Play, Death, and Heroism in Shakespeare

Play, Death, and Heroism in Shakespeare

Play, Death, and Heroism in Shakespeare

Play, Death, and Heroism in Shakespeare


Using a combination of anthropological and psychoanalytic methods, Farrell relates the fantasies of "play-death" to the Renaissance belief that through self-effacement an individual may achieve autonomy in the family and society. Farrell develops a wide-ranging analysis of cultural responses to the human dread of death and makes Shakespeare's art a lens that brings into unusually sharp focus Renaissance social structure, gender relations, ideology, and religion.

Originally published in 1989.


This book began as a series of papers and articles about the many characters in Shakespeare who play dead. From the start I was interested not only in the curious theatrical convention of play-death but also in the fantasies it implied. The subject began to open up for me when I realized that the rituals of self-effacement commonly practiced by children in Renaissance English society amounted to play-deaths followed by resurrections into adulthood. The same pattern appeared elsewhere in the structures of deference and dominance that shaped English society as a whole. Gradually I began to trace out other analogues of play-death and deliverance in imagery of death and rebirth, and self-sacrifice and heroic apotheosis.

Still, I only recognized the fantasy which governs many of these variations on play-death one day in a used bookstore when I happened on a copy of Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death. Skimming a few passages I felt a pang of discovery. Becker argues that "the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man." That death-denying activity is humankind's creation of heroic significance. Play-death, I saw, not only tested fears of annihilation, it dramatized possibilities of heroic deliverance from death.

Becker's book provided a powerful lens through which to look at art and culture. But not only that. As I was reading I was stunned to realize that I had already been through the book, eight or nine years before, when it had first appeared. Thanks to my own powers of denial, Becker's disturbing vision had disappeared without a trace under the magician's handkerchief of repression. Even as I struggled to ex-

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