Conjunctions:51 The Death Issue

Mere Oblivion
Eubie Blake, the ragtime pianist, was one hundred years old when he died. Blake stayed quick witted, nimble tongued—and nimble fingered in his music making—till the very end. At his centenary celebration, the pioneer of boogie-woogie said, “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

      Grandma Moses did take care, dying at 101. Her family still runs a vegetable stand in the village of Eagle Bridge, New York, and the landscape she reported on looks much the same. Photographs and video clips of the spry white-haired old lady suggest she loved the role she played: America’s bespectacled witness, painstakingly outlining hay fields and snowfields and horses and barns and fruit trees and, from household chimneys, smoke. Self-taught and wholly familiar with the upstate world she memorialized, “Grandma” took late fame in stride, one senses; journalists would seek her out, not the other way around.

     Many great artists live long. We know that Titian—Tiziano Vecel—died in the city of Venice on August 27, 1576, having been for sixty years the undisputed master of the Venetian School. Although a large proportion of his thousand canvases were worked on by assistants, he remains among the most prolific and accomplished painters of all time. His color sense was sumptuous, his compositions unerring, and his fleshy nudes and “Titian-haired” beauties still appear to breathe. The portrait of Pietro Aretino hanging in New York’s Frick Museum is a masterpiece of psychological acuteness; shave the man and change his clothes and he could be paying a visit to that collection today. Titian claimed to have been born in 1477, which would make him ninety-nine at death; birth records of the period are inexact, however, and he may have been a stripling who died at ninety-five.

     Nonagenarians are frequent in the history of art. An incomplete if not quite random sampling would include the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico and the Greek dramatist Sophocles, who wrote Oedipus at Colonus near the end of his very long life. According to tradition, Sophocles demonstrated competence—disproving his son’s accusation that he had grown feebleminded—by reciting entire speeches from Colonus while a rapt audience wept.

     Elliott Carter, born in 1908, continues to compose. At ninety-one Somerset Maugham expired, as did Jean Sibelius and Pablo Picasso; Knut Hamsun died at ninety-two, P. G. Wodehouse at ninety-three. Oskar Kokoschka and George Bernard Shaw both kept working till the age of ninety-four; Louise Bourgeois has a retrospective exhibition now at ninety-six. Octogenarians include the painter Francesco Guardi, poet William Wordsworth, and the sculptor Donatello; those who lived till eighty-one include the artists Lucas Cranach the Elder, Constantin Brancusi, Georges Braque, Walter Sickert, Edgar Varèse, and George Stubbs. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Leo Tolstoy, and Francisco Goya had their lives end at eighty-two, while Victor Hugo and Edgar Degas died at eighty-three. Henri Matisse and Max Ernst died when eighty-four; so too did Seán O’Casey and Grace Paley; Herman Hesse, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Richard Strauss, and Ralph Vaughan Williams all died one year older, at the age of eighty-five. Giovanni Bellini, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Frans Hals, Thomas Hardy, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Arthur Miller, Claude Monet, Ezra Pound, Georges Rouault, and Igor Stravinsky all lived to their late eighties, and Hokusai—the self-described “old man mad about painting”—died at eighty-nine in 1849.

     As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow points out in his Morituri Salutamus: “Cato learned Greek at eighty; Sophocles / Wrote his grand Oedipus, and Simonides / Bore off the prize for verse from his compeers, / When each had numbered more than fourscore years.” This is a writer writing about writers, but there are other professions particularly congenial seeming to the elderly. The architects Christopher Wren and Frank Lloyd Wright died at ninety and ninety-one respectively, and Alvar Aalto, Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe all lived past eighty. Architects require time to rise through the ranks of an office, or to establish their own; they rarely receive important commissions till fifty or sixty years old. Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, and Louis Kahn—to name only a few practitioners—were at work in their late last years. Most present stars of the architectural firmament—Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Rafael Moneo, I. M. Pei, Renzo Piano, and Richard Rogers among them—have reached “a certain age.” Another such profession is that of conductor. The aerobic exercise of conducting from a podium is self-evidently healthful, and elderly orchestra leaders seem not the exception but the rule. Men such as Thomas Beecham, Adrian Boult, Arthur Fiedler, Otto Klemperer, Pierre Monteux, and Arturo Toscanini worked into their seventies and eighties; Leopold Stokowski died at ninety-five. There are, of course, precocious conductors and visionary architects who compel admiration when young, but the generality would seem to hold; it helps here to be “mature.”

