top of page
Search
  • Writer's picturestrie4

FAMOUS LAST WORDS

 

“Et tu, Brute.”

These are possibly the most famous last words ever uttered. As Brutus approached the already stricken Julius Caesar to plunge his dagger into Caesar’s body to add to the 23 stab wounds that the conspirators had already inflicted, the Roman ruler recognised the figure of his old and trusted friend and, with a sigh and a reproachful “You too, Brutus”, he died. So popular has the phrase become that it has entered everyday speech, used when somebody realises that he has been betrayed by an old friend. It might even be used jocularly when we have been surprised and bested.

 

The trouble is that Julius Caesar never said it. There is no historical evidence, either from contemporaneous sources or Roman commentators, that he said anything except grunt as he fought for his life with the only weapon at his disposal, his stylus. The phrase was invented – as so many were - by Shakespeare in his play Julius Caesar and it became so popular as an expression of betrayal that everybody thinks these were in fact Caesar’s last words.

 

Shakespeare, ever the dramatist, was not averse to sending off his heroes with an appropriate word or two on their lips. The eponymous heroes of his tragedies utter famous lines before dying and that includes real historical figures as well as the creations of his fertile imagination, such as Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Hamlet and all the others. “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” cries King Richard III before being slain on the battlefield of Bosworth, the last significant clash between the Houses of York and Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses. But once again, there is no historical evidence to support Shakespeare’s invention of the death scene. It is highly unlikely in the desperate and bloody struggle in mediaeval warfare that anybody would have heard anybodyelse cry out, muffled as the words would have been by helmet and armour.

 

Bugger Bognor!” This is undoubtedly many people’s favourite. George V, never one to mince his words, gave this sharp response to a lackey’s cheerful hope that the family – and presumably he meant the dying king – would soon be repairing to Bognor, where they frequently went to take the sea air. After all, the seaside town had recently gained royal assent, henceforth to be known as Bognor Regis. However, once again, the popular last words were never uttered by the king, certainly not on his deathbed. He was said to ask, “How is the Empire?” before cursing a nurse who was about to give him a sedative, “God damn you!” Bad tempered to the last.

 

“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us must go.” We would expect no less of Oscar Wilde, the master of the witty aphorism, to provide a typically whimsical perspective on his impending demise. He was at the time staying in a hotel in Paris and according to his friends who were there, the hotel room’s wallpaper was as ghastly as Wilde had pointed out.

 

There is no earthly reason why a comedian should crack a joke as he quit this earth but for some the habit of a lifetime, finding humour in the human condition, was not easy to put down.

“Surprise me,” was Bob Hope’s response to his wife’s asking him where he would like to be buried.

“Die, my dear?” said Groucho Marx to his wife, “Why, that’s the last thing I’ll do,” and then promptly died.

“One last drink, please,” was the final request of Jack Daniel, the American distiller, and the founder of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey.

I’ve never felt better,” were the final words of Douglas Fairbanks before a heart attack carried him off. Well, he was an actor. As were Roman emperors, one or two of whom understood well enough the public role they were expected to play.

“Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.” Whether Augustus Caesar was poisoned by his wife Livia, by means of smearing his favourite figs with a deadly potion, has never been conclusively proved by historians, but it is true that she had manoeuvred her son, Tiberius, into pole position in the imperial succession. In any event, Augustus fully understood that his words would be inscribed for posterity and played up to the role, which he assiduously cultivated, of a plain and simple man who devoted his life to the service of the Empire. Traditionally, of course, Roman emperors attained godly status when they died. My favourite emperor, the down-to-earth General Vespasian, a man who did not stand on ceremony, was mildly sceptical of this practice of deification. Knowing that his hour was nigh, he staggered out of bed to his feet with the words, “An emperor ought to die standing,” and when he swooned into his son’s arms, he ironically made this observation:

“I think I’m turning into a god.”

 

Voltaire, the French Enlightenment philosopher and satirist, who had waged a lifelong war against the superstitions of the Catholic Church, was urged by an attendant priest at his deathbed to renounce the Devil, but had no intention offorswearing his criticism of Christianity, and responded wittily:

“Now is not the time for making new enemies.”

