The University of New Mexico Best Student Essays

Playing Dead: The Tomb-Trick and Its Various Effects

Of the many disguises adopted by characters in Shakespeare’s plays, one is most natural. One is always, indeed, a prefiguration of a guise every character must one day authentically wear: the appearance of death. In two plays, Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing, young women assume the appearance, whether it be in person or by report, of having died. These “deaths” are acted out for similar motivations, as trials of love, but in different contexts and with drastically dissimilar effects. Juliet rises from her grave on stage, a resurrection which comes too late and serves only to sharpen the pains which drove her to fake her death. Hero, on the other hand, is shown dead only in the words of others. Her resuscitation takes place at a wedding, and is a rebirth into a new life as bride and vindicated victim of slander. I will argue that the juxtaposition of these two false deaths reveals unfortunate truths about the social impediments and sustenance of romantic love, and that the contrast exposes one relationship as far flimsier than the other.

Juliet and Hero are both driven to disguise themselves as corpses by complications in their love affairs. While Hero has been slandered publicly, Juliet is trying to cope with a secret agony. They both must deal with forces hostile to their passion. The malevolent Don John, in orchestrating the defamation of Hero, provides an explicit counter-force to romantic love. He declares, concerning the upcoming wedding of Claudio and Hero, “Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be medicinable to me” (Much Ado 2.2.4-5). Simmering with resentment and hatred, Don John acts as an active principle of disharmony. He does not even have an actual grievance against either of the lovers: he wants merely to thwart the happiness of his brother. Romeo and Juliet face no such concretized enemy, and more’s the pity. According to the presumably neutral Chorus, they are “A pair of star-crossed lovers” (Romeo 0.6). Fate, in the shape of long-standing cultural strife into which they have fallen at birth, has damned them. Their families are locked in a pattern of grudging cruelty and revenge. This difference in terms of adversarial powers is significant. A sadistic enemy may be fooled by the mere appearance of death, but can Fate be so tricked? That which the two heroines flee in their disguise is also similar. Marriage, symbolized in the wedding ceremony, leads in both cases directly to the tomb. Hero faints when her intended accuses her of impurity at the very ceremony which was to unite them. This mark on her reputation is a near fatal wound. Even her father hopes briefly that his daughter has died, moaning (in tones which foreshadow the pathos of King Lear) “Do not live, Hero, do not ope thine eyes” (Much Ado 4.1.122). The infamy of female lust unbounded by the strictures of marriage is so hideous that the Friar suggests sending Hero to an ascetic retreat should the accusation prove true (Much Ado 4.1.239-242). The faked death, here, proves to be merely the first step in addressing a broken reputation. The avoidance of sin, as well as a betrayal of love, is what drives Juliet into her tomb. Juliet, realizing she may be forced into committing bigamy, tells the Friar that before this will happen, her resolution will prove true and “with this knife I’ll help it presently” (Romeo 4.1.55). That she is willing to kill herself shows that sins against Verona’s God are not the foremost motivations to her action. This faked death follows on the heels of her secret wedding to Romeo, while Hero’s “death” is a temporary replacement for her union with Claudio. Thus, while their motivations are similar, their statuses as jilted bride and despairing wife place them on different sides of the same question.

