Subversive Deaths | Shakespeare’s Women and Mortal Agency

[Shakespeare’s] characters combine history and real life; they are complete individuals, whose hearts and souls are laid open before us: all may behold, and all judge for themselves.
Anna Brownell Jameson
Whether I swim or sink
 That’s no concern of yours now
 How could you possibly think
 You had the power to know how
 To keep me breathing
 As the water rises up again
 Before I slip away…
Emilie Autumn, “Opheliac”

Can death be a subversive act? Suicide and murder are common among Shakespeare’s works, and this study endeavors to look at the death of women in the plays as acts of agency rather than submission. Rather than being defined by death, these women define their deaths for themselves and their audiences. According to early critic Anna Brownell Jameson, the heroines of Shakespeare’s work were “in truth, in variety, in power, equal to his men” (67), and this mode of relating to the female characters of Shakespeare’s work gives a more open gateway to a modern analysis. The power dynamics between the characters in this study are about death and how death is affected — when a female character dies, what happens to the power balance of the play? What effect does the death of the character have on her characterization and representation? This study is not meant to psychoanalyze or moralize the plays’ usage of these tropes, but to analyze in depth their affect on the stage space in the realm of character.

Motivation is necessary for the development of modern dramatic space, therefore the pathological turns female characters take toward suicide or acceptance of their death is then more defining than the physiological act of dying. Traditionally trained actresses[1] are encouraged to think in depth about the interior psychological turns their character takes over the course of a play. Therefore, the stage space also encompasses the space of characterization. Performance defines the stage space as more than physical location: it also functions as a psychological location or the interior/mind turned exterior. The passions affected served to make the audience present and somehow complicit, driving a strong case for audience (and reader) understanding of these actions. Dramatic space encompasses the real and the performed, and demonstrates that “inbetween” which is theatric.

Of Shakespeare’s fifteen textual suicides[2], many are linked to an honorable death to avoid shame or future abuses. Only Ophelia and Lady Macbeth can be considered insane by clinical terms at the time of their deaths[3], all other characters possess some sort of autonomy that might prevent suicide or at least see their suicide as more than just the extension of depression or mental illness by modern definition. They are bound by desperate circumstance or a form of ethics that enable their deaths to be considered outside the realm of mental illness and into the realm of staged power dynamics.

Character analysis has only recently re-entered the stage of Shakespearean studies, and in re-entering has shifted the field. Paul Yachnin and Jessica Slight’s 2009 collection Shakespeare and Character suggests “character is the organizing principle of Shakespeare’s plays… character is the principal bridge over which the emotional, cognitive, and political transactions of theater and literature pass between actors and playgoers or between written texts and readers” (6–7). If this is so, how can the interiority of character (so valued by the actor and director) expose tensions and spaces in the text for the literary critic?

Desdemona: Innocence in Execution

Desdemona is a difficult character to comprehend, especially on the modern stage. In the first half of the play, she falls in love with Othello for his skill and valor, and triumphantly earns her place as his wife — she seems to see past the cultural constructs of race to the good and honorable side of her husband. Othello tells that “She loved me for the dangers that I had passed,/ And I loved her that she did pity them” (I.iii.166–7). The play starts with a loving, balanced marriage, if done in secret and against the wishes of Desdemona’s father, Brabantio. Desdemona begs to go with her husband to the war, as she states “if I be left behind,/ A moth of peace, and he go to the war,/ The rites for why I love him are bereft me…” (I.iii.251–3). Desdemona loves Othello for his capabilities as a warrior and leader of men. Her description of herself left behind, “a moth of peace”, shows that she does not wish to blend in and hide in the safety of a home front, but wants to be visible and present at her husband’s side[4]. She loves her husband for his actions, and will be his partner in all possible ways.

Desdemona is not, then, pure submission. The pair is loving and affectionate, Othello calling Desdemona “my fair warrior” (II.i.173). This pet name may well reflect how highly Othello values his wife: he calls her what others value in him. He is valued, even as a person of less privilege, for his battle acumen. Thus, calling Desdemona warrior has a deeper meaning for Othello than it may have for others. It is a word with positive connotations and recognitions. Judith Cook quotes Suzanne Bertish (who, according to Cook, “played the part as a very strong girl”), who played Desdemona at Stratford in 1979:

… There were certain lines I picked out in the text. They refer to her as our captain’s captain, they say our general’s wife is now the general. Then twice in the play she speaks like a lawyer… It’s brilliant. Her father was a senator, there’s no talk of her mother, and she must have listened to this kind of jargon since she was a child, it’s part of her life.

