In 2012, the University of Leicester in the UK led the search for the remains of King Richard III, the last prince of the House of York, buried in 1485 under what, nearly 450 years later, would turn out to be a municipal car park. This momentous discovery has lent to those of us living or working in Leicester and York a new understanding of the phrase “history in the making,” as we took part in the events surrounding the findings, from watching documentaries about the excavation or viewing three-dimensional models of Richard’s bones to taking part in the often heated public debate about where he should be reinterred and how the reinterment should be commemorated.
There appeared to be a very strange paradox in the nation’s ability to take these 600-year-old bones so easily into our daily lives, and indeed into our hearts. Unearthing a king from a city-center car park makes for an amusing, if somewhat profane, anecdote—see, for instance, the Facebook conversation noted at the beginning of Erica Sheen’s essay in this volume—but what is of more interest is the stark confrontation between life and death offered by this not-so-final resting place. The desire to communicate with the dead was a particular concern for Richard’s contemporaries at a time of crucial transformations in perceptions of both death and the body.1 Such communications were marked by the recognition of the importance of adhering to cultural norms, especially those pertaining to rites of burial, at a time when doctrine and ritual were permeated by the understanding of what Sharon Emmerich has called “the landscape of death.”2
This unique opportunity to reflect on past and present negotiations between the living and the dead provided the inspiration, first for the Over His Dead Body international research workshop held in King’s Manor, University of York, UK, on March 26, 2015—the occasion of Richard’s reinterment in Leicester Cathedral and its simultaneous commemoration at York Minster—and then for this collection of essays drawn from the papers presented at that workshop. In memory of the historical figure that inspired one of Shakespeare’s most popular incarnations, this collaboration between the Universities of Leicester and York focused on the dead body in Shakespeare, a concentration that was particularly fitting since, in the years either side of the reinterment, literary scholars worldwide have been engaged in the commemorations first of the 450th anniversary of his birth (2014) and then the 400th anniversary of his death (2016).
Fascination with the death motif in Shakespeare’s plays and interest in the dramaturgical significance of dead bodies has pervaded Shakespearian scholarship since the late nineteenth century, bringing together readings of Shakespeare on the page, on the stage, and in film, as well as in an exhaustive range of other media, including art and even stained glass—all represented in this collection in essays by Nicole Fayard, Gemma Miller, Maria Valentini, and Erica Sheen.3 Revisiting dead heroes, burial rituals, or ghosts in Shakespeare’s plays in the light of the critical understanding of early modern attitudes towards the dead (see the essays here by Katherine Heavey and Lawrence Green) raises questions about the uses and abuses of the past in memory (see Imke Lichterfeld’s essay) and education (see Kiki Lindell’s essay).4 Shakespeare’s writing about death is informed by historical transformations in the contemporary understanding of the body; as such, it throws light on continuities and discontinuities between past and present.5 Exploring the cultural meanings of the spaces and places occupied by the dead in his plays leads us to a more profound understanding of the socio-political landscape, not only of Britain at the time of the Reformation, but also of the full global scene addressed by contemporary performance, as in Nicole Fayard’s essay on Shakespeare in French street theatre.
As this range of subject matter suggests, our concern in the workshop on March 26, 2015 was directed particularly at correspondences between role of the dead in Shakespeare’s theatre and their manifestations in our everyday lives. What motivates artists, directors, and indeed teachers to contribute to their (re)incarnation? Perhaps even more than the ghost, the Shakespearian dead body—its insistent material presence in our daily lives—raises fundamental questions about spaces of belonging and the power relations that shape their boundaries. What is at stake in the physical confrontation between the living and the dead? How have particular productions or performances used the Shakespearian dead body to ask questions about the “world,” and worlds, outside the play? What does the Shakespearian dead body lose, or gain, in translation or remediation? How is the Shakespearian dead body given value in cultural and non-cultural institutions, such as churches and prisons? How do students and teachers recycle it?
This special issue contains eight essays that explicitly address these themes from varying theoretical and empirical perspectives. We examine relationships among death, mourning, absence, presence, and memory. We explore the geographical, cultural, and everyday spaces within which the dead Shakespearian body resides, and from which he, she, and it (we have a horse here, as well as people) eternally return to act and interact with the living. Our contributors in this volume represent a range of disciplinary backgrounds, including drama, performance, translation, and education, from a range of cultural and professional contexts.
