakespeare apparently began, with the mourners eulogizing Henry V at the opening of I Henry VIperhaps his first play. In a sense all the motive energy of the histories originates in the problem presented by Henry's corpse: how to overcome dread and recover the power lost with the hero's fall. The survivors do not merely grieve over Henry V, they invoke play-death and apotheosis. Bedford prays to Henry's "ghost" (1.1.52) and "A far more glorious star ... than Julius Caesar" (55-56). Losses in France "Will make [Henry] burst his lead and rise from death" (64). Gloucester then quips that "If Henry were recall'd to life again, / These news would cause him once more to yield the ghost" (66-67). The speakers acknowledge death yet excite hopes of heroic immortality.

Gloucester opens the scene by identifying Henry with the warrior‐ Christ of the Apocalypse. He tries to keep alive the conviction of indestructible righteousness which the king aroused in his followers:

His brandish'd sword did blind men with his beams;
His arms spread wider than a dragon's wings;

-56-

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