Double dying and other tragic inversions (Romeo and
When she is troped as a ‘breeder of sinners’, the sexuality of a female character may represent a uniquely disturbing image for the protagonist of Shakespearean tragedy: a grotesque bodily emblem of death-in-life. Yet Renaissance writers loved to demonstrate, above all through their delight in wordplay, that every paradox can be inflected in diverse ways, and a familiar tropical association between death and sexuality is both amplified and complicated in the tragedies, through their elaboration of a figurative nexus which stresses the uncanny liminality of erotic desire: its mysterious Janus-aspect as a portal of both life and death. By using diverse rhetorical figures, and puns in particular, to suggest the affinity of a penetrable body both with the here and now of bodily experience, and also with an invisible and undefined beyond, the tragedies effect a peculiar doubling of their imagery of death; this doubling is echoed, moreover, by a curious detail of their plots, the figuratively dual or multiple dyings of female tragic protagonists, which anticipate romance versions of a similar device, in Pericles and The Winter’s Tale. In this tropical and performative duplication of tragic ‘ends’, a chiastic reversal or inversion of death’s meaning is persistently implied, whereby death is momentarily reconfigured as the mirror image, the differed double, of its presumed opposite: of comedy, pleasure, vitality and festivity. In the deaths of Ophelia, Desdemona and Juliet in particular, different versions
of death as festival connect their ‘feminine endings’ with specific moments in the seasonal calendar of holidays. As it is figuratively crossed by the cyclical, repetitive time of the festive calendar, the temporal singularity of tragic dying is subtly called into question.