Nicole Fayard in “Bodies in a Car Park; Or, Une Comédie Charcutière: Resuscitating Shakespearian Authorship in Contemporary French Street Theatre” reflects on the social and political meanings that can be created when iconic dead bodies are found in unusual urban spaces—such as car parks. With a particular focus on interactive street performances of Shakespearian comedies in France in recent years by street theatre companies 26000 couverts, Royal de Luxe, and La Compagnie des Chemins de Terre, Fayard explores the content of a purportedly authentic theatre in which the iconic Author is supposed to be dead. For Fayard, relocating classical drama into the unexpected urban spaces of the car park or the village square questions the very core of what is being performed and why it is being performed at all. To answer these questions, she concentrates on notions of spatial and social displacement drawn from the Situationist movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, and asks whether—in street theatre based on a play by Shakespeare—Shakespeare’s play is present or absent, living or dead; and what happens to the audience when they are confronted by this destabilizing sense of authorial loss. Importantly for Fayard, the presence/absence that is at the heart of Shakespearian street theatre usefully interrogates notions of social relations and participation.
Fayard shows that the blurring of codes of performance and of the boundaries between author, artist, and spectator that characterizes street theatre also affects the borders between fiction and reality, tragedy and comedy. These are questions which also provide the focus of Kiki Lindell’s essay “Putting the Fun Back into Funerals: Dealing/Dallying with Death in Romeo and Juliet.” Lindell reflects on the central findings arising from her work on student theatre, in particular a production of Romeo and Juliet. Are the death scenes in Shakespeare’s play to be performed as comedy or tragedy? Is it permissible to laugh at death and dead bodies, when contemporary audiences are taught—and continue to learn—to take grief seriously? When is it appropriate to do so? Lindell’s essay addresses the dramaturgical implications of Shakespeare’s portrayal of death for amateur, and very young, performers, including the crucial question of the insistent physical presence of the dead body in performance. She explores engagingly the practicalities of (re)moving “dead” bodies from performance spaces while preserving both the dignity of the dead character and the health of the very much alive performer.
The physical presence of the dead body in non-traditional performance spaces is central to Maria Valentini’s essay “In Accents Yet Unknown: Reenacting Caesar’s Death in a Roman Prison.” Valentini takes us to the space of the prison by examining Cesare deve morire (2012), a docudrama directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani based on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by prisoners in the high-security Rebibbia District Prison in Rome. Framing her analysis around the theme of the play—the legitimacy of the murder of the emperor—Valentini draws out the full dramatic and political significance of Caesar’s death, both in Shakespeare’s play and in the counterpart this production finds in contemporary Italian society. Through its physical disclosure by Antony in the Forum scene, Caesar’s dead body speaks, both to audiences of the play and film, and to its performers.
As Valentini records, the effect of the Shakespearean text on prisoners is well documented. Her essay demonstrates that participation in a performance of Julius Caesar had a special resonance for the inmates in Rebibbia District Prison—a space, like the theatre, with its own internal rules and boundaries. This effect was enhanced by the work of translation. Spoken in the regional dialects of its performers, Shakespeare’s play was transported not only to contemporary Italy, but also to the actors’ own biographical encounters with transgression and self-awareness.
The corpse as a reminder of power and guilt is likewise the focus of Imke Lichterfeld’s essay “‘Thou livest and breathest, yet art thou slain in him’: The Absence of Power in Richard II.” Lichterfeld investigates the role of the unseen dead body of Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, in Richard II’s exploration of issues of memory and forgetting. While Woodstock’s corpse is never seen, it is symbolically omnipresent, its uncertain status structuring the entire plot. Her essay is concerned with the ways in which the memory of death shapes the politics of the play, to the extent that guilt over Woodstock’s death can be said to cause Richard II’s downfall. The present/absent corpse, therefore—in a fascinating echo of the present/absent author in Fayard’s essay—intrudes into the political and dramatic world of Richard II. Lichterfeld argues, like Valentini and Miller in this volume, that the corpse is “dramatically empowering,” since it introduces the themes of political memory and power, but also shapes forthcoming histories.
