Waking up this morning, it drifted through my mind how Shakespeare liked to have actors play dead. Of course, the actual death toll in the Complete Works is substantial, and people have compiled lists, created pie charts, and performed new plays to illustrate the many ways characters are sliced, diced, pummeled and poisoned.
But there are also characters who only pretend to die, and that event is usually the turning point in the story. There’s Hero in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’: she ‘dies’ because of being shamed at the altar, and so that Claudio can feel the grief and loss and regret for his mistaken punishment of her. In ‘A Winter’s Tale’, Hermione is another virtuous woman accused of being false. She too must appear to be dead until her husband truly recognizes her innocence and mourns his loss.
This summer at Bard on the Beach, you will see Juliet pretend to die to avoid marrying Paris. In ‘Pericles’, Marina will be thought to be killed by the evil Dionyza’s henchman, and Thaisa, believed to have died in childbirth, is thrown overboard a ship by Pericles.
Sometimes the audience is in on the secret although the characters are not. The deaths, real or pretended, are always important. Men really die and their ghosts often return to haunt the killer (or an indecisive child). When the women die they don’t haunt anyone. And sometimes they have to pretend to die just so the men can grow up.