November 2015 Print

Tragic Death, Comedic Death

by Andrew J. Clarendon

Death is the all-important moment made up of all past moments upon which depends all future moments. It is when the will is fixed upon what it loves most—ultimately, either self or God—and, as St. Augustine puts it, by the weight of this love either sinks or rises. The conflict between our opposing loves, our terrible human freedom that cannot choose not to pursue the goal of happiness but can disastrously choose the wrong means and thus miss the goal entirely, is explored in many artistic works. In literature, one of the genres centered on the conflicts that arise in pursuing happiness is drama. The basic distinction in drama between tragedy and comedy—the sad or happy ending, obstacles overcome or not—highlights the essential conflict all men face. Tragedy focuses on the weakness of humanity, on our flawed condition, on how our mistakes can destroy us and those dear to us; in a humbling, piteous, and even frightening manner, the hero is opposed by forces against which he cannot win, is forced to make a choice, in choosing makes a mistake, and experiences the resulting suffering which leads to a profound awareness of the human condition before his eventual death. Comedy, on the other hand, focuses more on the individual within and opposed by some aspect of society. In spite of some suffering as the plot progresses, the treatment is lighter, more humorous, and, most importantly, mistakes that would destroy a tragic hero are overcome, resulting in the affirmation of life and love usually in marriage. Nevertheless, death is common to all; as human beings, the “golden lads and girls” of comedy will one day “come to dust.”1 Even if unmentioned or dismissed in the joy of the comedic ending, the notion that earthly happiness cannot last remains. Two plays from the English stage, written just over a hundred years apart, provide tragic and, in a spiritual way, comedic meditations on human mortality. The greatest tragedies in English are, of course, Shakespeare’s, and of these, Macbeth is unmatched in showing the hero’s descent into evil and resulting despair before death. Among Shakespeare’s antecedents in medieval drama is the greatest of the morality plays, Everyman, which, although also ending in death, shows in that momentous event the possibility of a happy ending.

Most Horrifying Works of Literature

Macbeth is among the most horrifying works of literature. The force that opposes the hero is the greatest of any of the tragedies: the implacable evil of the devil and his fellow fallen angels. These are the “masters” (4.1.63) the sinister witches serve and who take the form of the famous apparitions in 4.1; these are the “murdering ministers” (1.5.48) whom Lady Macbeth calls upon to possess her so that she and Macbeth can assassinate Duncan. While death is everywhere in the play, the plot nevertheless follows the tragic pattern of a movement from happiness to misery: Macbeth begins the play as the savior of his country, putting down a rebellion and foreign invasion. The first encounter with the witches dramatizes the psychology of temptation; it is disturbing but not surprising that the witches know exactly what truths and half-truths will enkindle the fire of Macbeth’s ambition. It is significant that the putative female witches only begin the temptation, implanting the idea by supposedly prophesizing the future, while Lady Macbeth—Eve to Macbeth’s Adam—finishes it. Most of the time in Shakespeare it is the women who insist upon virtuous action, who help the men to do right or to solve a problem; Lady Macbeth is specifically designed to show the power women have over men to incline them toward the opposite. Like Adam, Macbeth recognizes the spiritual consequences from the beginning, mentioning the “deep damnation” (1.7.720) that results from murder. Inflamed by the witches’ predictions and utterly unable to outmatch his wife, he succumbs. Although Duncan’s murder signals Macbeth’s descent into active evil, his overwhelming guilt shows that he is “yet but young in deed” (3.4.145); it is really only when he engineers Banquo’s murder in Act 3 that he gives himself wholly over to darkness, claiming that “I am in blood / Stepped so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.4.137-139). The powers of darkness, however, are interested in a complete victory. Another meeting with the witches confirms him in his course, and he rejects all restraint, all reason: “From this moment / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand” (4.1.146-148). This play is about a man who attempts to kill his conscience, to stifle the guilt that threatens to overwhelm him after the first murder. After all of the killings, including that of Macduff’s young son, who is killed on stage in 4.2—a horrifying if appropriate moment for a play about living in the present and trying to control the future—the results of Macbeth’s tragic mistake reach a crescendo in the final act. Enemies now surround the once revered general, his country is in chaos, and, other than nameless servants, his only attendant is a man named Seyton—a name that sounds like “Satan.” He alternates between a rage that desires to destroy as much as possible before defeat and a profound despair that seeks release in death. Hence, in the “tomorrow” speech, the greatest expression of despair in Western Literature, Macbeth ends by calling all life “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (5.5.26-28). When he finally faces death in the final fight with Macduff, the tragic hero realizes the fullness of his mistake: all along the demons have been equivocating, playing with words, in order to build up in him as much false confidence as possible. With no space for repentance, Macbeth can only howl out the tragic knowledge: “And be these juggling fiends no more believed / That palter with us in a double sense” (5.8.19-20). As Charles Boyce notes, when Macbeth “denounces the ‘th’ equivocation of the fiend[s] . . . ,’ he thus touches on their most important quality: [they] deform the lives they interfere with because they disturb a necessary element of human society: its dependence on mutual trust.”2 The physical often reflects the supernatural in Shakespeare, and so Macbeth has the worse end of the any of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes: the head that was so full of imagination and poetry but knowingly misused human freedom is cut off and presented to the rightful king. Macbeth’s story shows tragic death in horrifying intensity; he is one who commits catastrophic errors, is “supped full of horrors,” (5.5.13) and dies both unrepentant and not even valuing what he sinned for at the beginning.

