Analysis: grisly demises and haunting encounters are not just for Halloween in Shakespeare's tragedies and histories

While Shakespeare is famous as a poet of love, he is also the author of many memorable deaths, grisly tableaus and haunting encounters. A popular meme even highlights Shakespeare's propensity for killing off his love-struck characters. Using the Chandos portrait, the meme has the Bard declare: "I think I'll make a love story. Everybody dies." Comical infographics also emphasise the morbid ends of Shakespearean characters and tot up fatalities like a macabre scorecard, as is the case with the National Theatre poster "Everybody dies: Shakespeare’s tragedies".

Yet, for a lucky few, death is a temporary state or even feigned. So, Juliet's faked death leads to a notoriously tragic ending, but in the comedy Much Ado About Nothing, the apparent death of the lady Hero allows time to pass and obstacles to be overcome, so that she can be "resurrected" at the play’s finale and marry her true love. 

Sometimes Shakespeare kills off a character only to surprise or delight the audience with their return. These reappearances are a cause for celebration in the romance plays when lost heirs that are presumed dead turn out to be alive and well. This happens with Ferdinand in The Tempest, and when the queen Hermione in The Winter's Tale, presumed dead but really in hiding for over a decade, returns to her husband who had wronged her but who has reformed in the intervening years. At other times in Shakespeare’s plays, the dead return in a more terrifying fashion.

Ghosts are a common feature in Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories. Crucially, these apparitions often serve several purposes: they act as informers, supplying their hosts and the audience with important information; they are ill omens, warning of some future doom; they are figures of morality – horrors to punish the guilty; and they are memento mori, reminders that death isn’t the end because the afterlife awaits with eternal reward or torment.

For instance, the ghost of Old Hamlet announces that he died by fratricide and so his son, Prince Hamlet, is duty bound to "revenge his foul and most unnatural murder", while Banquo’s ghost is an accusatory but silent horror that advances Macbeth's torment. In Richard III, the spectres of the tyrant king’s victims rise from their graves to curse him but bless his rival, Richmond.

Ghosts even feature in the performance history of Shakespeare’s plays. The Victorian-era American actor Edwin Booth, who played the role of Hamlet for almost 40 years, claimed to have been haunted by his father. In 1989, Daniel Day-Lewis fled the stage mid-performance when playing Hamlet as he became convinced that he had seen the ghost of his father, the poet Cecil Day-Lewis. (Day-Lewis has recently spoken of and altered his account of this incident.)

Infographic of deaths in Shakepears's tragedies. Design by Caitlin S. Griffin and based on an original concept by Cam Magee

Shakespeare's dead are haunting figures even when they are less spectral and more tangible. Corpses are displayed in every Shakespearean tragedy, but in each play they are treated differently and have different uses. In Titus Andronicus and Macbeth, dead bodies are mutilated, gory carcasses that shock and dumbfound. By contrast, the lovers' corpses are beatified in Romeo and Juliet and stand as symbols of loss (youth, peace, potential offspring), which eventually move the families to reconcile their differences. And in the great love story Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra’s suicide-by-snake adds to her standing as an icon of passion, allure, and independence, as she outsmarts her enemies and joins Antony in death: "Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have immortal longings in me … Husband, I come!"

Popular culture has made Shakespeare's casualties familiar even to those who have never seen or read the plays. For example, Shakespearean deaths have provided inspiration for the episodes of many a cop show. As Lisa Hopkins notes in Shakespearean Allusion in Crime Fiction: DCI Shakespeare, Shakespeare is "a recurrent presence in the TV series Inspector Morse and its spin-offs Lewis and Endeavour." The demise of a Shakespearean character has often provided a plotline or an atmospheric backdrop for an episode, while on occasion a reference to the playwright helps the detectives to reflect on justice, decipher killers’ motives, or unearth methods of murder.

More comically, Shakespearean death is evoked in a "Treehouse of Horror" Halloween episode of The Simpsons when a zombified William Shakespeare emerges from a locker in Springfield Elementary. But before the reanimated corpse can terrify anyone, he is halted by a blast from Homer's shotgun. The rotting Bard hammily cries out, "Is this the end of Zombie Shakespeare?" before expiring dramatically.

Shakespeare's grave in Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

More recently, in HBO’s Game of Thrones, Arya Stark’s revenge on the Frey family evoked the deaths of two brothers in Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy, Titus Andronicus. The brothers are killed for their rape and mutilation of Lavina; grotesquely, they are then baked into a pie by their victim and her father, Titus, and served to their nefarious mother, Tamora. Yet, as Macbeth says, "blood will have blood"; and so neither Lavinia, Titus, nor Tamora survive the ending of the play.

The ending of Titus makes an explicit statement on the morality of its characters: the heroes are to be buried ceremoniously with full honours, while the corpses of the villains are cast out into the wilderness, banished eternally from civil society. In Stratford, Shakespeare’s own grave carries an appeal for the appropriate treatment of his corpse, and curses any would-be grave-robbers: "Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, / To dig the dust enclosed here. / Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones." At Halloween, it is fitting that we remember that the dead exert an influence beyond the grave and that sometimes they don’t stay dead. Hence, we would do well to heed Shakespeare’s last words.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