Another figure must be considered in relation to the death-gambit: the beloved. Claudio, so easily tricked into mistaking Margaret’s dalliance with Borachio for unfaithfulness on the part of Hero, is meant to be fooled by the “death” of Hero. By so readily accepting Don John’s slander, Claudio shows himself to be a different sort of untrustworthy lover. His mournful visit to her tomb (Much Ado 5.3) must be extracted from him in order to render him more worthy of his wronged Hero. His very real grief is intended to be a purgative and an act of repentance (Much Ado 4.1.211). The appearance of death and its full acceptance by the beloved is vital for it to have any efficacy. Juliet’s death, however, is never meant to be believed by Romeo. Her lover is neither the direct cause nor the intended audience of the charade. Her Friar concocts her disguise in order to fool everyone but Romeo. Lawrence tells her he will ensure that “Romeo by my letters know our drift” (Romeo 4.1.116). The pressures represented by her family are those which must be evaded by the tomb-trick. Romeo’s acceptance of her death, and the rash actions resultant from his grief, are not imagined by either Juliet or the Friar. Here, love serves to disastrously undermine the use of the disguise, to negate its intended results altogether. Where one lover is mortified, even purified by his beloved’s supposed demise, the other is simply destroyed by it. The evasion of the forces opposed to love is a humorous success in Much Ado About Nothing, but in Romeo and Juliet this very disguise is what precipitates disaster. How could the plans of the two Friars be so dissimilar in effect?

The way in which the two tomb-tricks are enacted bears directly on their respective success and grim failure. Shakespeare has, in both cases, a Friar instigate the plan. This may symbolize marriage’s need for the approval of religious authority, or the governing hand of God in the ways of love, but if so why does one plan work and not the other? One clue may lie in the social context wherein these plots are devised. Friar Francis initiates the plan to fake Hero’s death while surrounded by her closest family members. Indeed, he unfolds his plot in direct response to Leonato’s wavering between murderous intent toward his daughter and a desire to avenge her honor (Much Ado 4.1.189-199). Her death is to be corroborated by her father and her cousin Beatrice. Even Benedick, close friend to both Don Pedro and Claudio, agrees to conspire with them “As secretly and justly as your soul / Should with your body” (Much Ado 4.1.247-248). By this oath, he not only acknowledges the need for duplicity, he admits to the (at very least temporary) justice of the trick. Hero’s disguise is planned by religious authority and ratified by both paternal power and a figure with interest vested in those to be tricked. Friar Lawrence, however, is alone with Juliet when he has his brilliant idea. Her parents, of course, are the characters who must above all be taken in by the trick: their compliance would render it unnecessary. Shortly before, she has dismissed her best friend, her Nurse, from the secret counsels of her heart. She refers to the woman as “most wicked fiend” (Romeo 3.5.248), indicating not only distrust, but a perception that the Nurse, in her fickle disposition toward the sanctity of Juliet’s marriage, is a poisonous counter-agent to true love. Juliet’s estrangement from her reinforces how far outside social sanction lies her wily attempt at escape. Even the blessing of a Friar may not be enough to give the plot the safety net it needs to succeed. The failure of Friar John to deliver the message concerning Juliet’s true state (Romeo 5.2.14-16) reinforces the lamentable lack of support these two had in their conspiracy.1

The technicalities of the tricks differ as well. The illusion of Hero’s death is created verbally. The Friar says her death must be “maintained” (Much Ado 4.1.213) and speaks of the “supposition of the lady’s death” (Much Ado 4.1.217). Benedick agrees to “say she is dead” (Much Ado 4.1.328). The trick is performed by misunderstanding, rumor, and lies. Friar Francis’ plan is possibly aided by the locale in which the play is set. A seemingly tight-knit community, Messina gives the impression of being rural and sparsely populated. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. Hence, a rumor may find its way around with more ease than it would in a big city like Verona. The deception may be easier to work. Claudio is confronted with a tomb wherein Hero is supposed to lie, but he does not see a body. Perhaps this accounts for some of the differences between his reaction and Romeo’s. Shielded from the sight of his beloved’s corpse, Claudio does not seem to experience the full brunt of grief. Juliet, unlike Hero, becomes a convincing simulation of a corpse. So believable is this “masking” that Shakespeare gives us almost an entire scene of bewailing and examination of her supposedly lifeless body (Romeo 4.5). This act of dramaturgical brilliance on the part of the Friar proves to be fatal for Romeo. Beholding her body, he cries “Ah, dear Juliet, / Why art thou yet so fair” (Romeo 5.3.101-102). The sight of her “corpse” drives him over the edge and into the arms of actual death, where he ironically hopes they can be together. Thus, the workings of the two tomb-tricks differ in ways societal and mechanical. These differences have enormous consequences.