Before Desdemona’s death, she seems to know death is upon her, and sings “a song of willow” which “will not go from [her] mind” (IV.iii.30). She misremembers a lyric “Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve” (line 49), but then says that it’s the wrong lyric. However, the utterance of this phrase is not a mistake in the text. Desdemona seems to be aware of her demise’s approach, and is prepared to shelter her husband from the inevitable consequences. Emilia, in the same scene, delivers the line, “… Let husbands know/ Their wives have sense like them…” (lines 89–90). There is a code of knowing between the two women, but Desdemona knows her husband better, and can see the shifts and changes in his countenance. By the same light, Emilia knows her husband is not all good, but cannot fathom the depths of his deception[5]. The two women of the play are murdered by their husbands, but their deaths represent differences in the characters and their husbands. Desdemona dies protecting her husband, Emilia dies exposing her husband’s evil. This bookending of murder may serve to show how the audience might relate to the husbands’ deeds and characters. Perhaps through their wives’ deaths, we may be able to see the husbands.

Rather than point out her murderer, Desdemona takes the blame on herself:

Emilia: O, who hath done this deed?
Desdemona: Nobody, I myself. Farewell.
Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell! She dies.
James Earl Jones and Julienne Marie | New York Shakespeare Festival

Desdemona owns her death, taking Othello’s agency of murder from the act of her death. She dies on her terms, resolutely seeing the good in him as we see her destroyed by him. Desdemona takes ownership of a part of Othello that neither the audience nor the society of Venice can see at that moment. Othello’s condemnation comes from executing the innocent, who even obediently goes to the gallows. Othello’s failures are in judgment and justice, and Desdemona’s acceptance of his execution only serve to highlight her innocence. Variations in staging can highlight this in various ways. Fanny Kemble, when playing the part, decided to struggle when most Desdemonas “acquiesce with wonderful equanimity in their assassination”. In her performance, she “got up on my knees on my bed and threw my arms around Othello’s neck… that being my notion of the poor creatures last appeal for mercy” (Hankey, 274). The same Othello, W.C Macready told Helena Faucit she “added intensity to the last act by ‘being very difficult to kill’… I would not die with my honour tarnished… I felt for him as well as myself — for I knew what remorse and misery would overwhelm him” (Hankey, 274). The motivation, even in struggling, for these nineteenth century Desdemonas was the preservation of honor for both the victim and the murderer.

Desdemona is loyal to a fault, and her death is her expression of her loyalty. To defy her husband and his wishes would go against Desdemona’s very being. The tragedies of the play, and the crimes of Iago, become even more terrible in the face of Desdemona’s unflinching honesty and devotion. In many ways, Desdemona’s inaction to save herself undoes all the accusations against her character and sets her morally above her accusers. As she states, “A guiltless death I die” (V.ii.123).

From early on, many women have struggled with Desdemona’s seeming submission. In her letters, Helena Faucit expressed some surprise at the stage convention of having Desdemona played as submissive:

A being so bright, so pure, so unselfish, generous, courageous- so devoted in her love, so unconquerable in her allegiance to her ‘kind lord,’ even when dying by his hand… Of course I did not know in those days that Desdemona is usually considered a merely amiable, simple, yielding creature, and is also generally represented so on the stage. This is the last idea that would have entered my head (191).

Somehow, Desdemona’s unshaken allegiance does not read as subservience or simplicity. It seems more the actions of a devoted warrior, protecting a sovereign.

The affect of Desdemona’s death, when her innocence is affirmed, serves to undo all of Iago’s machinations. Desdemona’s innocence lays bare his handiwork and exposes his villainy. Emilia, so devoted to her mistress, cannot hold silence for her husband in the same manner. Only when Desdemona is dead does anyone speak plainly about the situation, and speaking plainly is the surest way to unravel a tragedy’s framework.

Juliet: A Bounty Preserved

In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s death is often read or acted for sheer romance and dramatics, but what of the nuances present in the character’s trajectory to demise? Why does Juliet kill herself, if not out of grief for the death of her beloved?

Pragmatism might well be the answer. Throughout the play, Juliet is the logical of the pair, the agent of her marriage[6]. Juliet organizes her marriage to Romeo, their rendezvous, and her escape from an unwanted marriage. The play gives Juliet more power than may seem present initially, especially when noting that it is Juliet who provides contact for the arrangement of their nuptials and conveyance for the consummation of their marriage. Juliet is concerned with time and place; she wants specific details over Romeo’s poetry (“By whose direction found’st thou out this place?” [II.ii.79]) or the convoluted mocking of the Nurse (“Here’s such a coil! Come, what says Romeo?” [II.v.64]). Action and reaction seems determined by her needs and desires. It is revealed, in her desperate exchanges following the climax that Juliet does not fear death; she fears loss of agency. Juliet presents herself as an excess of passion, “bounty as boundless as the sea” (II.ii.133). Once fixated upon her desire she gives unflinchingly and shows readiness to undertake any action. We know from her father that she has had agency in her romantic choices[7] (perhaps even all of her choices) until her cousin’s death gives her father a change of heart.