By way of response to Lichterfeld’s essay, the focal point of Gemma Miller’s essay is also the haunting of the absent dead body: “‘Many a time and oft had I broken my Neck for their amusement’: The Corpse, the Child, and the Aestheticization of Death in Shakespeare’s Richard III and King John.” She focuses on the presence and absence of Shakespeare’s dead children in these plays, and considers their representation in art and performance. Miller confronts the structural contradiction between, on the one hand, Shakespeare’s refusal to sentimentalize the deaths of the young princes; on the other, the desire of artists and theatre directors since the eighteenth century to create idealized representations. Miller demonstrates that the presence of children as living bodies in Shakespeare’s plays performs a significant interpretive role, as it serves to interrogate the nature and legitimacy of power. The decision not to show their corpses—thus to memorialize bodies that do not actually die—is thus a device whereby Shakespeare chronicles the narrative of history. For Miller, this highlights the problematic ways in which paintings, film, and stage performances undermine Shakespeare’s plays by reproducing ideological constructions of childhood as the repository of innocence, victimhood, and erotic fantasies. Miller notes, however, that twenty-first-century theatre directors such as Sam Mendes and Thomas Ostermeier are more faithful to the ambiguities of Shakespeare’s plays, exploring in more complex ways the presence and absence of dead children in their productions.
The theme of dead children is taken up by Katherine Heavey in her discussion of “‘An infant of the House of York’: Medea and Absyrtus in Shakespeare’s First Tetralogy.” Heavey shows that Shakespeare draws on the classical Greek myth of Medea in the 2 Henry VI, and argues that Medea’s murder of her baby brother haunts the remainder of the first tetralogy. Reflecting Valentini’s argument that truth and order are located in the dead body, Miller demonstrates convincingly that Absyrtus’s tragic fate in 2 Henry VI provides a climax for the horror of the play, enabling Shakespeare to chronicle social anxiety about succession and the fragility of the political order. Like Caesar’s corpse, the image of the dismembered child symbolizes the fragmentation of the body politic across the plays that make up the tetralogy, but also in the society in which their audiences are embedded.
The transgression of the space of the living by the dead is the subject of Lawrence Green’s essay on representations of medieval funerary iconography in Shakespeare’s plays. “‘And do not say ’tis superstition’: Shakespeare, Memory, and the Iconography of Death” explores cultural memories which are likely to have influenced Shakespeare and his contemporaries’ understanding of death and the rituals surrounding it. Medieval iconographies of death depict the casual intrusion into the everyday space of the living by the dead—a useful reminder of their mortal condition. Green considers the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays reflect these understandings, focusing especially on the tensions evident in Shakespeare’s work between the temporal and subterranean worlds—a personal anxiety revealed by the curse written on his own tomb. He examines these anxieties with particular attention to the deathbed tableau, the danse macabre, and the transi tomb, and to the mutual transgression of the boundaries between the living and dead.
Erica Sheen’s essay brings our collection full circle: “Missing a Horse: Richard and White Surrey.” Taking as her starting point a Facebook discussion that responded—somewhat facetiously—to the announcement of the discovery of Richard’s bones in that Leicester carpark in 2012, she considers the image of Richard and White Surrey in Southwark Cathedral’s “Shakespeare window,” unveiled in 1954 as a replacement of the war-damaged original, and asks why—then as now—Richard’s death is so closely and popularly associated with that of his horse. Drawing on contemporary debates in philosophy, ecology, and critical animal studies, particularly the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty on “nature” and Agamben on “decreation,” she reads Webb’s window from its own historical context into Shakespeare’s treatment of the “offstage horse” in his history plays. She suggest ways in which the “shared embodiment” of human and animal underpins the theatrical conception of “world” in Shakespeare’s plays, and links this to their capacity to open up those worlds to the seemingly unlimited range of cultural contexts recorded by global participation in the 400th anniversary in 2016 of his own death in 1616.
