Acting as an Epitaph

Performing Commemoration in the Shakespearean History Play

in Critical Survey
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  • 1 Columbia University emily.shortslef@uky.edu
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Despite the importance of the epitaph in early modern England, Shakespeare is considered by most critics to have had little regard for the commemorative potential of the genre. But his English history plays take seriously the trope of the living acting as epitaphs for the dead: through embodied epitaphic performances in these plays, Shakespeare draws upon the cultural valences of the epitaph to disrupt and critique the very relation of continuity and obligation between present and past, living and dead, that epitaphs more conventionally propose. The embodied epitaphs of the history plays make a case for rupture rather than continuity, and challenge the notion that the present should imitate the past. Shakespeare uses these epitaphs to interrogate what it means, and costs, to remember the past by remaking the present in its image.

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