     Artists in their seventies are legion. The briefest of lists might include—grouped not alphabetically but by their age at death—Hans Christian Andersen, Canaletto, Benvenuto Cellini, Honoré Daumier (seventy); Daniel Defoe, Piet Mondrian, Nicolas Poussin, Maurice Utrillo, Tennessee Williams (seventy-one); Barbara Hepworth, Henry James, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Walt Whitman (seventy-two); Noel Coward, Antonio Gaudí, El Greco, William Butler Yeats (seventy-three); Jean Honoré Fragonard, George Frederick Handel, Fernand Léger, Tiepolo, Mark Twain, Euripides (seventy-four); Raul Dufy, Samuel Johnson, Jacopo Tintoretto (seventy-five); Edward Elgar, T. S. Eliot, Joseph Turner (seventy-six); Edith Sitwell, Jules Verne (seventy-seven); Alexander Calder, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Vladimir Nabokov, Paolo Uccello (seventy-eight); and Pierre Bonnard, who lived until seventy-nine. What the French have called the troisième age—that third category beyond childhood and maturity—now extends indefinitely; a fourth or quatrième age may prove necessary soon.


All this raises the question of actuarial tables and life expectancy as such. During the Roman Empire and in the “Pax Romana,” the average life span of the citizen is thought to have been twenty-eight; today in the “Pax Americana,” the average citizen expects fifty additional years. As recently as 1900, the average life expectancy was a mere forty-seven. And, as those who deal with Medicare and Medicaid and the Social Security Administration more and more urgently remind us, the fastest-growing segment of the American population is the elderly. Our aging populace constitutes a major shift of emphasis within the “body politic,” and the effects thereof are just beginning to come clear.

     One need be neither a sociologist nor politician to understand that changes must be made in our treatment of “senior citizens”; medical, fiscal, housing, retirement, and transportation policies all need to be adjusted as the nation’s men and women grow older month by year. Teleologically speaking, and if we count back from the end point, it’s almost as though we no longer need die; we gain in life expectancy for every year we live. It’s a form of Zeno’s paradox: We halve the distance to our “goal” yet never quite attain it—or only when the complex system of the body at last stops functioning. Too, a disproportionate amount of our medical costs and expenditures are incurred in the final six months.

     These are not merely American issues. Countries as diverse as Finland and San Marino face the same questions acutely—and the longer lived their populace, the more urgent the problems become. The population of the planet is growing exponentially in part because of longer life: Pandemics are averted, child-bearing years extend, and we do not die as rapidly once ill. When William Butler Yeats observed, “That is no country for old men” and set sail for Byzantium, he was referring to an Ireland that now is newly prosperous and where the old live well.

     Instead it’s the youthful population that’s, worldwide, at risk. The infant mortality rate remains a major factor in any statistical survey of how long we live. Malnutrition and starvation and the failure to inoculate against disease all take their lethal toll. Many of the countries with the lowest life expectancies (such as Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, South Africa, the Central African Republic, Namibia, and Guinea-Bissau) suffer from very high rates of HIV/AIDS infection, with adult prevalence rates ranging from ten to thirty-eight percent. Those who inhabit Swaziland will live an average of 32.23 years. Almost without exception, the men and women who contract HIV/AIDS in these impoverished nations will rapidly succumb.

      For them, the Hobbesian description of life as “nasty, brutish, and short” holds all too true. (Hobbes wrote Leviathan while in his sixties and lived till ninety-one.) Sex traffic, gang warfare, and child slavery: Each constitutes a human scourge that also impacts age. The danger of conscription or forced manual labor—life in the army or the mines—further reduces the life span of those whom Frantz Fanon called “the Wretched of the Earth.” And it would seem to be the case that those who live past fifty are less exposed to mortal shocks than their youthful counterparts; the chance, at fifty-nine, of making it to sixty is better than the chance of turning twenty if you are nineteen.