Morality Play

Since Macbeth, as a high tragedy, necessarily involves a certain magnitude, few men will ever have the great stature of its hero. The morality play Everyman, by contrast, is, as the title implies, more about at all human beings. A popular medieval genre, morality plays are allegories about the soul; the drama works by having actors represent and speak for certain abstractions—such as Death or Good Deeds—into order to convey the theme. Written at the end of the fifteenth century, just before the Protestant revolt, Everyman at first seems to be a tragedy; on the physical level, the plot follows the basic tragic pattern from happiness to misery: at the beginning Everyman is a relatively content and seemingly well-to-do man who dies in the end. As with the force of evil in Macbeth, however, the play includes a spiritual dimension that indicates all is not as it seems. Like Dante who finds that he is the middle of a “dark wood”3 just when his political career is approaching its height, in his encounter with Death, Everyman soon learns that he is in a spiritually miserable state, so far gone astray that he has no sense of his descent and peril. Having forgotten that our lives are short like a “vapor,”4 Everyman must unexpectedly prepare for judgment. God tells Death that Everyman “a pilgrimage he must on him take, / Which he in no wise may escape”5; we are born to die, and our lives are, as Dante points out in Purgatorio, an exodus that is intended to end in the Promised Land. The anonymous author—perhaps a priest—goes on to dramatize the dying process; it is an artistic presentation not of a quick death, but of one that although unexpected leaves some time before the end. The treatment is not without a certain macabre humor: after amazement, Everyman goes on to offer Death that which is most valuable to someone clinging to the world’s goods:

O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind!
In thy power it lieth me to save;
Yet of my good will I give thee, if thou will be kind,
Yea, a thousand pound shalt thou have,
And defer this matter till another day. (119-123)

While not effective, trying to bribe Death is one reaction to the news. Everyman goes on to ask various characters—Fellowship and Kindred and his possessions—to come with him on his journey with Death, but is refused by them all. Goods, Everyman’s considerable possessions, poignantly reaffirms the Gospels’ warnings about material treasure: “As for a while I was lent thee, / A season thou hast had me in prosperity. / My condition is man’s soul to kill; / If I save one, a thousand do I spill [i.e., ruin]” (440-443). What Everyman eventually learns serves as a rebuttal to Macbeth’s famous speech of despair. It is not that life signifies nothing, but rather that only spiritual things really matter. It is only the invisible things that last; only Good Deeds agrees to go with Everyman. Unfortunately, when Everyman first meets Good Deeds, she sorrowfully states: “Here I lie, cold in the ground; / Thy sins have me so bound / That I cannot stir” (486-488); it is the depiction of the soul in mortal sin. So, Good Deeds calls on Knowledge—one of the gifts of the Holy Ghost—who agrees to guide Everyman to a “holy man” (539) in order to go “To Confession, that cleansing river” (536). Having confessed and done penance, Everyman’s Good Deeds are able to rise; the rest of the play shows the actual moments of death, including Knowledge telling Everyman to seek Extreme Unction from Priesthood. As the various symbols of Everyman’s physicality such as Beauty and Strength depart, Everyman’s last words are a prayer from Scripture: “In manus tuas—of might’s most, / Forever—commendo spiritum meum” (886-887). As every man falls under the curse of Adam, the end of Everyman is inevitable—Knowledge, looking over the corpse of Everyman, says “Now hath he suffered that we all shall endure” (888)—but the consoling meaning of the plot is that the happy death of Everyman is what the Church intends for all of us.

There is, then, tragic death and comedic death. A Macbeth can see nothing in death but despair, for his vision and love is confined to the self, to the merely physical; the definitive rejection of God is the final retreat into egotism, into our weak and fallen humanity. On the other hand, while on the physical level human mortality is proper to tragedy, from the spiritual point of view, it can be the greatest comedy possible, that happiest of all possible endings. It is not accidental that one of the figures Our Lord uses to describe Paradise is the wedding feast—the usual ending of a comedy—a metaphor for the everlasting joy of those united with the Bridegroom. As Zosima says to Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov: “We are rejoicing . . . we are drinking the new wine, the wine of a new and great joy . . . and [H]e is rejoicing with us, transforming water into wine, that the joy of the guests may not end. He is waiting for new guests, he is ceaselessly calling new guests.”6 These two morality plays, Everyman and Macbeth, one in the medieval and the other in its Shakespearean manifestation, are potent reminders that the only real choice that matters is what, in the end, we really love.

1 Shakespeare, Cymbeline, 4.2.265, 266. All Shakespeare quotations are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 4th ed., ed. David Bevington (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1992).

2 Charles Boyce, Shakespeare A to Z (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990), 391.

3 Dante, Inferno, in The Divine Comedy, Volume 1: Inferno, trans. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003), I, 2.

4 The Holy Bible, Douay-Rheims Version, (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1971), James 4:15.

5 Everyman in The Broadview Anthology of Drama: Plays from the Western Theatre, Volume I: From Antiquity through the Eighteenth Century, ed. Jennifer Wise and Craig S. Walker (Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2003), 68-69.

6 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage