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Shakespeare, Memory and the Iconography of Death

Shakespeare, Memory and the Iconography of Death by Dr Lawrence Green, CSR Honorary Research Fellow, February 2017

When the skeleton unearthed in a car park in the City of Leicester in September 2012 was confirmed in February the following year to be that of King Richard III there was almost universal rejoicing. The Guardian reported that “there were cheers” when the identity was verified “beyond reasonable doubt” and announced at a Press Conference; the Express – with a characteristic pun – cordially declared: ‘Hunch pays off…’.  

However, this spirit of mutual conviviality was soon superseded by a bitter and acrimonious dispute between the cities of Leicester and York for the right to claim the remains as belonging rightly to themselves. While Leicester unquestionably had the benefit of possession – indeed, it was the University of Leicester that had excavated and now housed the remains – while York, represented by a nascent ‘Plantagenet Alliance’ – a small grouping of individuals claiming to be descendants of the House of Plantagenetappealed to the king’s presumed wish to be buried in his ancestral home of York. In due course the High Court ruled in favour of Leicester in a judgement that was described as “lengthy, elegant and literary”. Sadly, the judgement was not accepted with much evidence of grace by the more aggrieved members of the Yorkist camp and recriminations continued.  

It was in a spirit of ‘ecumenism’, then, that a Research Workshop was mooted by Dr Nicole Fayard of the University of Leicester and Dr Erica Sheen of the University of York who saw the workshop not only as a means of building bridges between recently contending civic factions but also as a “unique opportunity to reflect on past and present negotiations between the living and the dead”. In due course the Workshop was convened on Friday 27 March 2015 at King’s Manor in the University of York under the umbrella title ‘Over His Dead Body’ and just a short distance from the Yorkshire Museum which was curating an exhibition – ‘Remembering Richard’ – as part of the City’s commemorative programme.  

The previous day King Richard’s remains had been reinterred in a specially constructed stone tomb in one of Leicester Cathedral's ambulatories and later that same day a Solemn Evensong dedicated to commemorating King Richard was conducted in York Minster by the Dean of York, Reverend Vivienne Faull – a unique occasion to which all of the Workshop’s contributors were invited.  

The need for such a symbol of fraternity represented by the Workshop was vividly demonstrated during the service when the Dean’s reading of the Homily was interrupted by a small group of protesters who chose to leave rather conspicuously during her reading of the Homily. The Dean, it seems, had formerly been Dean of Leicester Cathedral and was considered by some local campaigners to have favoured that city over York during the rival claimants’ exchanges prior to the court judgement.  

The Workshop itself proved to be a truly international occasion since apart from the British universities of Glasgow (Katherine Heavey), King’s College, London (Gemma Miller) and the University of Warwick’s Renaissance Centre (myself) there were contributions from Lund University, Sweden (Dr Kiki Lindell), Bonn University (Dr Imke Lichterfeld), the University of Cassino and Southern Lazio Meridionale in Italy and Kwansei Kakuin University, Japan (Dr Daniel Gallimore).

The papers presented during the course of the day proved to be quite as varied as their authors and academic origins; they included the titles: ‘“Meet I an infant of the House of York…?”: The Classical Dead Body in Shakespearean Tragedy’ (Ms Heavey); ‘“Accents yet Unknown”: Re-enacting Caesar’s Death in a Roman Gaol’ (Dr Valentini); ‘“The king, my lord, has passed away”: Collocations for Death in Japanese Shakespeare Translation’ (Dr Gallimore); and ‘Putting the Fun Back into Funerals: Dealing/Dallying in Romeo and Juliet’ (Dr Lindell).  

My own paper was entitled ‘“… a fine and private place…”: Shakespeare, Graves and Space Invaders’. It took its inspiration from the inscription marking the grave of Shakespeare in Holy Trinity Church, in my own home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. The inscription is a stern one, inflicting a solemn curse on “HE TH[A]T MOVES MY BONES” and is clearly intended to discourage any future church sexton from unearthing Shakespeare’s remains and depositing them in the charnel house adjacent to the church in order to make room for another occupant. The paper, therefore, sought to explore the motif of disturbance, violation and desecration of the inhabited burial space within the literary and historical contexts of Shakespeare’s own time.  

The Workshop proved to be as stimulating and convivial an occasion as could be wished but we were agreeably surprised to learn subsequently that Western Michigan University had expressed an interest in publishing a Special Issue of their Comparative Drama journal devoted to the research profiled in the Workshop. In due course the collection was published as Comparative Drama Vol. 50 No. 2 & 3, Summer & Fall, 2016.  

Inevitably, during the processes of revision and expansion several of the articles acquired modified identities from when they had been aired as speculative 20-minute papers for the Workshop. My own contribution acquired a new title: ‘“And do not say ’tis superstition”: Shakespeare, Memory and the Iconography of Death’. This change of focus was prompted by a Guardian historian who had expressed astonishment at “the hullabaloo over the bones of a king dead for over 500 years” in what he saw as a “reboot of the medieval craze for relics”. Taking my cue from this observation I was prompted to explore the possibility that the phenomenon reported in the environs of Leicester might be the stirrings of deep-seated collective cultural memories of a time when such relics were, indeed, venerated and superstition stalked the land. After this it was a relatively short step to exploring ways in which the works of Shakespeare – written in a reformed, ‘Protestant’ age – might carry memories of Catholic practice and ritual; memories that might be unconscious but could also serve a conscious dramatic purpose.

The final article still focused on the transgression of the space of the living by the dead but developed the notion of cultural memories relating typically to rites of passage, principally to the iconography manifested at moments of intense personal grief, moments when ‘Catholic’ images might return to challenge an iconoclastic creed implicit in Luther’s declaration that Christ’s kingdom was “a hearing-kingdom, not a seeing-kingdom”. It explored visual echoes of the emblematic vocabulary of Death through an examination of the language of the transi- or cadaver tomb, the deathbed tableau and the Danse Macabre, arguing that much of the power of Shakespeare’s language and stage semiotics arises from spatial transgression. The theme was manifested in crucial scenes and episodes in Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King John, Othello and The Merchant of Venice while still relating this to the stimulus prompted by both the inscription on Shakespeare’s tomb and by the ‘Medieval’ resonances suggested by the re-interment of the mortal remains of King Richard III.  

The interested reader can access the abstracts of all of the individual articles as well as an introductory overview of the double issue of Comparative Drama by the Guest Editors, Dr Fayard and Dr Sheen at: .