Devin Byker


Shakespeare, Marlowe and Dying Words


What can literature tell us about the way people have imagined death in the past? That is what Devin Byker, a graduate student in English and fellow of the B.U. Center for the Humanities, is hoping to answer with his dissertation, Glimmering Worlds: The Drama of Dying in Shakespeare’s England. “I’m writing about how the characters in Shakespeare and Marlowe’s plays experience the world as they die,” he says, “and about the intersections between this drama and late medieval and early modern approaches to dying.” His research has led him to explore a variety of historical materials. “In addition to looking at drama, I’m also looking at various resources like the ars moriendi, martyrology depicting the deaths of martyrs, and archival accounts of the deaths of others that have been set down in letters and legal documents.”  Devin first became interested in this topic when he took a directed study with Professor Amy Appleford, who has recently published a book on the ars moriendi tradition in late medieval England. “The more I thought about last dying words and dying moments, the more I noticed how they were very concerned with revelation, confession, and unveilings, which made me think more about worldly awareness as well.” His dissertation makes a compelling argument about the early modern period—one that invites us to rethink our own contemporary assumptions about death. “When we think of dying, we often think that means relinquishing the world and no longer thinking about the world. But one of the things I’ve been noticing in the plays and in the historical texts is that these approaches to dying are actually very concerned with the world—thinking carefully about the world you are about to abandon as well as the world to which you’re going, and also maintaining sensory involvement in the world in order to achieve a good death.” Professor James Siemon has praised Devin’s work as an important contribution to the field. “Devin has tackled a fascinating topic with wide cultural ramifications, and with his characteristic blend of energy, enthusiasm and intellectual precision, he has vigorously engaged previous scholarship in a debate about the positive value of death and extremity on the late-medieval and renaissance stage. His readiness to enlist archival and other non-aesthetic period evidence lends great weight to his arguments about values and attitudes in literature and drama. This is an important intervention.” Looking ahead, Devin hopes to pursue a new project on the representation of faces in Shakespeare’s plays. “My work on dying moments has led me to think a lot about interiority, and the accessibility of interiority as it’s communicated through exterior surfaces—when those things align and when they diverge.”