Forced to marry although already married, Juliet’s instant response is to threaten self-destruction:

O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,
From off the battlements of any tower…
… Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble —
And I will do it without fear or doubt…

Turned into commerce, Juliet is willing to nullify her worth in order to avoid the use of that worth for the imperatives of others. She also knows that her worth will be reduced if she reduces herself to bigamy. Suicide becomes a reclaiming of oneself from outside forces and desires. Juliet uses her agency over her life as a bargaining chip for assistance from the Friar: “If in thy wisdom thou canst give no help,/ Do thou but call my resolution wise,/ And with this knife I’ll help it presently” (IV.i.52–4). Juliet recognizes the worth of her life and the power of her control over said vitality[8]. Her vehement denial of Paris speaks to her self-possession and personal honor.

When the sleeping potion plot goes awry, the Friar’s only suggestion (before running off in a terror) is that Juliet must run away to a nunnery. This is another unwanted marriage, which Juliet must use her nearest way of conveyance to escape. Juliet is in a constant battle to never give up her bodily space to any but that who she chooses. With both potential husbands dead beside her, Juliet is past marriageable at this point in the narrative.

Juliet kills herself because there is no other space that accommodates her in the text besides a nunnery, and Juliet is not made for a life of piety and submission. If Juliet were designed for religious orders, she would not have so directly defied her parents wishes or been so open in her teenage lust. So though she may display the red lips of the living, Juliet belongs to death and consummates the pairing in her last breath[9]. Therefore, Juliet’s death might be seen as the same vein of the great Roman warriors and heroes — suicide to avoid invasion or usurpation.

Notably, the play ends with a couplet that inverts its title: “For never was there a story of more woe/ Than this of Juliet and her Romeo” (V.iii.309–10). Possession is given to Juliet in the inversion, interestingly giving her a further prominence in the relationship. This shift in balance shows that Juliet has been the agent of her marriage all along, and it is now recognized in the conclusion of the play.

Cleopatra: Immortality in Death

Cleopatra is a queen, a Pharaoh of Egypt. Shakespeare imbues within the character of Cleopatra deep richness and diversity. The emotional range and control necessary to embody Cleopatra is enormous, and her character is really the centerpiece and focus of Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s suicide is the righteous suicide of the usurped, and is completely defined by her unwillingness to be subjugated. Antony and Cleopatra is the play with the most suicides (five, in all), and perhaps this is because the play is concerned with power exchanges in the realm of Roman tradition. Passion and excess are balanced with a fear of shame or lack of freedom.

Cleopatra is self-possessed from the first, though fickle and suspicious — but she has reason to fear Antony’s insincerity, for he is insincere to others over the course of the play (especially women). Cleopatra is no fool, and will not be used as such. Antony remarks “She is cunning past man’s thought” (I.ii.141), and this is true. Cleopatra’s strategems have the power to shake the world, and as noted by the nineteenth century critic Anna Brownell Jameson:

“Her mental accomplishments, her unequalled grace, her woman’s wit and woman’s wiles, her irresistible allurements, her starts of irregular grandeur, her bursts of ungovernable temper, her vivacity of imagination, her petulant caprice, her fickleness and her falsehood, her tenderness and her truth, her childish susceptibility to flattery, her magnificent spirit, her royal pride, the gorgeous eastern colouring of the character; all of these contradictory elements has Shakespeare seized, mingled them in their extremes, and fused them into one brilliant impersonation of classical elegance…” (78–9).
Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean Leon Gerome

Cleopatra’s theatricality most likely best defines her death, as she has had many dress rehearsals. In some ways, Cleopatra knows the power of her death too well: she’s always pretending to be dead in some way or form[10]. Enobarbus remarks that he has “seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment. I do think there is mettle in death, which commits some loving act upon her, she hath such a celerity in dying” (I.ii.137–40). This tendency to counterfeit death manages to undo Antony, and kill him with the tidings of action. Cleopatra’s death, and even the affectation of the state, has the power to slay Rome’s most powerful men. Bridget Escolme, in her book Emotional Excess on the Shakespearean Stage: Passion’s Slaves, notes “Cleopatra’s love, the more notoriously excessive, ends in death and is matched in excess and in death by Antony’s” (112).

