- Introduction: Over Our Dead Bodies
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 [End Page 135] 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 [End Page 136] 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...