“And do not say ’tis superstition”: Shakespeare, Memory, and the Iconography of Death


Lawrence Green


The public reception of the re-internent of the remains of King Richard III in Leicester Cathedral in March 2015 drew comparison in some areas of the press with Medieval relic worship. This article posits the notion that this public reaction is not inconsistent with the instincts of societal cultural memory.

‘Protestant’ Shakespeare retained a store of powerful visual cultural memories relating typically to rites of passage, inhabiting a shared iconography with his audience that transcended the ‘Catholic’ to become truly ‘catholic’ and that such memories are most manifest materially at moments of intense personal grief.

The article will address those aspects of the material iconography of Death appropriated by Shakespeare as agents in his dramatic purpose. It will explore 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. Tombs and other material furnishings envisioned as memorializing the dead in a perpetual dialogue with the living are themselves internalised in memory to be resurrected under the intensity of individual and collective mourning. In those scenes which depict grief and mourning we experience the processes by which personal memory is constructed with reference to the communally sanctioned commemorative furnishings of death.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.