Clearly the Shakespearian dead body lives on and speaks loudly. However—as all these essays in their contrasting ways convincingly show—its returns are not merely a question of haunting or taunting the living, but more the overlapping, shifting, permeable frontiers of parallel worlds, multi-layered and interdependent histories. As a revenant, the Shakespearian dead body moves easily, indeed naturally, within all cultural environments, inhabiting the interlocking spaces of remediation, translation, and performance. It speaks of both mortality and survival, forgetting and remembering, retribution and redemption. In its dual condition as both present and absent, embodied and disembodied, it is a signifier for the active role of the past in the present, the present in the past. For readers and audiences in the twenty-first century, well versed in the deployment of multiple points of view, the past as a space of action and reaction is a reality, not an illusion. This important recognition situates individual bodies, alive and dead, as members of living communities. It also serves to disillusion those who cling tenaciously to notions of identity as fixed and authentic. Cultural institutions such as the theatre, particularly Shakespearian theatre, are of course privileged loci for memory work.6 But by continuing to (re)invade its own cultural space, the Shakespearian dead body casts light on, and into, the constant process of revision by which the de- and re-creation of such institutions remains their own most potent contribution to a living, rather than deadly, future.
Nicole Fayard, Guest Editor and Erica Sheen, Guest Editor
University of Leicester
University of York
The Editors wish to thank CREMS, the Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies at the University of York, for financial and administrative support of the Over His Dead Body workshop held at King’s Manor, York on March 26, 2015.
1. Stephen Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
2. Sharon Emmerichs, “Shakespeare and the Landscape of Death: Crossing the Boundaries of Life and the Afterlife,” Shakespeare 8.2 (2012): 171–94; and Jennifer Waldron, Reformations of the Body: Idolatry, Sacrifice, and Early Modern Theater (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
3. Margaret Milne Beck, “The Dance of Death in Shakespeare,” Modern Language Notes 37.6 (1922): 372–74; Harry Morris, “The Dance-of-Death Motif in Shakespeare,” Papers on Language and Literature 20, no. 1 (1984): 15–28; Carol Chillington Rutter, “Shakespeare Performed: Snatched Bodies: Ophelia in the Grave,” Shakespeare Quarterly 49 (1998): 299–319; Lynn Enterline, The Rhetoric of the Body from Ovid to Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Pascale Aebischer, Shakespeare’s Violated Bodies: Stage and Screen Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Lindsey Scott, “‘Closed in a Dead Man’s Tomb’: Juliet, Space, and the Body in Franco Zeffirelli’s and Baz Luhrmann’s Films of Romeo and Juliet,” Literature/Film Quarterly 36 (2008): 137–46; and Ailsa Grant Ferguson, “‘An anagram of the body’: Shakespeare and the Body/Text Commodified in My Own Private Idaho,” Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation 6, no. 2 (2011), www.borrowers.uga.edu/782965/show.
4. Andrew Sofer, “‘Take up the Bodies’: Shakespeare’s Body Parts, Babies, and Corpses,” Theatre Symposium 18, no. 1 (2010): 135–48; Matthias Bauer and Angelika Zirker, Sites of Death as Interaction in Donne and Shakespeare (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013); S. Viswanathan, “Sleep and Death: The Twins in Shakespeare,” Comparative Drama 13 (1979): 49–64; and Robert C. Jones, These Valiant Dead: Renewing the Past in Shakespeare’s Histories (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991). See also Stephen Marche, “Mocking Dead Bones: Historical Memory and the Theater of the Dead in ‘Richard III,’” Comparative Drama 37 (2003): 37–57; and Joseph Campana, “The Child’s Two Bodies: Shakespeare, Sovereignty, and the End of Succession,” ELH 81 (2014): 811–39.
5. Elisabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992); Philippa Berry, Shakespeare’s Feminine Endings: Disfiguring Death in the Tragedies (New York: Routledge, 1999), 1; Judith H. Anderson, “Beyond Binarism: Eros/Death and Venus/Mars in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Spenser’s Faerie Queene,” in Shakespeare and Spenser: Attractive Opposites, ed. J. B. Lethbridge (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008); Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992); and Carol Chillington Rutter, Enter the Body: Women and Representation on Shakespeare’s Stage (New York: Routledge, 2001).
6. Carol Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (Oxford: Routledge, 1995). See also Nicole Fayard, “Playing the Fools With Time and Space? Digital Remediations and the Shakespearian Time-Image on the Twenty-First-Century French Stage,” Multicultural Shakespeare (forthcoming 2016).
Fayard, Nicole and Sheen, Erica
"Introduction: Over Our Dead Bodies,"
Comparative Drama: Vol. 50
, Article 1.
Available at: https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/compdr/vol50/iss2/1