By the time one reaches his 70s, the way one would like to die sometimes comes to mind. I’m 67. I have friends and relatives who have spoken about how they have had enough and that they are getting themselves and their affairs ready to face death.
Oddly, I don’t feel that way at all. I am still working at a regular job, still making plans to move up in terms of responsibility. The guys I work with are on an average at least two to three decades younger. Some have parents younger than me. It must be attitude, I am not sure, but they readily include me in sharing their ‘locker-room’ jokes and make me feel way younger than I am.
I have worked out how I’ll go when the time comes, assuming that I have the time, the lucidity and the choice, when I come to the point where I look around and ask myself, “Is this all there is to it?” I have gotten myself a Glock. Quick and painless. I keep it cleaned and oiled at all times. Tucked away in a recess in the wall behind the dryer, it is loaded and the safety is off. It’s a semi-automatic, so it’ll fire one round that’ll end it all. Simple.
One way I won’t want to go is by running myself through, a slow and most painful way to die. The blade would slice effortlessly into my small intestines and if I twisted it this way and that, it would tear apart my spleen, liver and kidneys, causing massive internal hemorrhaging. It’d still take me a long long time to die. Only schmucks want to go that way.
It was different in Ancient Rome, however. If you were a military commander looking defeat in the eye, you’d probably be doing it to yourself. In Brutus’ case, this was 43BC Rome and he believed it was the only honorable thing left to do.
Running through, impaling oneself by a sword or spear, conveyed a sense of chivalry and was regarded as the signature swan song of a true hero in a world that hated pussies. Not killing oneself, trying to make a run for it, would make the vanquished seem cowardly. He would be derided and shunned and never be able to hold public office and that was just about the worst thing that could happen to anybody. Either you won or died in battle. There was no third ground.
Thank God, we’re in the 21st century where there is no place for chivalry? Donald Trump, the puke-worthy American ex-President, looked incredulous when asked by one of his cronies why he feigned bone spurs, why he didn’t go fight in the Vietnam War. He spat out in disdain, “You think I’m crazy?”
I don’t fault Donald Trump for being a self-preservationist. That America deliberately provoked the Vietnam War is now a matter of record. Remember the faked ‘Gulf of Tonkin incident’ and the subsequent leak of the “Pentagon Papers”? Google or Wiki them if you haven’t heard of them.
Fighting and dying for an unjust, losing cause is stupidity, not chivalry. For Americans who didn’t have the wealth and influence to dodge the draft, it was a question of being born in the wrong country at the wrong time. A vast majority of American servicemen who died in Vietnam were poor uneducated folk who were duped into thinking that killing citizens of a sovereign nation 8000 miles away, who had done them personally no harm, was the right thing to do. That nation, Vietnam, is now a prosperous country that has put the past behind and moved on. I salute Vietnam.
I won’t let this blog get bogged down in American perfidy, so lets move on….
Imagine you were Brutus in 43BC. You lost the battle and now your ass was grass. Either you ran or you faced Roman justice for capital murder – execution. Executions in ancient Rome were exotic. They could chop you up alive, a little at a time. They could make you sit on the tip of a spear and let gravity do the rest while they eagerly waited to see it appear out of your mouth. They could make you swallow molten lead. They could crucify you. Or they could simply tie your extremities to two horses and whip ‘em till you were literally torn apart at the weakest spot – your waist. Running through was a dream compared to the above.
Of the victors, Octavian was a pompous over ambitious asshole and Mark Anthony was a vain but courageous emperor wannabe and they didn’t give a damn about your victim, Julius Caesar. But they had plans, ambitions plans, to rule Rome and with Rome, the entire world. (That is, before their individual ambitions tore them apart).
Brutus’s mom, Servilia – half sister of Cato the Younger and a full blooded member of Roman nobility, also happened to be one of Julius Caesar’s many mistresses for a while. Despite the fact that Caesar was only 15 when Brutus was born, some historians believe that Caesar was his biological father.
Punishments had to be excruciating. Unlike today, there were no local chapters of Amnesty International petitioning for the use of more humane execution methods…..
Crucified? Awesome! Took you a week to die, give or take. Crucifixions were slow – Five to seven days of unbelievable agony. Do you think Jesus or Spartacus would be the heroes that they are today, if they had simply been poisoned? Naaah.
Burnt at a stake? Hot, but cooool! What’s the only thing we remember about St. Joan d’Arc? That she broiled on a stake.
Drawn and quartered? Wowy! In medieval England only men went through this excruciatingly slow, barbaric execution. Women got away with being burnt at a stake or buried up to the neck in the ground and stoned to death.
Here’s how a drawing and quartering worked. You got dragged behind a horse round town, ending at the town square, your skin lacerated by the pebbles. That was the ‘drawing’ part. Then, while the townsfolk – men, women and children thronged the square, you were disemboweled alive and your entrails burnt. At this point you were still alive and the executioner was just getting started.
