In one way, Hamilton Clancy has outlived William Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago this week at the age of 52. Clancy is older than that. But Clancy has also died many times, and it’s all thanks to the Bard. “My very first death was easy: Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet,” says Clancy. “I died in Hamlet in 2000. I died as Iago in 2014. I have had the great pleasure of dying in many of his plays.”
Clancy is an actor, director and the founding artistic director of the Drilling Company, which is marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in New York’s Bryant Park on April 22 with a New Orleans-style jazz funeral procession, and a performance of eight death scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. They will also include the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy from Hamlet and the Friends, Romans and Countrymen from Julius Caesar. “Because they are about somebody who just died, right?”
Each scene lasts from eight to 18 minutes. Some of them Clancy sees as among the greatest scenes ever written: “The end of Hamlet is quite a piece of beauty; there is incredible precision with which Shakespeare knocks off each of the characters.” Some are among the silliest, such as the deaths of Pyramus and Thisby in the play-within-the-play in Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Out, sword, and wound
The pap of Pyramus;
Ay, that left pap,
Where heart doth hop
“It is wonderful to see the Romeo and Juliet scene right up against Pyramis and Thisby, which makes fun of it,” Clancy says; scholars think Shakespeare might have written both plays in the same year, 1595.
The Drilling Company is including the silly scene, Clancy says, “so that we can approach the other ones with some sort of appropriate solemnity that matches their language.”
The Drilling Company is not alone in its efforts to mark the anniversary in this morbid way. A British theatre company called Spymonkey is planning “The Complete Deaths,” opening next month at the Northampton Royal and Derngate Theatre, in which four actors will re-enact what director Tim Crouch has determined to be the 74 “scripted deaths” in the Bard’s tragedies.
Of these, 64 are violent, more than half by stabbing, as catalogued in a poster and infographic entitled “Everybody Dies,” put together by Cam Magee, a DC-based Shakespearean actress and teaching artist, in collaboration with Caitlin S. Griffin, a former Folger Shakespeare Library staffer.
Here’s how they break it down:
2 broken hearts
2 baked into a pie
1 smothered by a pillow
1 lack of sleep
1 drops dead (this isn’t violent, per se)
1 snake bite
1 torn apart by mob
1 eating hot coals
1 thrown into a fire
1 buried to neck and starved
1 cut into pieces
1 throws himself away
1 eaten by a bear
That last death occurs in The Winter’s Tale, which is the only violent death in that play. By contrast, there are 14 in Titus Andronicus, two of whom are baked into a pie.
Click to hear James Konicek read “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”
voted Shakespeare’s greatest speech by DCTS readers in 2010.
Other companies are marking the 400th anniversary without lingering on death. To give just two examples, both in Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Academy of Music has been presenting the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of four of Shakespeare’s history plays (Richard II; Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; Henry V) – a 13-hour marathon for those who see them all – under the title King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings. While they make no explicit connection with the death anniversary, there are plenty of quotes within these plays that are apt. A sampling:
- Woe, destruction, ruin, and decay;
The worst is death, and death will have his day. (Richard II, Act III, scene 2)
- Come, let us take a muster speedily:
Doomsday is near; die all, die merrily. (Henry IV, Part I, Act IV, scene 1)
- A man can die but once; we owe God a death. (Henry IV, Part II, Act III, scene 2)
Nearby, The Irondale Ensemble Project will be presenting 1599, which Irondale’s artistic director Jim Niesen calls “the most ambitious production of Shakespeare on the east coast this season.” 1599 puts together all four plays that Shakespeare wrote that year — Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and the first draft of Hamlet – into one “very lean” four-hour production, with a cast of seven playing more than 70 roles. “If you look at the four plays, you see a journey of one protagonist, representing four ages of man – Henry is a young idealist, for example,” Niesen says.
While there is no explicit theme of death in Irondale’s production, its artistic director points out that plague was ravaging London at the time in which the plays were written, and Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet died in 1596 at the age of eleven. “Death was a familiar spectacle,” Niesen says, quoting The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet, a 2004 essay by Stephen Greenblatt in the New York Review of Books.
“Certainly it crept into his writing and world view. Is there a more profound meditation on the subject than the soliloquy “To be or not to be” or the last few lines of the 7 Ages of Man speech? Henry V begins shortly after the death of a successful king and its ramifications, the central plot device of Julius Caesar is an assassination that triggers a civil war, Rosalind in As You like It is banished from the court “on pain of death” and Hamlet’s attempt to avenge the murder of his father ends with the entire royal family dead and the kingdom about to be taken over by a foreign power.”
Luckily for Hamilton Clancy and the Drilling Company, Shakespeare is believed to have died on April 23, which is the same date on which he is thought to have been born 52 years earlier. (“It’s speculation; no one is sure.”) So the festivities at Bryant Park are just as much a birthday party – the third annual one that the Drilling Company has held in the park in midtown Manhattan, blocks from the theater district.
It’s not a development Clancy could have predicted when he started his downtown company inspired by jazz and focused on new plays. But the Drilling Company was soon asked to co-produce a long-time summer festival held in the Lower East Side slyly entitled Shakespeare in the Parking Lot – because the Bard’s plays were indeed performed on one half of a city-owned parking lot on Ludlow and Broome streets, for free. Starting in 2013, the little company started getting a disproportionate share of publicity because, first, the city ludicrously started charging it for the parking spaces it took up during the performances, and then it evicted the company entirely to make room for an urban renewal project called Essex Crossing.
The Drilling Company eventually found a new parking lot a few blocks away, at 114 Norfolk St., and will be presenting Midsummer Night’s Dream and then the Merchant of Venice there this summer. But in the midst of all the publicity, Bryant Park invited them to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 2014. It was evidently a happy match, since the company now also annually presents a season of free Shakespeare in Bryant Park – this summer, Much Ado About Nothing (May 19 to June 4), As You Like It with music by Natalie Smith (July 21 to 23) and Measure for Measure (September 1 to 18.)
Nobody is sure how Shakespeare died – some speculate it was caused by typhus, others by a cerebral hemorrhage. Still others give an actuarial explanation: “The average life span at the time in England was just 35 years old,” Jim Niesen says.
Four hundred years later, I ask Hamilton Clancy, does Shakespeare offer helpful insights into dying?
“I don’t know if I’ve learned something about death, but in the end, he’s taught us something about living while we’re doing it.”