Shakespeare's Dead: Deathbeds, leering skulls and the folio that started it all

By Ben Miller | 24 April 2016

Death is eternal in Shakespeare. From Desdemona’s deathbed to a tomb of books, the words repeatedly reflect a time when death had a deeply religious context, often divisive and violent in its power

A photo of a death scene from a book or play by William Shakespeare
This mortal image - part of a cycle of 40 images showing death in the midst of life based on a 16th century Dance of Death scene - is part of the new exhibition at Oxford's Weston Library© Oxfordshire County Museums
Under Shakespeare’s watch, if the dead weren’t being mourned while their corpses still breathed they were haunting the living or returning to life.

Macbeth and Hamlet were stalked by death, while Juliet, Ophelia and Cleopatra teased at the abyss. Emma Smith, who has curated the Bodleian Libraries’ new exhibition on all things macabre together with fellow University of Oxford professor Simon Palfrey, says Shakespeare “channelled the universal fear of death into dramatic moments”, affirming life for his readers and audiences.

During the build-up to a display featuring the earliest editions of Romeo and Juliet and Venus and Adonis, Smith made a trip to the Isle of Bute, where a precious new copy of the First Folio - the collection of 36 plays written by Shakespeare in 1623, including Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra – emerged in the library of Mount Stuart, a 19th century Scottish mansion. “We’ve only just really, I think, scratched the surface of what’s there,” says Smith.

A photo of a death scene from a book or play by William Shakespeare
The title page of a 1612 edition of Richard III with annotations by Edmond Malone (circa 1741-1812)© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
“One of the things they thought they might have was this first edition of Shakespeare. It gives us half of the plays: if we didn’t have the first folio we wouldn’t have Macbeth, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and As You Like It – all these wonderful plays which have shaped our literary heritage and our ideas of what Shakespeare is.”

The Bodleian has two copies, both on display in the exhibition. “The real importance of the First Folio is that, without it, Shakespeare would have looked very different. His legacy would have been very different had the Folio not been published.” Smith knows more than almost anyone: she has just published a book, Four Centuries of an Iconic Book, investigating the events leading up to the folio’s publication, seven years after the death of Shakespeare.

“It aims to apportion credit for Shakespeare's legacy more widely,” she says. “Without the people who edited, printed, and read the book in 1623, we would not be celebrating the 400th anniversary of his death this year. When we think about Shakespeare, we usually think about his plays being performed on stage. But the written word and the First Folio is central to our understanding of Shakespeare.”

A photo of a death scene from a book or play by William Shakespeare
Frontispiece from the First Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays (circa 1623)© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
Poetry, sermons, plays, diaries and illustrations by Shakespeare’s peers and predecessors are also going on show. Artist Tom Cross has created a specially-commissioned animated film based on drawings of Shakespearean death scenes, and the grinning jester is portrayed as a leering skull in disguise. “Shakespeare scripts his scenes of dying with extraordinary care,” says Palfrey.

“Famous last words - like Hamlet's ‘The rest is silence’, Mercutio's ‘A plague on your houses’ or Richard III's ‘My kingdom for a horse’ - are also giving crucial choices to the actors as to exactly how and when to die. Instead of the blank finality of death, we get a unique entrance into the loneliness or confusion of dying.”

On Bute, Mount Stuart’s Alice Martin relays curators, understandably, being “really excited” by their folio. “In terms of literary discoveries, they do not come much bigger than a new First Folio,” she says.

A photo of a death scene from a book or play by William Shakespeare
An engraving of Hamlet Act I, scene IV, in which the ghost of his father appears to him and tells him how he died (late 18th century)© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
“But it is just the tip of the iceberg for the undiscovered material. We are working with scholars from universities including Glasgow, Dundee, Stirling and Oxford to share our collections with schoolchildren in Scotland and with the public. We want young people on Bute to feel an ownership over the House and its collections.”

Smith hopes the anniversary year will encourage people to reread the foreboding texts. Palfrey wants the exhibition to walk through “the land of Shakespeare’s dead.” “It will magnify specific moments, just as a play does, giving visitors a dynamic, immersive feel for the terminal experiences being enacted,” he says.

  • Shakespeare’s Dead is at the Weston Library, Oxford until September 18 2016. Shakespeare’s Dead: Stages of Death in Shakespeare’s Playworlds is available from the Bodleian shop.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a death scene from a book or play by William Shakespeare
Indulgences were authorised by the Pope and could be purchased to give one's soul an early escape from Purgatory© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
A photo of a death scene from a book or play by William Shakespeare
An image from a collection of religious prose and verse reminding people about four different ways you might die (circa 1600)© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
A photo of a death scene from a book or play by William Shakespeare
An engraving of a contemporary anatomy theatre at the University of Padua from Gymnasium Patavinum by Giacomo Filippo Tomasini (1654)© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
A photo of a death scene from a book or play by William Shakespeare
An illustration of a cloaked woman from the late-sixteenth-century Album Amicorum of Jan van der Deck© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
A photo of a death scene from a book or play by William Shakespeare
A page from A dialogue against the fever pestilence, a book by English physician and cleric William Bullein (published 1564)© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
More from Culture24's Shakespeare 400 special

Object of the Week: William Shakespeare's First Folio, as owned by King George III

"It was miraculous": The moment when conservators found John the Baptist in Shakespeare's Schoolroom

Comedies, histories and tragedies: Inside a magnificent 17th century Willliam Shakespeare Third Folio
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