Raising a morbid glass to the Bard on his 400th death day.
Four hundred years after his death on April 23, 1616, William Shakespeare remains one of the most timeless and influential poets, playwrights, and historians in the world. Amidst the worldwide Quadricentennial commemorations of his death, Stanford University Press will begin publishing the Stanford Global Shakespeare Encyclopedia online. In honor of the Bard's 400th death day, the following post has been adapted from the forthcoming encyclopedia's entry for "death."
Death. Death was a presence for the Elizabethans, in ways difficult for many inhabitants of modern societies to comprehend. It haunted the nursery, where a quarter of the children died before adolescence, and (according to Aldgate parish records from the 1590s) one in every 40 births killed the mother. In the form of the bubonic plague, it could sweep unpredictably and uncontrollably through cities and continents; the year before Shakespeare’s birth in 1564, plague killed nearly a quarter of the population of London, and wrought similar havoc across Europe decade after decade, with no respect for age or rank.
A frequent moral theme in Shakespeare’s world, echoed in his plays, was the reminder that death overrides earthly status.
Corpses were seldom decorously hidden: England had no hospitals (in the modern sense), and the dead and dying were seen and smelled and touched in the small unpartitioned spaces of the Early Modern domicile. Nor was there an escape, in the realm of the spiritual, from this mortality of the body. Mourning bells tolled through the towns, churches were decorated with images of rotting cadavers designed to remind people to value Christian salvation over mundane desires of the flesh, and sermons hammered home the same message: memento mori, remember that you will die. The pious kept skulls in their rooms, as Hamlet does in his hand, to meditate on the transience of human life, in comparison to eternity. Prostitutes often wore rings decorated with skulls, apparently for opposite reasons, encouraging customers to seek pleasure while they could.