Quaker Universalist Conversations

Existence After Death

A Review of J. Garrison’s Shakespeare and the Afterlife

Shakespeare and the Afterlife, by John S. Garrison (Oxford Shakespeare Topics: Oxford University Press, 2018)

John S. Garrison’s Shakespeare and the Afterlife is, on the surface, a study of the views and devices used by William Shakespeare in his plays and poetry in treating the nature and activities of existence after death.

"Shakespeare and the Afterlife," J. Garrison More deeply, though, this book is a meditation on the variety of contemporary views about existence after death, identifying questions which Shakespeare has acknowledged and addressed, if not answered. Garrison’s analysis of dialogue and characters displays the diversity of views understood by his audience.

This book is one in the Oxford Shakespeare Topics series, which is intended to provide students with short books on important Shakespeare elements of Shakespeare scholarship. The series is not intended for theological and spiritual reflection. However, this book reminds us that broad reading tastes can serve a spiritual function.

The questions posed and addressed by Shakespeare and collected here by Garrison include:

  1. Sleep: Does death start a sleep existence until a future Judgement Day?
  2. Bodies: Are sick bodies healed after death?
  3. Punishment: Do bad people experience torments after death?
  4. Reward: Do virtuous people experience benefits after death?
  5. Remains: What remains in this world of the dead person?
  6. Reunion: Does the dead person reunite with loved ones after death?
  7. Connection: Can dead persons communicate with living persons?
  8. Influence: Can the living person affect the conditions of the dead person after death?
  9. Celebration: How should the dead person be commemorated?
  10. Return: Can the deed person return to life in some way?
  11. Permanence: Is immortality possible for living persons?

The answers offered by Shakespeare obscure his personal views, which remain opaque to scholars. Nonetheless, Shakespeare clearly demonstrates his reflection on the diversity of convictions about existence after death in his culture in Britain.

The common thread in this diversity of views is the residual, individual consciousness in perpetuity. There is no agreement on conditions after death, but the dead person will, in some way, still be that person.

The alternative of the anticipatory comfort of oblivion or disintegration and return to the reservoir of element of the universe is not offered by Shakespeare. Today, under the influence of scientific evidence, that alternative is circulating.

Shakespeare and the Afterlife provides an interesting preface and end notes, linking the author’s personal and current cultural experience with the Shakespeare experience. There is an essay on further reading, an index, and seven illustrations. Of particular note is a thoughtful back jacket summary and invitation to the text.

The core of the book is organized in five chapters focused on specific aspects of existence after death:

  1. Anticipation of death
  2. Close proximity of death in life
  3. Communication across the threshold of death
  4. Returning from death to life
  5. Building immortality through memorials with the living

Quakers: There is no reference to Quakers in the book. Shakespeare, in the 16th century, was in the generation preceding the advent of the Quaker movement in the 17th century. Despite initial Quaker antipathy to theater and the arts, the Quakers grappled with the issues of death identified and promoted in the Shakespeare plays and poetry as these themes dominated thinking in subsequent generations in Britain. Opposition does not prevent engagement.

Quakers have not contributed much that is novel to the discussion of death and existence thereafter. The basic Quaker position seems to be a vague affirmation of the mystery and opaqueness of existence after death, together with avoidance of the more theatrical ideas about death that Shakespeare posed and examined (see 1-11 above).

Questions:

  • What do Quakers contribute to human understanding of existence after death?
  • Does Shakespeare’s cultural authority today influence Quaker views of existence after death?

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