Article Title

Mocking Dead Bones: Historical Memory and the Theater of the Dead in Richard III


Stephen Marche


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Nicholas Brooke’s 1965 landmark essay, “Reflecting Gems and Dead Bones,” still largely determines the critical understanding of the relationship between history and tragedy in Richard III: “It is … supremely ambivalent: a simultaneous perception of two utterly different and opposed scales of value, the historical and the tragic. The sense of History and the sense of Order here become synonymous … in this play, one does not eclipse the other.”1 Brooke’s recognition of the uneasy tension between the tragic and the historical within the religious dimension of the play continues to influence the mainstream of Richard III criticism.2 However, new readings of the relationship between tragedy and religion in the early modern period have begun to place emphasis on the dead, a concern vital to history and tragedy. Both Michael Neill’s Issues of Death and Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory identify an intimate connection between tragedy and the transformation of religious ideas about the dead in the Reformation.3 Dennis Kay, in Melodious Tears, argues that many literary and religious forms of discourse were established as replacements for the Requiem Mass: “The culture of pre-Reformation Europe has been characterized as ‘a cult of the living in the service of the dead.’ At the simplest level, the sheer number (in excess of two thousand) of chantries in England, and the evidence from wills, testifies to the immense importance attached to praying for the repose of the souls of the deceased. With the Reformation, everything changed.”4 The critical understanding of the centrality of this change demands inquiry into the ambivalence that Brooke first articulated. We must reexamine the relationship of history and tragedy in Richard III in the light of a change in the general and communal response to the dead because that response is a concern essential to both history and tragedy.

Nicholas Brooke, “Reflecting Gems and Dead Bones: Tragedy versus History in Richard III,” Critical Quarterly 7, no. 2 (1965): 123–34.

2See especially the chapter on Richard III in Linda Charnes, Notorious Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

3Michael Neill, Issues of Death (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997); Stephen Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

4Dennis Kay, Melodious Tears: The English Funeral Elegy from Spenser to Milton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 2.

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