     Still, by whatever measure and plotted on whichever graph, it’s clear we’re getting older, and one crucial aspect of mortality is how well we function near life’s end. According to the World Factbook for 2007, worldwide average life expectancy is now 65.82 years— men can expect to live 63.89 and women on an average 67.84 years. The longest-lived nationals inhabit Andorra, with a life span of 83.52 years; they are followed by the citizens of Macau at 82.27 and Japan at 82.02. The United States—for all its vaunted prosperity and medical expertise—ranks forty-fifth worldwide, with an average life expectancy of 78 years. Its impoverished neighbor, Cuba, after decades of embargo, has a population that can expect nearly the same.

      “Retirement communities” may be a boon to real estate developers, and the well-heeled use motorized wheelchairs, but the poor in urban and rural America die young. (Infant mortality here would seem to be the variable that keeps us comparatively low on life expectancy charts.) And youth itself means something new; we’re far more precocious as well as later starting than would have been the case two hundred years ago. We’re both more independent and dependent than was the rule in previous times, both more connected to the world and protected from it. A cell phone permits us to travel yet stay in touch with home. A credit card enables both purchasing power and debt. The paradox attaching to our nation’s young is everywhere made manifest; childbearing gets deferred by those who marry late or embark on careers—and when these no longer quite-so-fertile couples require fertility treatments, quadruplets may result …

      My focus here, however, is on what happens in old age. We keep our teeth longer, our backs are less bent. X-rays and antibiotics have had an effect on the species as important as that of gunpowder and the opposable thumb. Central heat, indoor plumbing, and air-conditioning have changed the expectations attaching to productivity as well as to hygiene. Viagra and Cialis and an arsenal of face creams promise perpetual youth. And, as TV ads for pharmaceuticals constantly remind us, “You’re only as old as you feel.”

     Yet if you study photographs of soldiers in the Civil War or look at those who stood on bread lines in the Great Depression, you’ll see a different national profile than describes our nation now. Our waistlines have enlarged. We drive and fly great distances but rarely walk more than a mile. Jackie Gleason’s sitcom character in the 1950s— the foul-mouthed, big-bellied Ralph Kramden—would seem svelte by comparison with reality show contestants today. The epidemic of obesity that threatens to make our generation the first to live fewer years than its parents is a new phenomenon, engendered by junk food and insufficient exercise. “Assisted Living” compounds and “Home Health-Care Givers” are new phenomena also, and will almost surely increase.

     All this belabors the obvious, but life expectancy itself is coming into question as a useful measure; “health years” and “life years” are being proposed as substitutes for “health span” and “life span.” Some gerontologists suggest we consider such terms as “disability-free years” and the idea—at the end—of “compressed morbidity”; it’s possible to live for decades in a near-vegetal state.

     As Lisa Picard writes in Elizabeth’s London, “We do not have reliable contemporary figures from which to calculate the expectation of life at birth, in London, in the Elizabethan era. For men it has been estimated at twenty to twenty-five years in the poorer parishes, and thirty to thirty-five in the wealthier parts of London, with many prosperous men surviving into their fifties … A diarist born in 1528 recorded sadly that he was ‘growing towards the age of forty, at which year begins the first part of the old man’s age.’”

     Is thirty thirty, forty forty? I mean by this that the meaning of such numbers may itself have changed. Anthropologists and archaeologists and paleontologists and forensic experts have accumulated evidence of bone and body mass in the young and elderly of previous times; we have some understanding of what it entailed to enter into combat in Thermopylae or Carthage or in the Third Crusade. We know about lead poisoning and calcification in hips. But it’s impossible to truly know—to inhabit, as it were—the bodies of the ancient dead and feel what they were feeling when they made their morning oblation or drank their cup of wine. It’s natural enough for us to imagine that Julius Caesar and a contemporary actor or Cleopatra and a modern movie star are similar of stature—that the hair and legs and breasts and waistlines of our famous ancestors look more or less equivalent in those who portray them today. But a visit to the catacombs or a hall of armor dispels that illusion in terms of size; we’re larger as a species and will no doubt continue to grow. If our breadth and bones have altered, if matters of shelter and nutrition transform the way we sleep and defecate, why would it not be also true that our ways of feeling young and old have changed?

     Is it possible that Keats and Mozart and the rest had used up their allotted span and did not in fact die young? When Shakespeare retired to Stratford-upon-Avon—having been born in that village in April 1564 and fated to die there in April 1616—was he a very old man?