These disguises, similar as they are in motivation and execution, provoke responses which may be thought only proper to the genres in which their respective plays are located. Hero lives in a comedy, and therefore she will be wed, not dead, by play’s end. Juliet is trapped in a tragedy, and thus must suffer. However, the reactions of their two lovers imply something more complex, a lesson in love which significantly darkens the aspect of the comedy. Claudio, upon learning that his “dead” Hero was virtuous, does grieve. He claims that now Hero’s image in its original, unsullied version has been restored (Much Ado 5.1.235-236) and he agrees to whatever penance her father decides upon. However, there is a kind of flimsiness to his character. Before his wedding to Leonato’s “niece” and only one scene after visiting the tomb of Hero, Claudio is joking with Don Pedro over Benedick’s fear of cuckoldry (Much Ado 5.4.43-52). Such levity does not speak well of his capacity for suffering. He is immediately curious what his new lady looks like and tries to unveil her before the completion of the ceremony. This is not a lover tortured with the thought that he killed his fiancée by unjust cruelty. This is either a fickle heart or someone with a very serviceable memory. To be fair, he and Hero have not known each other long, and they had not yet consummated their love. Still, he takes his place with so many of Shakespeare’s other comedic leading men as a bit of a cad, a blockhead, more than a little lacking in sensitivity. How great a difference there is in Romeo’s reaction! Right before killing himself, Romeo reaffirms his marriage by announcing he will not let Death take his place as paramour (Romeo 5.3.102-108). Juliet, when she discovers the plan has gone awry, rushes to wear her disguise with authenticity.

Hero and Claudio prance off to live the sort of happily-ever-after Shakespeare wisely never tries to depict, while Romeo and Juliet molder in their graves. This juxtaposition of the tomb-tricks, however, does not easily lend itself to reading one of the scenarios as valid and the other a rotting failure. While it is easy to mock the authentically dead couple as hormone-crazy teens in such a hurry to fulfill their passions that they make obvious mistakes, they leave us with a sense of truly having loved each other. Their double-suicide, while prompted by social evils and the rash yearnings of youth, has been read for generations as a transcendent image, a Liebestod. Playing off Elizabethan slang, they may be seen as experiencing a simultaneous orgasm, in comparison with Hero’s faked one. While Shakespeare may not be saying that true love must flare and die quickly, he does seem to suggest that a constant heart is one more open to pains and hence more vulnerable to the effects of deaths little, faked or authentic.

[Note: I believed “tomb-trick” to be my own clever coinage, but which a Google search proved, alas, to have already been used by at least one other writer, Barbara Everett, in William Shakespeare: Bloom’s Modern Critical Views (edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom).]

1 The question of personal agency should also be considered in regard to the workings of the two tomb-tricks. Hero, overwhelmed by Claudio’s cruel behavior and the shame of her besmirched reputation, is too devastated to do much plotting. In fact, the last we hear of her in the scene in which her “death” is decided on is a demand that her father should “Refuse me, hate me, torture me to death” (Much Ado 4.1.183) if her constancy can be disproven. She is a passive participant in the plot. Juliet is more vitally engaged. She half suggests the idea with her proposed suicide. Even in the grips of a nightmarish fantasy of living entombment, she spurs herself on to take the poison (Romeo 4.3.37-60).

Works Cited

William Shakespeare, The New Folger Library Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.
Edited by Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine. Washington Square Press, 1992.

William Shakespeare, The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies: Much Ado About Nothing. Pp. 566-
620. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt. Norton, 2008.

Added May 12, 2011

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Nominated by Dr. Renee Faubion, English 352, Early Shakespeare:

“Matt’s essay makes an original and engaging link between two Shakespeare plays whose mutual resonances are often ignored. Moreover, as is typical of Matt’s work, his commentary is communicated in prose that is both lively and elegant.”


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