How Shakespeare offers a unique chance at death education_1


In his 35-year acting career, Simon Fortin has died on stage hundreds of times.

What feelings, stories, memories from his own life can an actor draw on to die convincingly? People learn to write and read, they learn to ride bicycles and play the piano, yet there is so to speak, no school to learn how to die. Or is there?

Fortin believes the theatre offers us a unique chance at death education.

With his stage performance Or Not to Be, How Shakespeare Could Change Your Death, New York-based actor, playwright, and scholar Fortin animates Shakespeare’s death speeches and distils from them an art of dying befitting our times.

This month, he brings his raucous classroom of Shakespearian characters to Sandton.

During Shakespeare’s time, the Renaissance saw the emergence of devotional, religious manuals on how to die – known as the Ars Moriendi or “Art of Dying” – all of them arid and dogmatic attempts at trying to set out a “good death”.

Shakespeare ignored their prescriptions and chose to dramatise the adventure of dying by creating individuals who disobey, who settle accounts, who blame and mock, who laugh and who die uniquely, as no one else could.

Fortin attempts to emulate Shakespeare’s approach: never preaching nor prescribing, he brings to life some of the extraordinary death scenes Shakespeare wrote for his characters and by doing so, allows audiences to witness the various shades of the dying experience – the pain, the pathos, the terror and the humour that attend the task of dying.

Shakespeare writes that dying is always an action, an event, a task to accomplish. Fortin anatomises this task by weaving stories from his own life with the dying voices of Lear, King John, Othello, Mercutio, Cleopatra, Richard II and others.

This evening of levity and profundity is an entertaining exploration of mortality.

In his compelling, often funny performance, Fortin blends scholarship, personal stories, films, songs, and death speeches, with the intuition that poetry may very well be the way to go – literally.

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