William Shakespeare can’t provide a true case study of the creative artist in old age, since his is a case apart. The dimensions of his genius make him nonrepresentative; he is one of a kind. Perhaps no one in history—and certainly not in the English language—has reported on a greater range of characters and social class; from gardener to bishop, from fool to king, from “rude mechanical” to courtier he moved with almost insouciant ease and a dramatist’s all-seeing eye. Lawyers believe him a lawyer, scholars construe him a scholar; those whose expertise is philosophy or religion or soldiering believe he must have been trained as philosopher, cleric, or soldier. His “I” is multitudes. What this means in theatrical terms is that he could shape-shift at “will.” As Keats observed, the dramatist was supremely possessed of the faculty of “negative capability”—the ability to enter a consciousness other than his own. The writer can argue both sides of a single question, inhabit warring adversaries and phrase opposing views. This is a sine qua non of the theater, where men and women up on stage aren’t stand-ins for their author but motivated characters with conflicting needs. And it’s therefore doubly hard to say, This Shakespeare endorses, that he rejects, these are his opinions, and they do not change.

      Take three of his great plays about love: Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Winter’s Tale. They represent a progression from adolescent to middle-aged erotics and then to enduring devotion (as in Hermione’s sixteen years of faithfulness to the husband who had banished her). Othello and Twelfth Night and Troilus and Cressida and A Midsummer Night’s Dream also are importantly concerned with romance and its entanglements. But do they mirror the mind of their creator, his own passionate infatuations, or are they simply charts of love’s terrain? Are any of the antics so brilliantly portrayed on stage in some way self-reflexive? It’s clear when he wrote them and clear in which order, but not so simple to interpret them in terms of autobiography. Did he consider suicide as does Romeo or find himself spellbound as was Antony or jealous as Leontes? Did he lust for ass-eared Bottom as does Queen Titania; was he seduced by someone’s look-alike or enamored of cross-dressing twins? Does he endorse or disagree with his creature’s famed pronouncement as to romantic behavior (in A Midsummer Night’s Dream): “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

     We cannot know. We have too little evidence of Shakespeare’s personal history to speculate with profit on his transition from youth to age and how or what he learned. To try—in the modern manner— to establish a connection between personal experience and articulated art is to be baffled throughout. We think he played the part of “old Adam” in As You Like It and possibly Sir Oliver Martext. But did his son Hamnet’s death importantly inflect his portrait of Prince Hamlet, and did he suffer depression while writing Measure for Measure or King Lear? Is Troilus the record of nervous collapse and does Titus Andronicus suggest he took pleasure in pain? Do The Merry Wives of Windsor and All’s Well That Ends Well mean his sunny disposition was slated to prevail?

      The answers are uncertain, and the only certainty is that we cannot tell. We have documentary evidence of birth and weddings, death and lawsuits, and within the welter of the plays reside a few fixed notions. There’s the probably unhappy marriage to a woman some years his senior, the probably authentic devotion to a man some years his junior, the probably sincere conviction that daughters should obey their fathers, and the dislike of dogs. All else is open to interpretation or, as Matthew Arnold put it, “Others abide our question. Thou art free.”

      Still, it’s possible by reading him to come to a kind of consensus opinion on his thoughts about mortality and what death entails. When proud King Lear declares himself “an old, fond, foolish man” and repeats his despairing “Never, never, never, never ...” because his child will “come no more,” we hear the voice of bitter wisdom and see a searing portrait of man at the end of his days. Near the very end, in fact, in The Two Noble Kinsmen (which he most likely co-wrote with the playwright John Fletcher in 1613–14), Shakespeare describes an ancient grotesque in terms that one can only hope do not include self-portraiture:
                                          The aged cramp
Had screwed his square foot round,
That gout had knit his fingers into knots,
Torturing convulsions from his globy eyes
Had almost drawn their spheres, that what was life
In him seemed torture.
(V, ii, 42–47)
     From Macbeth’s “sere and yellow leaf” to Prospero’s announcement that “Every third thought shall be my grave,” the Swan of Avon seems to have been haunted by the prospect and then actuality of death. And long before “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” engaged the bard’s attention, he understood the stages of incremental age. Some of this is formulaic, a matter of convention, but the elderly were with him from the start. His assertion that “Old men forget” (Henry V), his characterization of John of Gaunt in Richard II, and his description of “second childishness” as the final act of seven (As You Like It) all have the ring of witnessed truth and not mere rhetoric.

