Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Death hath a thousand doors to let out life"

In Aubrey Burl's Brief History of Stonehenge, one of his chapter-epigraphs quoted this line by the Jacobean dramatist Philip Massinger.

     Death hath a thousand doors to let out life.

I can't remember now what the chapter in question was about, but probably it was about the skeleton of a man with a stone arrowhead in his ribs, found near the earth ring and carbon-dated to soon after the erection of the great sarsen circle.

Of this or another male skeleton - perhaps the Archer at Durrington - Burl tells us that his ankle bones were worn down, indicating a life that involved prolonged squatting.

Apparently this tell-tale clue from the ankle bones is well-known among human archaeologists. A Google search turned up Merry E. Weisner-Hanks' Concise History of the World (2015), where we read  (p.33):

This has led scholars to assume that in Paleolithic society men were also responsible for hunting, and women for gathering. Human remains provide some evidence for this, as skeletons and teeth indicate the type of tasks the person did while they were alive. At Chinchorro on the north coast of Chile, for example, male skeletons from the period 7000-2000 BCE often show bone growths in the ears, the result of diving in the cold coastal waters for seals and shellfish (today this condition is called "surfer's ear") , while female skeletons show changes in the ankle bones resulting from prolonged squatting, perhaps to process the marine products or gather and process terrestrial foods. Such a division of labour is not universal, however....

Simon Mays' book The Archaeology of Human Bones (1998) explains:

In the squatting position there is extreme dorsiflexion of the feet. [This] puts continous pressure on the ankle ligaments which tends to elongate them, permitting greater dorsiflexion of the joint between the tibia and the talus.... Habitual extreme dorsiflexion of the ankle joints... [leads] to the formation of anterior extensions to the joint surfaces... [known as] squatting extensions.

He notes that among a group of skeletons of medieval peasants from Wharram Percy, 71% of the women and 44% of the men had squatting extensions. (Burl, reporting that the bones were "worn down", may have misunderstood.)

The earliest, and for many thousands of years the only, piece of  human furniture, was the chest.

The first vital essential was to have somewhere to put important stuff. The chest was the beginning of property and the first private space. (Living spaces were not private.) To be able to "keep" something was much more important than such fripperies as a bed or a chair.  So there was a lot of squatting in ancient times.

When we go backpacking, we revert to those days. Our backpack is our chest. It's the only piece of furniture we really need.


Alm. Do, tyrant,
No more a father, feast thy cruelty
Upon thy daughter ; but hell's plagues fall on me
If I inflict not on myself whatever
He can endure for me !

Vice. Will none restrain her ?

Alm. Death hath a thousand doors to let out life,
I shall find one.  If Portia's burning coals,
The knife of Lucrece, Cleopatra's aspics,
Famine, deep waters, have the power to free me
From a loath'd life, I'll not an hour outlive him.

Pedro. Sister !

Leon. Dear cousin !

[Exit Almira, followed by Pedro and Leon.]

Vice. Let her perish.

(from A Very Woman (1634), Act V Scene 4).

The Plays of Philip Massinger:


A Very Woman isn't often mentioned these days, though Francis Cunningham considered it one of Massinger's best. It was registered in 1634, but is considered a revision of a play written around 1619-22, either by Massinger and Fletcher, or perhaps by Fletcher alone.

So Massinger may not have written his most famous line. Anyway, the thought had appeared in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (1612-13) and seems to have become theatrical common currency.

But this is the most beautiful and resonant expression of that thought. (It's one of those quotations that gains power and interest by being detached from its original context.)

The faint suggestion of Life being a restless visitor importunate to leave, and of a house-proud Death being no less eager to sweep his guest towards the nearest of many exits .... there's a certain sombre thrill in that thought, as we turn briefly  aside from the contrary observation -- that's to say, with what amazing tenacity Life fights and endures and clings to its existence -- to consider that, after all, Life is fragile and a miracle, and how lucky we are to have it now, and Life does always depart in the end, and not in such a very long time either, from the perspective of the centuries...

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At 1:23 am, Blogger Robin said...

Something itched my brain about the Massinger quote, Michael, and eventually I cheated (easier than scratching inside my head) and googled.

Of course -- Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, IV,ii: "I know death hath ten thousand several doors / For men to take their exits."

Wikiquote doesn't note the Massinger line, but provides this: "Death hath so many doors to let out life", John Fletcher, The Custom of the Country, act ii, scene 2.


At 12:08 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Ah, Webster ! ... so that explains my vague sense of prior acquaintance with the line.

The Custom of the Country seems to be another Fletcher/Massinger collaboration from about the same time (1619-23 according to Wikipedia).

Evidently the thought was common currency ...

I've never delved much into these later Jacobean dramas, at least not since uni... I think I've had the thought in my head that after the last detonations of The Two Noble Kinsmen a reader may as well skip straight to Etherege. But now my curiosity stirs. What was this unsatisfactory genre of tragicomedy all about? I muse...

At 12:40 am, Blogger Robin said...

Actually, given the dates, I suspect the appearance of the idea in Fletcher and Massinger is a straight lift from Webster. The Duchess was pretty popular at the time, both on stage and in print.

"Tragicomedy" always struck me as a slippery term, and I've never had much sympathy with the way Beaumont and Fletcher churned them out, but compared to Etheridge ... words fail me. Is there anything interesting happening in English Drama between Wycherley at one end and Bernard Shaw at the other?

At 10:13 am, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Ha ha, well that's a fair question! And in many ways I go along with you on the recess in British drama up to the twentieth century.

Yet I have a great fondness for Restoration drama -- I don't know if I can justify it. It began with Vanbrugh and Farquhar, went on to Congreve (ah! Congreve! ... now he really is worth a long look) , then Etherege and Wycherley, Behn, Centilevre, Dryden, Otway and anyone else I've forgotten. A bit indiscriminate maybe. I love the poetry of that time too ... whereas the greater poets of the earlier 17th century have always been a bit problematic for me. I'm trying to read Donne now, - I'm always trying Donne again ... looking for an angle as journalists say... I expect I was traumatized by lousy teaching at school or uni...


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