Shakespeare and Donne: Generic Hybrids and the Cultural Imaginary

By Judith H. Anderson; Jennifer C. Vaught | Go to book overview

1.
Sites of Death as Sites of Interaction in
Donne and Shakespeare

MATTHIAS BAUER AND ANGELIKA ZIRKER

If there is a motif that runs like a thread through all of John Donne’s writings, it is the awareness of death and its impact on life. Donne’s portrait in a shroud, the frontispiece to his most famous sermon, “Deaths Duell,” which became the model of his epitaph in St. Paul’s Cathedral, is the visible sign of this constant awareness.1 It shows the living Donne awaiting his deliverance from “the manifold deaths of this world” and visualizes his notion of a paradoxical interdependence of exitus and introitus, of going out and going in, which characterizes the relation of life and death:

But then this exitus a morte, is but introitus in mortem, this issue, this
deliverance from that death, the death of the wombe, is an entrance, a
delivering over to another death, the manifold deaths of this world.2

Life and death are described as movements from and into rooms: just as the womb is a tomblike container if we are not delivered from it at birth (“The wombe which should be the house of life, becomes death it selfe, if God leave us there”), the world in which we live “is but an universall church-yard, but our common grave,” if we are not delivered from it (232, 234).3 This second delivery is of course all-decisive, and, accordingly, the site connected to it deserves our special consideration: the exitus from the deaths of this world “is an entrance into the death of corruption and putrefaction and vermicu lation and incineration, and dispersion in and from the grave, in which every dead man dyes over againe” (236). Except for the happy few that will be alive at the second coming, all human beings must undergo this third process of dying, the site of which is the grave. But just as the other two phases imply both death and life, the dying over again in the grave is a form of life, too, a “dissolution” and a “sleeping” preparing for the final exitus/introitus

-17-

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