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Chapter 4 - Learn How to Die

from Part I - The Arts of Remembering Death

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 October 2022

William E. Engel
Affiliation:
University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee
Rory Loughnane
Affiliation:
University of Kent, Canterbury
Grant Williams
Affiliation:
Carleton University, Ottawa
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Summary

Recent popular accounts of how to face death have strikingly hinged on passages from early modern literature, whether invoking Montaigne’s essays or Shakespeare’s elegiac verse. As there is currently a struggle to face a climate crisis and declining faith in institutions, can a previous era’s confrontation with death provide resources for present-day quandaries? This chapter argues that it can, through a renewed attention to the formal homologies between ‘craft of dying’ handbooks and dramaturgical practice. These manuals, often framed in the theatricalized form of a series of dialogues, were performative in their very structure. They provide behaviour that is scripted, and then practised, and then enacted, with actors and audiences. Like the anatomy theatre and the rhetorical quaestiones tradition, the craft of dying ought to be considered one of the fundamental cultural practices that led to early modern drama's staging of death. At today's crucial juncture, returning to this theatrical craft of dying might help, in Tennyson’s words, to ‘teach [us] how to hope, / Or tell [us] how to die'.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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