Cleopatra stands against Octavius alone once Antony falls, and therein lies danger to her agency. Being conquered, Cleopatra has lost control of Egypt, and therefore herself. Cleopatra has been addressed by Antony multiple times by the title “Egypt”. When one is conquered, so is the other. And Cleopatra knows what it means to be conquered, what indignities and losses will be hers and her kingdom’s. Cleopatra and Juliet are similar in that they are both know their worth as commodities, and Cleopatra’s worth is more than Juliet’s because she represents the entirety of a nation. Cleopatra knows from the moment of Antony’s death what she plans to do, and makes herself clear in this exchange:

Antony: One word, sweet queen.
Of Caesar, seek your honour, with your safety. O!
Cleopatra: They do not go together.
Antony: Gentle, hear me.
None about Caesar trust but Proculeius.
Cleopatra: My resolution and my hands I’ll trust,
None about Caesar.

To Cleopatra, there is no honor in surrender. She bears too much similarity to her Roman lovers, who would die rather than be overtaken by a foe. She plans to die “after the high Roman fashion,/ And make death proud to take [her]” (IV.xv.92–3). Cleopatra talks of death as an honorable partner, personifies it as one worthy of taking “a queen/ worth many babes and beggars” (V.ii.46–7).

Cleopatra also seems to know that her death shall make her immortal, set her above Octavius in some way. The theatrical undertaking of her death is all power and eternity, set on a higher stage of the ages:

Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have
Immortal longings in me. Now no more
The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip.
… methinks I hear
Antony call. I see him rouse himself
to praise my noble act. I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath. Husband, I come.
Now to that name my courage prove my title.
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life…

For Cleopatra, her death is victory. She sees herself above Octavius in her moment of ascension. The afterlife is a promise of greatness, and by denying Octavius her power, she becomes greater, stronger and more than her usurper. Cleopatra writes her own history, rather than see it played out to Octavius’s personal tune. “Cleopatra fascinates… because she is an embodiment of passion’s excess, fainting and sighing for love of Antony, and the consummate performer of her love, absolutely in control, completely resourceful” (Escolme, 141).

On the stage space and in the realm of the page, these are moments to challenge and relish as a moment for power to move fluidly. When a woman dies in a tragedy, the presentation of her death is natural to the genre “tragedy”, but is not natural to the affects of living and vitality. Therefore, a character’s use of death may bring forth considerations about the state of the play.

A vocational death, chosen by the character for herself signifies an importance to the act. Thus, these women’s deaths are more than the affects of death; they are defining moments that utilize a feminine claim of autonomy and agency in the text and on the stage. Each woman claims her own “death right”: Juliet claims her passion and consent, Desdemona her innocence and loyalty, Cleopatra her immortality and liberty.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Antony & Cleopatra. Ed. Stanley Wells. William Shakespeare, the complete works. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. Print.

________________________. Othello. Ed. Stanley Wells. William Shakespeare, the complete works. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. Print.

________________________. Shakespeare in Production: Othello. Ed. Julie Hankey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

________________________. Romeo & Juliet. Ed. Stanley Wells. William Shakespeare, the complete works. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. Print.

Autumn, Emilie. “Opheliac.” Opheliac. Chicago: Trisol Music Group GmbH, 2006. Audio recording.

Cook, Judith. Women in Shakespeare. London: Virgin Books, 1980. Print.

Escolme, Bridget. Emotional Excess on the Shakespearean Stage: Passion’s Slaves. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2014. Print.

Cavendish, Margaret. “Letter CXXIII.” Ed. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts. Women Reading Shakespeare 1660–1900. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997. 11–14. Print.

Faucit, Helena. “On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters: By One Who Has Personated Them.” Ed. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts. Women Reading Shakespeare 1660–1900. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997. 184–195. Print.

Jameson, Anna Brownell. “Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical.” Ed. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts. Women Reading Shakespeare 1660–1900. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997. 66–80. Print.

[1] And actors.

[2] Romeo, Juliet, Cassius, Brutus, Portia, Othello, Gertrude, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Goneril, Timon, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Charmian, Iras, Eros. Italicized suicides are in question.

[3] Notably, both take place off-stage, and others define these deaths for the audience.

[4] And, likely wishes to enjoy the more physical rites of marriage.

[5] To her credit, no one in the play is able to sniff out Iago’s deception until it mechanizes into murderous events.

[6] Laura Stubbs: “In Romeo and Juliet the wise and brave stratagem of the girl wife is brought to fatal issue by the reckless impatience of her husband” (247).

[7] “My will to her consent is but a part,/ And, she agreed, within her scope of choice/ Lies my consent and fair-according voice.” (I.ii.16–8)

[8] To illustrate Juliet’s understanding of the worth of her passion: “O, I have bought the mansion of a love/ But not yet possessed it, and though I am sold,/ Not yet enjoyed…” (III.ii.26–8).

[9] Figuratively and literally.

[10] It is particularly amazing that Antony believes any report of her death, if he knows the feigning of her demise is one of her favorite strategies.

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