Shakespeare and Cervantes: Dying well after living well

The dying hour
The dying hour of the rich man from the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Crispijn van de Passe. Between 1590 and 1610. Folger Shakespeare Library

In The Art of Dying Well, the Italian Jesuit Robert Bellarmine, a contemporary of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, declares, “True, therefore, is the sentence, ‘He who lives well, dies well;’ and, ‘He who lives ill, dies ill.’”

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the deaths of Cervantes and Shakespeare—what might these two authors have considered a good death?

In the prologue to his final novel, Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, Cervantes likens the impending end of his life to reaching the end of the road after traveling with friends old and new, whom he wishes he could go on conversing with. In this way, the Persiles makes death out to be continuous with the preceding journey, much as Bellarmine does. The lives and deaths of the multitude of characters in the Persiles also bear out the view that those who live well come to a good end, and those who don’t, don’t.

We might hear echoes of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” contemplation when Bellarmine explains one reason why death can be considered good:

There is also another reason which proves that death, although an evil in itself, can, by the grace of God, produce many blessings. For, first, there is this great blessing, that death puts an end to the numerous miseries of this life.

…We may conclude, that death, as produced by sin, is an evil; but that, by the grace of Christ who condescended to suffer death for us, it hath become in many ways salutary, lovely, and to be desired.

In other words, to “end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” is indeed “a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

Another Christian vision of a good death belongs to the guidebooks of the Ars Moriendi, first published in the 15th century. Catholic Spain and Protestant England continued the tradition of guidebooks for consoling the dying with the company of family, friends, and other members of the Christian community into the 17th century. These books often picture death as a final encounter between the dying person and demons who will present him or her with temptations. Lay people present at the deathbed could help the dying person to hold on to faith and not despair.

The death of Don Quijote, who has been restored to sanity as Alonso Quijano, is in keeping with this vision of a good Christian death. As he is dying, family and friends visit him frequently, while Sancho Panza keeps vigil by his side.

Shakespeare's will
Shakespeare’s last will and testament. The National Archives, London, England.

Shakespeare’s final will and testament is dated March 25, 1616, less than a month before his death, which implies that he could sense his end drawing near. We might see in his will a comparison to the character Alonso Quijano, who, three days before he dies, dictates a detailed will to a notary in the presence of his friends. Reminiscent of Shakespeare’s efforts to withhold any inheritance from his daughter Judith’s morally disappointing husband, Alonso Quijano sets provisions in his will to limit his niece’s inheritance should she marry a man who reads chivalric romances.

In Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt sees in Shakespeare’s return to Stratford “the enjoyment of living near his daughter [Susannah] and her husband and child.” A good death then, for both Cervantes and Shakespeare, is not anticipated as a jarring, isolated event, but the continuation of a journey undertaken in the company of beloved companions who will hopefully remain present at the end.

This is the fourth blog post by Kathryn Swanton in a 2016 series for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare and Cervantes.

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