      By and large, however, life is a “brief candle” and soon to gutter out. When young Harry Percy dies (having been bested in single combat by Prince Hal) in Henry IV, I, he says gaspingly—there’s only one word of these twenty-three that’s more than monosyllabic—
But thoughts, the slaves of life, and life, time’s fool,
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop …
(V, iv, 81–83)
     “The fools of time” are everywhere in Shakespeare, and “the whirligig of time” will “bring in its revenges.” He possessed the stoic’s conviction that “death, a necessary end, will come when it will come”—or phrases this conviction through characters such as the soon-to-be-assassinated Julius Caesar. When her husband tells Calpurnia, “Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear …” he reproves those who prolong their lives by caution. When Prince Hamlet tells Horatio “we defy augury” and urges acceptance —“Let be”—he’s saying, in effect, there’s no gainsaying death. The “divinity that shapes our ends / rough-hew them how we will” suggests both a willed acquiescence in fate, and the farmer’s skilled ability to “finish off” a hedge.

      Think of that hedge as the form of a play, with its shaped duration. The hours and acts of theatrical time encompass decades often—particularly so in the romances, where the logic of chronology gives way to a synoptic rendering of years. If in the comedies and history plays and tragedies Shakespeare busied himself with coherence—striving to make sense of things, stressing causal connections and linked tales—the late plays are less sequence bound or yoked to plausibility. It’s as if the peerless artificer has had enough of artifice and now simply wants to tell stories (moving closer to the strategies of fiction than of verse). The masques and dumb shows honor entertainment, and if a character gets pursued by a bear, why that’s just part of the spectacle; the playwright had spent years competing with the bear-baiting rink next door …

      Still, there’s a growing impatience. The romances echo the rhyming assertion in Cymbeline that—soon or late, no matter how we attempt to deny it— “golden lads and girls all must / as chimney sweepers, come to dust.” One has the sense, in The Tempest, of incremental weariness—an old magician’s readiness to “drown my book.” That “our revels now are ended” comes almost as relief. When Caliban reminds his master that “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / is I know how to curse” there’s more than mere humor involved; such language is a burdensome gift, and one that its possessor seems willing to renounce.

      Before this, of course, comes sweet music. If in Cymbeline we’re told to “Fear no more the heat of the sun,” during Ariel’s song in The Tempest we’re invited to imagine an almost-alchemical shift:
Full fathom five thy father lies.
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
(I, ii, 400–405)
     That “something rich and strange,” as many critics have observed, has to do with necromancy, and takes as its near antecedent the transformation of Hermione from stone to flesh in the final sequence of The Winter’s Tale. Both acts are quasimagical, with the playwright as the mage, the “sea-change” from living to lasting has to do with what endures when flesh “doth fade.” And in such a reading, possibly, the fools of time are jesters at least as much as dupes; it’s Feste and Lear’s creature who most completely understand the way the cold wind blowing may turn to perfumed air—as well as the reverse. So when Prospero describes his own “most potent art” and announces himself ready to abjure it, he nonetheless has mustered “cloud-capp’d towers” and “the great globe itself”—all conjured into language while the pageant fades. The playwright, ready to retire, must have known (in the very act of declaring he’d leave “not a rack behind”) that the play would last.

     In the sonnets in particular, Shakespeare considers what endures—even with an adleaven of boastfulness in such couplets as: “So long as men can breathe, and eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Or, “If this be error, and upon me proved / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” The dramas have few such referents to the act of composition; they were intended for performance and not written down. When Malvolio pens a letter or Hamlet forges the king’s orders, the business of writing is stage business, and often as not those who rely on pen and paper are made fun of or made to seem inept.

      Indeed, since his “scripts” antedate copyright protection, there was a kind of premium on not being published. The text was a closely held secret. John Heminge and Henry Condell, fellow members of his acting troupe, made a profit out of Shakespeare’s writing only when he no longer produced it, and the first folio appeared seven years after the playwright’s death. The company of the King’s Men did not want their language copied by rivals in the provinces; the quarto of a play existed more as prompter’s script than speeches intended for strangers to read. The practical man of the theater from Stratford would no doubt be amazed to know how widely his dramas are published and how often studied in silence today.

