In the final scene of “Romeo & Juliet,” three corpses litter the stage. In “Othello,” four. “Hamlet?” Four. “King Lear?” Five.
Wags have been known to mock the body count at curtain-fall in Shakespearian tragedies. Does this evoke reality, they ask, or is it just ridiculous?
Does such art imitate life? Most people go to bed at the end of the day–perhaps mildly dissatisfied with things, but with the coffeepot set up for the morning nonetheless.
Let’s admit that, viewed from one perspective, the wags have a point. But Shakespeare rings true in this: He telescopes the timing, but the fact of the matter is that, in real life, everyone does wind up dead, eventually.
The stage at the end of a Shakespearian tragedy resembles a family cemetery at the end of a century: All the dramatis personae lie lifeless, the epic struggle over.
Now, before you think that I am sinking into morbidity again…I actually just want to explain an idea about the surprising emotional effect of Shakespeare’s tragedies. They do not produce feelings of nostalgia or regret. Quite the contrary, they leave one feeling purified and renewed.
How, why is this? A simple answer: Easter.
Shakespeare did not write ‘Christian’ stories. He did something more ingenious. He wrote human stories that make sense only from a Christian point-of-view. He does not ‘teach’ Christian doctrine. But his tragedies force the audience to greet the play’s action with Christian faith.
When we do–and Shakespeare simply assumed that we would–the dark endings actually glisten with light and hope. The curtain may fall on a stage full of dead bodies. But the life of the characters actually makes the lasting impression.
Hamlet’s relentlessly intelligent words resound, not his death at Laertes’ hands. Lear’s ultimate humility, sweetness, and Job-like conquest resound at curtain-fall, not his death from grief. Somehow Othello lives on as a lover even after his suicide.
The vigor of Shakespeare’s tragic characters overcomes their demise. Yes, the dramatic logic of the action forces them to die. But their deaths feel more like a beginning than an end. The cemeteries of Shakespeare’s closing scenes presage a resurrection.