Presumably he died not in a state of grace.

 

“Depend upon in it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.” These were not the last words of Dr Samuel Johnson – he had plenty more to utter before his death – but they do shed a merciless light upon the innermost thoughts of those who know the moment and the manner of their execution. Do they go meekly to their death, do they rage against the injustice of it all, or do they conjure up in their mind a suitable, caustic last word or two? How about these for the utterances of condemned men.

“What dost thou fear? Strike, man, strike!” Sir Walter Raleigh to the headsman.

“Show my head to the people. It is worth seeing.” Danton, as he was strapped to the guillotine in the French Revolution.

“Shoot straight, you bastards! Don’t make a mess of it.”‘Breaker’ Morant, a military officer convicted of war crimes in the Boer War, to the firing squad.

“Bring me a bullet-proof vest.” James W Rodgers in answer to a request for his last wish before being executed by firing squad.

“Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel.”George Appel, as he was being strapped to the electric chair.

“How’s this for your headline? French Fries!” These were the last words of serial killer, James French, as he too was being strapped to the electric chair.

“Turn me over. I am done this side.” Laurence of Rome, an early Christian martyr, as the flames at the stake engulfed him.

“Do not disturb my circles,” Archimedes, the Greek mathematician and physicist, begging the Roman soldier whose sword was raised to strike him down. As the army that was besieging Syracuse had been explicitly ordered not to harm Archimedes when its legionnaires sacked the city, I do not hold out much hope for the fate of the soldier who disobeyed the order.

 

Sometimes the sheer pathos of the scene at a public execution of kings and queens resonates down the centuries.

“Pardonnez-moi, monsieur,” said Marie-Antoinette to her executioner as she inadvertently stepped on his foot on the scaffold.

“The executioner is, I believe, very expert and my neck is very slender,” were Anne Boleyn’s last words before the swordsman struck. She was right on both counts.

Deathbed scenes of royalty are of course played out in front of a very public gallery and the centre of attention is probably well aware of this.

“After I am dead, you will find Calais engraved on my heart.” Not in fact the panegyric of countless ‘booze cruisers’ who made a return day crossing of the Channel in search of cheap alcohol in the city but the last words of Queen Mary I, who was on the throne when England lost Calais, the last remaining possession on the European mainland.

“All my possessions for a moment of time.” Queen Elizabeth famously – or infamously – sought to present herself as young and attractive - the Virgin Queen – even as the passing years took an all too visible toll on her health and looks. Her dying words underline her realisation of the uncomfortable fact that even queens are mortal.

“I have been a most unconscionable time dying but I beg you to excuse it.” Unlike George V, Charles II was noted for his manners and kindly disposition.

 

“I think I could eat one of Bellamy’s meat pies.” As William Pitt the Younger had been plagued by ill health all his life and had been at death’s door for weeks, I can only assume he was making a joke here. Apparently, it did wonders for Bellamy and his meat pies.

“I can feel the daisies growing over me.” You would expect a poet to mark his passing with a poetic image and John Keats did not let his audience down.

“I want nothing but death.”  Jane Austen had been suffering terribly during her last weeks, which makes this urgent cri de coeur all the more poignant.

Death by no means always creeps up on us. It can be sudden and unexpected. How about this for tempting fate:

“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist----” General John Sedgewick never finished his sentence before a Confederate sharpshooter shot him through the eye during the American Civil War.

 

It is said that you should never meet your hero; you will only be disappointed. I should have heeded this piece of advice as I hunted down the last words of our wittiest prime minister, master of the epigrammatic put-down, Winston Churchill. It was sad anti-climax.

“I’m bored with it all.” To be fair, WSC had his fair share of drama and adventure in his life. Quite possibly, at the age of 90, he had become rather bored with it all. He had been there, done it all and got the tee-shirt. What else was there to achieve?

 

The last word in last words ought by right to be accorded to Jesus Christ on the cross. There were several witnesses at his death, including his mother, Mary, and Mary Magdalene, so we can be reasonably sure of the veracity of his final utterance.

“It is finished.” Indeed, it was. His work on this earth had been completed.

 

 

4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page