In a play ostensibly about love, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet certainly contains a lot of death. Upon discovering his daughter Juliet is dead, Capulet declares that “Life, living, all is Death’s.” While Capulet’s declaration reflects his grief at the death of his beloved daughter, there is a meaning in the statement which is timeless and, in that sense, has meaning for our own time. This meaning is both a lesson and a reminder: while we are alive we should live, truly live, because one we will die – because we all die – and what we have created or accumulated will die with us, because all things pass away or die.
I call it a lesson and a reminder because in this era people seem to be too focused on the next thing – we seem to live always in the future. Where we are going tomorrow, what we are doing tomorrow, what we are wearing tomorrow – and next week, next month, next year; these concerns seem to occupy our minds. We set reminders and alerts on our devices so we don’t forget or miss the next thing – the next birthday, the next party, the next meeting. We never seem to live in the moment, to be truly alive while we are living. We forget that tomorrow may not come to us, and our obsession with what’s happening next instead of what’s happening now means we aren’t really living our lives so much as planning them. We even buy burial plots and make funeral arrangements while we are living – just more planning for our futures. But those futures don’t really belong to us. Shakespeare suggests that they truly belong to Death because Death could take away those futures at any time. Shakespeare is trying to teach us to live while we are alive; he is reminding us to take the opportunity to live while we are alive.
Another value of this statement for our time is that it also serves a reminder that nothing lasts forever. Even things which are not alive will eventually pass away – mountains may not die, but they do not last forever. Even the Earth will not last forever! It will also die; in fact, just like a person, it could die at any minute – experience another tremendous asteroid event like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. In essence, all things are subject to Death. In being subject to Death, all things belong to Death.
Because people are so biologically fragile (that is, we die so easily), people – especially people who do not believe in a god or gods or in an afterlife – are sometimes motivated to do things which would live beyond their deaths. This may include having children, in order to perpetuate a family name or lineage; this may also include participating in activities which attempt to make a difference. People may be inspired to create art which lasts for ages, like the statues of Michaelangelo or the paintings of Rembrandt. These people wish to create something which will live on long after they’ve died and been buried. In that way, some small part of them will survive Death – something which is not living and therefore cannot die and belong to Death. But in that sense, in our attempts to ‘outlive’ Death, we still yet belong to Death, because it is our great motivator.
Another thing that strikes me about this statement and its value in our own time is the lesson it teaches us about accepting death. Modern people seem to resist or to be more afraid of death than people in Shakespeare’s time. People seemed obsessed with trying to live longer and longer, or to at least trying not to age or look old. They get Botox and plastic surgery, following crazy diets, exercise all the time, and do other activities in an attempt to be as healthy as possible and therefore extend their lives. This denial of aging and death does not take into account the fact that we could die at any time regardless of how healthy we are. We could be hit by cars, die in a building fire, fall down some stairs and break our necks, or even develop a malignant cancer that medical science cannot combat. People in Shakespeare’s time didn’t seem to fear death as dramatically as we do. This is likely because people then died young when compared to how long we live in the modern era. Death was so much more common in that time; people were virtually surrounded by death. Their view of death seems very different from ours; they valued life in a deeper and different way than we do. They seem to appreciate life more than we do. Shakespeare’s words are a reminder that we still face death every day, and we are surrounded by death every day, even if we don’t physically see it the way people did in Shakespeare’s time.
There is also the idea that Death is part of life and living. Again, people in Shakespeare’s time were surrounded by death every day in a way that people in our time are not. There weren’t really nursing homes or hospitals like we have; the elderly and special needs people lived with their families, who took care of them. People who were sick were often cared for at home. The experiences of death and dying were immediate to the people who cared for the dying. They more immediately saw the transition from living to death. This means that death was very real to them in a way that it does not seem today. It also means that the suffering of the dying was more immediate to them as well, and they may have regarded Death as more merciful as compared to the prolonged suffering of their loved ones. In the modern era, we have drugs and other ways that reduce or ease the suffering of the dying; it’s harder for their loved ones to more easily accept their deaths because they don’t appear to be suffering. Shakespeare’s statement reminds us that the living will die and will ultimately go to Death, no matter how hard we hold on to them.
Shakespeare writes Capulet crying out “Life, living, all is Death’s.” In Shakespeare’s time, he was trying to convey the sadness and pain of Capulet’s loss. However, in our time, Shakespeare’s line reminds us all things die, and we should appreciate life and living while we are alive, to take advantage of being alive. Shakespeare’s line also reminds us that Death is inevitable; we should be ready for the Ferryman when the time comes to cross the River Styx.