Churchyards and crossroads: monuments, tombs, and commemoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama

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University of Alabama Libraries

This project explores how tombs and monuments erected for the dead function in the early modern playhouse, both when used as stage locations in dramatic scenes and when invoked imaginatively by characters grappling with questions of identity, social position, and legacy. I examine Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, other contemporary writings about tombs, and surviving stone monuments of the period in order to contribute to an understanding of the complex ways early moderns viewed commemoration, memory, and their own mortality. Tombs of this era served to preserve information about the dead and to offer moral instruction to the living. The combination of text, symbols, and images on tombs conveyed information to both literate and illiterate alike. Audiences' familiarity with a range of tombs, combined with the flexibility of the early modern playhouse, allowed playwrights to utilize the symbolic potential of tombs in a variety of ways. Nonetheless, a majority of these symbolic deployments of tomb imagery gravitate into three broad categories. First, in the History Plays of the 1580s and 1590s, monuments serve as repositories of the mythic power of the past, helping individuals both remember ancestors and access their influence. This recording potential also allows the living to prepare their own enduring legacy. Second, tombs function on stage as legitimizing agents for fictions. A tomb need not tell a true story, and playwrights of the period frequently have their characters use tombs to support or preserve their own misrepresentative, edited, or fraudulent accounts of events. Finally, plays after 1600 tend to stress the power of tombs to serve as sites of spiritual and moral instruction. Tombs as illustrative of a complete life story fall out of fashion in the playhouse; instead of presenting a layered narrative, monuments become tools to turn the deceased into an exemplar of a variety of idealized virtues.

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British and Irish literature