      But this is not the case with poetry, which by the sixteenth century had a long-standing tradition as written artifact. When Shakespeare penned his sonnets, he did so in the expectation that they would be preserved. The page is much referenced here. As suggested above (and in contradistinction to the plays), the poems are full of allusions to their own written existence, and they stake claims on the future. The theme of “immortality” in verse was a conventional one, much practiced by his predecessors; the ravages of time and mutability and their effects on youthful beauty were established as a subject before the sonnet form.

     Holding “the mirror up to nature,” his poetry describes what will
not last. Shakespeare was always precocious; he had a quicker ratio
to the passage of time than ordinary men. And when he wrote the
following, he would have been barely thirty. No recognition of old
age, no description of youth’s fleetingness is more achingly incisive
than his
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivs’t, which makes thy love more strong
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
     We do know he moved to the country, with only a few trips to London in the final years. He bought New Place, one of the principal dwellings in Stratford-upon-Avon, as early as 1597. Shakespeare’s father had been prosperous there before his fortunes altered, and Anne Hathaway’s family came from solid local stock. But the playwright earned real money in his chosen trade, and he seems to have known he would spend it at home; for years he made long-distance purchases, both large and small, of land. “In May 1602 and again in July 1605 Shakespeare made very substantial investments in ‘yardlands’ and leases of tithes in the Stratford area. He was now, in addition to a successful playwright and actor, a significant local rentier and one of Stratford’s leading citizens.” While in London he had lived modestly, in rented rooms; once back in the place of his birth he planned to make a show.

      The Tempest, with its great renunciation scene, has long been read as a kind of retirement party the playwright threw for himself. Prospero, who can do almost anything, does next to nothing in punishment of the rivals by whom he has been wronged. Instead, he mounts a fete: “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance,” he proclaims. Then, having done well by his daughter Miranda (as would Shakespeare by his beloved daughter Susanna), the duke withdraws to meditation and “every third thought” of the grave. So when he begs the audience, in the play’s final moment, to “let your indulgence set me free,” he’s asking for more than applause; like Caliban and Ariel he hopes to be released. Though we have little evidence of his physical condition, it’s likely the writer expected a longer life of retirement than the one he lived; he was buried, according to the Stratford register, on April 25, 1616, at the age of fifty-two.

      It was a quiet passing: sudden, unremarked, and in one account occasioned by a drinking bout with his old cronies Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson. But there’s no real record of excess, and not many die of a night in a bar—as did young Christopher Marlowe in a tavern brawl. We don’t really know what killed Shakespeare, whether he suffered a wasting disease or caught a sudden chill. What’s clear is he had wanted to leave the theater and was not forced to do so, and also that his planned withdrawal was not absolute. Stratford was to be his principal but not sole residence; by analogy he now might be a retired chief executive of the company of the King’s Men who remains on a retainer or serves as a consultant. From time to time he lent a hand to his hand-picked successor, John Fletcher (witness his work on The Two Noble Kinsmen), and he did purchase a place in Blackfriar’s as, plausibly, a pied-à-terre as well as a London investment. The best guess is he’d had enough of the hurly-burly of daily production and wanted, as it were, to leave “the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself … behind.” He was tired; he’d worked long and hard.

      Yet the charms of domesticity were never compelling to Shakespeare, and he famously left his wife only his “second-best bed.” His daughter Judith married a man of whom he disapproved, and to whom he left nothing by name. There were several small bequests— Shakespeare’s sword to Thomas Combe, money to buy “rings” for his old colleagues Heminge, Condell, and Richard Burbage, five pounds to Thomas Russell—and the bulk of the estate to Susanna (whose husband, John Arden, was a man he trusted). His last will and testament was conceived of in January 1616 and signed by him in a shaky hand on March 25. That he died at New Place some twenty days later suggests he knew he wasn’t well and wanted to put things in order.

