Play, Death, and Heroism in Shakespeare

By Kirby Farrell | Go to book overview

Preface

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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Play, Death, and Heroism in Shakespeare
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Play, Death, and Heroism in Shakespeare *
  • Contents *
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Part One *
  • Chapter 1 - Introduction 3
  • Chapter 2 - Play-Death, Self-Effacement, and Autonomy 13
  • Chapter 3 - Play, Death, and Apotheosis 36
  • Chapter 4 - Heroism and Hero Worship 56
  • Chapter 5 - The Hero and the Tomb 74
  • Chapter 6 - The Topography of Death and Heroism 90
  • Part Two *
  • Chapter 7 - Love, Death, and the Hunt in Venus and Adonis 117
  • Chapter 8 - Love, Death, and Patriarchy in Romeo and Juliet 131
  • Chapter 9 - Prophecy and Heroic Destiny in the Histories 148
  • Chapter 10 - Play-Death and Individuation 172
  • Chapter 11 - Epilogue 192
  • Appendix 201
  • Notes 207
  • Index 231
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