After that you didn’t really care what they did to you. Now for the ‘quartering’ part – they tied your legs and hands to four horses and spurred them to different directions at right angles to each other, literally tearing you apart into four quarters. The only reason why we all remember Guy Fawkes is because he was drawn and quartered.
After the dust settled, you were beheaded and your head burnt so the remains would be unrecognizable.
Impaled on a spear? Grooovy!! Left to gradually slide down the sharpened wooden stake that entered through your rectum and gradually shoved aside tissue and bone and blood vessels and finally poked out through your adam’s apple? The Romanian ruler, Vlad III (Dracula) loved to sentence traitors to this form of punishment and even had medics at hand to keep the man alive as long as possible, so the pain could be maximized.
Which brings us back to Shakespeare and Brutus’s suicide, sure enough for his slow and painful demise, Brutus was lionized even by his vanquishers. After Strato broke the news of Brutus’ suicide, Mark Anthony was all teared up and had this to say –
“…His life was gentle, and the elements So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up And say to all the world,”This was a man.”
Octavian – later to be Rome’s first emperor, Augustus/Octavius – didn’t want to be outdone by Mark Anthony’s eloquence, so he held forth….
“…With all respects and rights of burial. Within my tent his bones tonight shall lie. Most like a soldier, order’d honorably…”
If instead, Brutus had swigged down some hemlock and croaked, the very same Octavian might have said derisively, “Chuck the SOB into the Tiber and lets get the hell outa here. I don’t want to be late for tonight’s orgy. Those broads I got from my Macedonian campaign can really give head.”
What’s with this hullabaloo about the most honorable way to die? If you’re dead, you’re dead, that’s it. Why you would give a fuck about how the rest of the world felt about you based upon the way you died, that beats the heck outa me. Personally I’d put a 9mm round through my skull with my trusty Glock34. Instantaneous nirvana, I won’t even feel it. One minute I am there and the next, I’m gone.
Getting back to Shakespeare’s penchant for gore, his work is replete with mayhem and that’s because Elizabethan audiences reveled in gore. While a good comedy once in a while didn’t do any harm, the common folk of 16th century England overwhelmingly went for treachery, debauchery, deceit and gore. Violence was the primary reason why Billy became so famous.
Elizabethan audiences loved the shocking drama. The blood and gore had to be realistic and so the theatre management at “The Globe” had a small barn at the back where they kept sheep, lotsa sheep. Every two consecutive renderings, one was slaughtered and its blood, heart, lungs, liver, etc were used as props for the mayhem in the plot. When the props began to stink, they just went ahead and killed another sheep.
Realism drove the theatre producers to even use actual human beings sometimes, I’m not kidding. In Thomas Kyd’s ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ (a sorta Andrew Lloyd Webber of gore), which had several violent revenge killings on opening night, they needed an actual human being to be strung up from a tree branch and hanged, so they simply got a condemned prisoner from the Tower to do the act.
The play became a overnight rage. Soon they were running outa fresh bodies, so the Queen’s dragoons began picking up random folks right off the streets who looked even remotely suspicious of any wrongdoing. Trials were fast-tracked and the death sentences confirmed, so they could act in Thomas Kyd’s play that very evening, even though it was going to be a one night stand. Since at least some of the sods really were criminals, the law and order situation in and around London improved drastically.
Some of Shakespeare’s most violent plays were by far the most popular. Titus Andronicus – Billy’s first and most violent tragedy – was a huge success at The Globe. Touring troupes fell over each other, wanting to play Titus Andronicus. In the play, two of the characters were baked in a pie……. literally……
Titus had the Roman emperor-to-be, Saturninus and his wife, Tamora, over for dinner and after the ‘horses of the ovaries’ had been cleared away, Titus revealed that the meat pie the couple had just devoured was actually what remained of their two sons, Demetrius and Chiron. While they were in a state of shock, Titus butchered Tamora with a carving knife and in return, was killed by Saturninus right after.
Titus had to be stupid. If I was going to tell you I just baked your kids into a pie, I’d make sure I had back-up. Titus had justification for the pie though. The duo had raped and mutilated his only daughter, Lavinia and he had had to honor-kill her after he found out, ‘to spare her the shame’. Boohoo. And then, Titus’s son, Lucius, nabbed Tamora’s Moor lover boy, Aaron and had him buried in the desert sand upto his chin and left ta starve to death.
And you thought ‘Friday the 13th’ was horrifying.
Billy Shakes was particularly gruesome in Hamlet – when King Hamlet (Hamlet’s dad) was napping in his orchard, his treacherous bro Claudius, poured a ‘leperous distillment’ into his ear. The poison curdled his blood and caused his skin to develop horrible sores. The King died in his garden, hideously disfigured, a victim of his brother’s treachery.
