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  • “And do not say ’tis superstition”:1Shakespeare, Memory, and the Iconography of Death
  • Lawrence Green (bio)

Shortly before the reinterment of the remains of King Richard III in Leicester Cathedral on March 22, 2015, the Guardian historian, David Priestland, lamented what he termed “the hullabaloo over the bones of a king dead for over 500 years” to be followed by an “archbishop-led re-interment service”—events he found to be “reminiscent of the saints’ cults of the middle ages,” a “reboot of the medieval craze for relics.” 2 Other broadcasters expressed astonishment that the journey of the king’s remains through the streets of Leicester should have produced pavements thronged with onlookers. It is tempting to speculate that such rare events might have stirred deep-seated collective cultural memories of a time when such relics were venerated and superstition stalked the land. Indeed, Anne E. Bailey has traced significant parallels between the medieval rituals surrounding the translatio of a saint’s remains to a new shrine, and the studiedly ecumenical ceremonial given to King Richard’s remains together with the care afforded to their location so as to accommodate the reception of “pilgrims.”3

In this spirit of renascent medievalism, would it be too fanciful, I wonder, to suggest that the language and stage mise-en-scène that attends human mortality in Shakespeare’s plays sometimes carries strong resonances of material images that conjure the imagination to construct the funerary iconography of a former time?

Martin Luther had declared that “Christ’s kingdom is a hearing-kingdom, not a seeing-kingdom,”4 a position supported by scriptural authority since Romans 10:17 has, “Then faith is by hearing, & hearing [End Page 249] by the worde of God.”5 The second commandment alone reinforced the contention that the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century in Europe should be represented as the triumph of the word over the image, notwithstanding the fact that Luther himself came to moderate his scorn of images by arguing that they might be retained as long as they were understood not to be sacred in themselves but merely serving as reminders or teachers of gospel truths.

Notwithstanding the moderation of the Lutheran stance, the pretext had been supplied for an iconoclasm that owed as much to policy as to doctrinal purity. In such a climate it was perhaps inevitable that the theft, destruction, or obliteration of popish paraphernalia—what Eamon Duffy has famously termed the “stripping of the altars”—should extend not only to tombs within the church but also to the cemetery beyond. Indeed, “during early and mid-sixteenth-century outbreaks of iconoclasm, English Protestants demolished or mutilated many funerary monuments.”6 Thus, the carved effigies of intercessionary angels and other perceived idolatrous and superstitious Catholic elements were ruthlessly expunged, though when the destruction of the tombs of aristocratic families was thought to challenge a social hierarchy based on lineal succession, a royal proclamation of 1560 relating to the “breaking or defacing of monumentes of antiquitie” deplored the “extinguyshyng of the honorable and good memorye of sundry vertuous and noble persons deceased” while making a careful distinction between those monuments “being set vp…for memory” and those “for superstition.”7

Shakespeare is generally careful to exclude from both the verbal and the visual iconography of his death tableaux any suggestion of Catholic idolatry, and yet at times he seems to encourage his audience imaginatively to construct images that draw upon elements of a shared, universal “Catholic” memory. Martha Fleischer is discussing the incidence of pageantry on the Elizabethan stage when she identifies the inherent “emblematic eye” or the habit of “analogical thinking” as imparting meaning to the received iconography of the history play genre.8 Since profound cultural change arguably emerges from a process of evolution rather than revolution, Shakespeare—in common with his audience—inevitably retained a store of powerful visual cultural memories relating typically to traditional societal rites of passage—particularly marriage and death—upon which [End Page 250] it was natural to draw, irrespective of metaphysical subtleties. He and his contemporaries inhabited a broadly understood shared iconography that came to acquire an identity transcending the “Catholic” to become the truly...


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pp. 249-270
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