To show how fantasies of play-death shape social behavior in Shakespeare and his culture, I want to relate the pattern of play-death and apotheosis to a pattern of self-effacement and autonomy. In both, a radical loss of identity leads to compensatory self-aggrandizement. By effacing themselves individuals may fulfill themselves. By nullifying or appearing to nullify their own wills, they may free themselves to act with greater personal force. For simplicity's sake I begin with examples of this fantasy that directly dramatize a sequence of death and resurrection or strongly imply it. After surveying the fantasy in the plays, I examine it in the context of contemporary family and social dynamics, and then in relation to the imaginative process of theater itself.
In many of the plays a crisis of autonomy clearly leads to self-effacement. Playing dead then becomes a means of circumventing oppression. When Juliet resists an arranged marriage, her father threatens either deathlike rejection—"hang, beg, starve, die in the streets" (3.5.192)—or deathlike submission that would negate her will. Faking death according to the friar's plan, Juliet preempts her parents' control and aspires to a liberating rebirth in her lover's arms. Banished from Verona, socially destroyed, Romeo dreams that he died and then Juliet "breathed such life with kisses in my lips / That I revived and was an emperor" (5.1.8-9).
Given the formidably hierarchical and competitive social world projected in most Shakespearean drama, self-effacement is at least in part a submissive gesture. As in the England Shakespeare himself knew, authority in the plays is palpably personal. However prominent the cultural and metaphysical apparatus of power, in action power is the