      The poetry and plays were of unequalled quality; he no doubt knew that too. To play at word games as did he, they were Will’s true testament, and had been built to last. But death was everywhere, life brief, and the whole notion of permanence would have looked a little different in Jacobean England. The great lost works of Greece and Rome had only recently been found again, the great words of the Bible were being newly minted in the King James version. We’ve come, as a civilization, to value that which went before and to preserve it zealously; in the expansive Renaissance of which Shakespeare was principal spokesman, what mattered was forward-facing discovery and not pious retrospect.

      This is arguable, of course. Yet no one who wrote in English ever invented more of it, and neologism is in its very essence a strategy of innovation; it pays the past scant heed. “What’s past is prologue,” as he wrote, and even the history plays would have provided his audience with newfound information; the Plantagenet and Tudor kings whom Shakespeare brought to life onstage are familiar to us now because he imagined them then.

      Further, one can argue that the playwright’s use of source material is in its nature piratical; the past was there for plundering, the histories and chronicles available for alteration like the New Place he newly tricked out. He was “disrespectful” of Plutarch and Holinshed and others, and it seems fair to say he would have expected equivalent treatment from those who might adapt him in their turn. Now we are scrupulous to a fault, particular and scholarly to the best of our cautious discernment—but Thomas Bowdler, who censored him, or those who let Cordelia and Lear enjoy a happy ending are in some sense faithful to the playwright’s revisionist spirit. Contemporary productions that offer the Civil War as a backdrop for Macbeth or turn the Capulets and Montagues into motorcycle gangs are not neessarily misguided; his work thrived upon analogy and used what came to hand …
     In Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright into the Bard, Jack Lynch convincingly argues that our response to Shakespeare was scarcely foreordained. A series of events took place, a series of sponsors emerged, and the collective efforts of later generations were necessary before the provincial playwright and theater manager became the “Immortal Bard.” This takes nothing away from his greatness but may put it in perspective; while alive he did not have the currency his work enjoys today. So it would seem unlikely he spent his last years worrying about the future fate of Coriolanus or Two Gentlemen of Verona—a self-appointed archivist of the self-engendered canon. More likely that he supervised his gardens than his texts. And as suggested at this essay’s start, what a seventeenth-century man in his early fifties might have been feeling in physical terms is open to conjecture. He may well have been old and weak by the time he wrote The Tempest, and Prospero’s brave spectacle making proved a last hurrah. But when— as in Jacques’s soliloquy—the “last stage of all” would end “this strange eventful history,” it would not arrive as “mere oblivion.” For here is our preeminent example both of lastingness and its description; Shakespeare’s gallery of characters includes both those who die on stage and those who live to render them immortal. Continually he tries—as Hamlet urges Horatio—to “tell my story right.”


Last year, at ninety-eight, my father died. A painter, art collector, and dealer, he liked to assert, “A painting a day keeps the doctor away.” And, for a long time, it did. When his decline began, nearly two years before, I flew to New York City to see him in the hospital; he’d had a fall. As I approached his hospital bed, he opened his eyes and recognized and smiled at me and said, “I am not dying yet.” Then he said something I’ll never forget: “But I am more ready for death than for life.”

     This was, I think, a truth told. He did recover and return to his apartment and was not dying yet. But, as Prince Hamlet says in his rumination on the fall of a sparrow, “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.” I flew to see my father one final time last November 14, two days before he did in fact die, and we had an excellent visit: played chess, argued over the comparative artistic and financial value of late Goya prints. He complimented my tie, as usual, and as usual insulted my shirt. These years I saw him often, as often as I could, and lately had the sense of a willed, wise shutting down. When I’d ask how he was feeling, he had a new refrain: “I’m getting old,” he’d announce, with a mixture of pride and surprise.

     Now that I too am getting old I start to take the measure of the astonishing span of his life. My father called three countries home; he prospered for nearly a century, lived in two, and saw the millennium in. He learned to drive automobiles, to fly in airplanes, to shift languages and professions and use television and Xerox machines and predict—sometimes accurately—the future while celebrating the past. Our family has a long history, and often he would dwell on it and, during the final months, in it, but “mere oblivion” was something he avoided, and for that I am grateful and have composed these lines. 

Nicholas DelBanco is the author of a collection of essays, Anywhere out of the World (Columbia University Press) and a novel, The Count of Concord (Dalkey Archive). He is the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English at the University of Michigan.