Lynchwood Park, 170th & SE Haig, 467-6573 (parks change weekly), Sat-Sun 3 pm, through Sept 6, free
The Portland Actor's Ensemble's annual outdoor Shakespeare production, Love's Labor Lost, is currently making the rounds at Portland's parks. Lost is a whimsical comedy about a group of noblemen who form a cult devoted to excluding women, so they can pursue life's higher pleasures free from the burden of sexual distraction. Unfortunately, nobody dies in it, so I'm not going to write about it. I've been in a morbid mood recently, you see, and I want to write about death this week. Shakespeare, of all people, is famous for his affinity for death. Sure his comedies are fun, but is Twelfth Night really more resonant than Othello? Do you even remember what All's Well That Ends Well is about? No, but you sure remember that Hamlet is full of glorious, bloody death, don't you?
In Shakespeare, death by stabbing is by far the most common way to go, with dozens of characters throughout the tragedies and histories slitting themselves or each other out of despair, betrayal, or in the thick of wartime. Oddly, Shakespeare rarely emphasizes where on the body the respective stabbings occur, but it is almost invariably a place where the resulting blood flow is heavy enough to kill the person quickly, but not so quickly they don't have time to rattle off a quick soliloquy. Doug, an employee at the Roseburg medical examiner's office, informed me that these unfortunate characters have most likely been stabbed in a major blood vessel or in the lung. The blood loss from the puncturing of a large artery or vein will send the victim into shock. If stabbed in the lung, one's imminent death will be delayed by the shrinking of the lung, as it loses air and collapses. "It will shrink to the point where it actually presses the trachea and closes it off," says Doug.
So at the end of Henry IV, Part I, as Hotspur falls 'neath Prince Hal's blade and cries, "O, Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth!" he's probably either wheezing that mighty phrase past a collapsed lung, or so deep in shock he's shivering and stuttering.
When Shakespeare wants to get crazy he breaks out the poison. In Hamlet, the poisoning occurs via a treacherous attack on Hamlet's father in which the poison known as henbane is poured into his ear. Recounting the story from beyond the grave, Hamlet's father's ghost describes the poison's effects as "curdling" the "thin and wholesome blood," resulting in an "instant tetter barkÉ lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,/ All my smooth body." This description, though certainly unpleasant, is far from accurate. Henbane, according to Poison Information Specialist Brian Arnzen "can cause confusion and hallucination, then coma and death," but no "loathsome crust" inside or outside the body. Also, the inner ear offers no direct access to blood vessels capable of carrying poison throughout the body. "You can absorb things through the skin," says Arnzen, but absorbing enough henbane through the skin to die "most instantly" would be quite a feat indeed. Clearly Hamlet's father is a dirty liar, or Hamlet is crazy and just imagined the whole thing; which is of course a popular theory amongst scholars.
In Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra applies an asp to her arm, a poisonous snake that bites and kills her. According to Arnzen, who has an impressive knowledge of Shakespeare, the asps used by Cleopatra back in Ancient Rome "might have been an Egyptian cobra or a horned viper." The bite of both snakes results in paralysis, which ultimately kills by inhibiting breathing. "Respiratory failure is a big part of it," says Arnzen. "It's muscle paralysis. You'd have pain at the bite, and then you'd get numb and dizzy and your blood pressure would drop and you would faint."
Fortunately for asp victims, death by asp is relatively painless, though of all Shakespearian death methods, beheading is considered the most humane. Perhaps this is why the sadistic Bard used it so sparingly, most notably in the fabulously gory Titus Andronicus. We know little about what it would be like to be beheaded. The brain severs from the rest of the body and oxygen is instantly cut off, presumably resulting in quick, easy death. But what about the small amount of oxygen that lingers in the brain's final fleeting seconds of life? Surely the brain is still a little cognizant of the world around it as it fades away. What does the brain feel when there is no longer a body attached to it? What is a brain without its body? There's only one way to find out…