I am imagining The Globe issuing a casting notice, a job ad, announcing…. ‘Actor wanted, to play King Hamlet. Must bring his own vial of henbane and dropper and don’t forget the down-payment on casket…’
And then there was that shmuck, Polonius, newly crowned King Claudius’s trusted aide. Acting on the orders of Claudius, Polonius hid behind the drapes in Queen Gertrude’s chambers, to eavesdrop on her conversation with Hamlet, whom Claudius suspected of plotting to overthrow him. Polonius however had this fatal habit of almost all of Willy Shakes’ characters – he constantly talked to himself.
Thus, while Hamlet spoke with his mom, Polonius had this running commentary going with himself, in a sort of a low mumble. Alas, the mumble wasn’t low enough – Hamlet overheard him and drove his sword through the tapestry, killing the shmuck.
If you wanted to play Polonius and at the same time had a desire to come out of the show alive, you had ta have fast reflexes because you had only a microsecond from the time the sword emerged through the drapes and entered your gut.
Ophelia, driven insane by Hamlet’s murder of her beloved father, Polonius, plunged from a tree branch into the current below. Actually she slipped and didn’t know how to swim. But Elizabethan England would have labelled her a nitwit, so Billy Shakes wrote it in as a suicide.
That’s nothing. In Macbeth, Lady McDuff was chased across the stage at the Globe and slaughtered when she jumped off and fell into the arms of the ladies in the front row, splattering them with gore. It was so real that….it was real. Even for a million quid nobody wanted to play Lady McDuff in those days.
Willy Shakes really knew how to keep audiences titillated, with ingenious new ways in which to die. He was the 16th Century version of Quentin Tarantino.
If you were to believe everything Willy wrote, you would be a regular at the friendly neighborhood pharmacist in those days, shopping for a pitcher of concentrated hemlock, oh yeah. And its antidote of course. You would be a shmuck not to order the antidote and keep a vial chained safely to your waist, just in case somebody in your household poisoned you.
Antidotes those days were even more valuable than gold and silver. Look at today’s cyber-security stocks, Christ’s sakes. I have been saving up for a year to buy Crowdstrike, Palo Alto and Zscaler.
According to Willy, Mark Anthony and Cassius too ran themselves through. For different reasons of course. Cassius, for being Brutus’ co-conspirator and Mark Anthony, for wanting to overthrow Octavian.
Cassius handed his loyal Parthian slave, Pindarus, the very sword with which he had stabbed Caesar. He then commanded, John Gielgud-style, “Now with this good sword, that ran through Caesar’s bowels, search this bosom…. And when my face is covered, as ‘tis now, guide thou the sword.” Pindarus later made his escape to some place Willy Shakes doesn’t mention in his play. Slaves didn’t count for much of a mention in 16th Century England. In forcing a slave to murder him, Cassius selfishly put Pindarus’ life in danger. If captured I shudder to think what would have been done to him. But then most Roman noblemen, like Cassius, were self-absorbed pricks.
Mark Anthony ran himself through alone, believing at the point that Cleopatra had already taken her life. His corpse was brought into Empress’s inner sanctum and laid to rest in her arms, under the orders of Octavian. At this point, the despondent Cleopatra shoved her hand inside a basket of dates that had an asp placed inside on her orders. Mark Anthony had been popular with Cleopatra’s generals and might easily have been able to escape to Ethiopia, but he chose to run himself through.
Shakespearean plots were always very complex, with rivalries and deceit, temporary alliances and treachery, cowardice and chivalry – all woven inside a huge cauldron of blood and gore. One moment you see two characters thick as thieves and after a coupla acts they are at each other’s throats.
Other than his Titus Andronicus, which was fiction, all of Shakespeare’s tragedies were based on history. If Billy Shakes had been alive in the present day, he would surely have found in Afghanistan the perfect fodder for a tragedy. The buddy movie of the American and the Taliban raising toasts in sunny Doha and then the treachery of the Americans, leaving their faithful Afghan fixers at the mercy of the Taliban.
Oh yeah, there’s a Shakespearean zigadoo in everything today. Take a look at who was fighting whom in Syria just a while back….
Bashar Assad was trying to put down an armed insurrection, with the help of his Shiite friends, Iran and and the Lebanese Hezbollah and his long-term ally and benefactor – Russia. The Americans were arming the rebels and drawing “red lines” against Assad, while they were also paying Assad to let them rent off-site real estate for torture and rendition in the so-called ‘war on terror’. The Israelis were, time to time, bombing Assad’s ammo dumps and all the while, making nice with Putin. And all this time Bashar was keeping alive a hope he would one day be back in America’s good books and be able to get his hands on all the frozen assets. All this, when at home Assad was playing a devoted husband with a British born prim and propah Syrian wife who liked to show off her Oxford accent and her pearls.
And all of them, the Syrians, the Americans, the Russians, the Israelis, the Iranians, the ships, the shoes, the sealing wax, the cabbages and the kings – they were all fighting the ISIS.
Truly Shakespearean, ain’t it??
There’s nary a chance Assad will ever fall on his sword. Or Putin. Or Orban, or Bolsonaro, or Lukashenko. Or Trump. Or this latest Kazakhstan wassissname dictator.
They all gotta be pushed.