Top 10 Epic Deaths in Shakespeare – Numbers 10, 9, 8, 7, 6

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03.12.2018

NOBODY DOES A GOOD DEATH QUITE LIKE SHAKESPEARE. WE ASKED AN EXPERT PANEL TO PICK THE TEN MOST EPIC DEATHS FROM THE PLAYS, STARTING TODAY WITH NUMBERS TEN, NINE, EIGHT, SEVEN AND SIX.

Compiled by Andy McLean

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  1. IRAS AND ENOBARBUS (Antony and Cleopatra)

When we think of Shakespeare’s most famous deaths, the dazzling stars like Hamlet, Macbeth or Othello immediately spring to mind. But Shakespeare dealt out some extraordinary deaths to his supporting casts too. Prime example: in a single play Cleopatra’s second lady-in-waiting Iras and Anthony’s sidekick Enobarbus both perish. They don’t die by the sword. Or by poison. Or by fire. Instead they die from heartache.

“How wonderful to die on stage of a broken heart,” says Peter Evans, Artistic Director of Bell Shakespeare, who directed Antony and Cleopatra earlier this year. “Whether the heart breaks due to sadness [Iras] or shame [Enobarbus] it’s quite brilliant.”

  1. OPHELIA (Hamlet)

Author Jane Caro’s most treasured Shakespeare death is that of Ophelia in Hamlet. “It is so dreamy and beautiful, yet so tragically sad,” says Caro. “My liking of it, no doubt, is influenced by the John St Millais painting which is so incredibly romantic!”

Robert O’Brien, Professor Emeritus of English Literature at California State University, Chico also admires Ophelia: “After she is brutally treated by Hamlet (in the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene) Ophelia thinks first of Hamlet in the speech beginning, ‘O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!’ Only then does she think of her own ‘deject and wretched’ condition. That’s true love – you think of your lover before yourself.”

Poor Ophelia. Her love for the Danish Prince proves her undoing. When Hamlet kills the other great love of Ophelia’s life – her father – the grief shatters her psyche and propels her towards death by drowning.

When Shakespeare Magazine asked followers on social media to name their favourite deaths in Shakespeare, Mike Woods also named Ophelia, saying: “A lump in my throat every time.”

  1. BANQUO (Macbeth)

Shakespeare Magazine editor Pat Reid nominated the demise of Banquo as the most epic death in Shakespeare. “I know a lot of my readers would choose the murder of Lady Macduff and her son (one of Shakespeare’s most brutal and yet heartbreakingly poignant scenes). But I’d choose instead another murder from Macbeth – that of Banquo.”

Two factors made up Reid’s mind: “One: it’s quite rare to see a good father in Shakespeare, but Banquo unhesitatingly puts his son Fleance’s life before his own. Two: by urging his son to flee, Banquo ensures that this bleakest of plays has at least one shred of hope for a better future. Courageous, selfless and ultimately victorious, it’s a good death.”

COMING TO A STAGE NEAR YOU

Bell Shakespeare will stage some of theatre’s most epic deaths in future productions. Next year, the body count will stack up in all sorts of imaginative ways when Adena Jacobs directs Titus Andronicus in Sydney. Sign up to the Bell Shakespeare newsletter for updates.

  1. MERCUTIO (Romeo And Juliet)

Mercutio’s death is arguably the most pivotal in Shakespeare’s work. Romeo And Juliet is a light, romantic comedy until the moment Mercutio dies. From that second onward, comedy becomes tragedy: Romeo rushes headlong down a path that destroys first Tybalt, then Romeo, and finally his true love Juliet.

Actor and writer Kate Mulvany nominated Mercutio’s death as her favourite in Shakespeare’s canon: “He may have been mortally wounded physically, but Mercutio’s mind and tongue go into overdrive, sparing no-one, and telling it like it is. He doesn’t call to any God – he just uses his last breath to make a mortal joke: “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man” and then a mortal curse: “A plague on both your houses.” Mercutio realises more than anyone that his light is too young to be snuffed out, and in that moment he sees the fate of all before him – friends and enemies. What a blistering exit.”

When Shakespeare Magazine asked followers on social media to name their favourite deaths in Shakespeare, Su Wilcox, Antonella MTGoer, Kelly Duffy and @seeking_cymbeline also named Mercutio. As @seeking_cymbeline put it: “Bravely punning to the end is the only way to go!”

  1. RICHARD DUKE OF YORK (Henry VI Part III)

When Richard Duke of York (father of Richard III) is captured by his enemies, it sets up a death scene that Shakespeare never bettered according to director, dramaturg and editor Dr Anna Kamaralli:

“First, Richard’s enemy Queen Margaret gets a spectacular speech mocking his ambition and revelling in her victory over his arrogance – even putting a paper crown on his head, and taunting him with a handkerchief stained with the blood of his son: ‘And if thine eyes can water for his death, / I give thee this to dry thy cheeks withal.’ It is a piece of virtuoso gloating,” says Kamaralli.

“York then replies by railing at her, but he is so helpless that his attempts to demean her merely make her look more formidable. It is here that he calls her ‘she-wolf of France’ and cries, ’O tiger’s heart wrapt in a woman’s hide!’, a line that became so instantly famous that it was parodied by one of Shakespeare’s rivals disgruntled at the play’s success. It was the death that made Shakespeare’s name.”

Shakespeare Magazine follower Ben Broadribb also named the Duke of York as his current favourite too.

Dr Anna Kamaralli is the author of Shakespeare and the Shrew and the editor of the Arden Performance Edition of Much Ado About Nothing.

Picture: Damien Strouthos and Tom Stokes in Romeo and Juliet (2016) © Daniel Boud.

READ MORE:

Best Deaths: Numbers 5, 4, 3, 2

Best Deaths: Number 1