Monuments in Late Elizabethan Literature: A Conservatory of Vanishing Traditions
J.Y. Michel
Université de Metz

Michel, J.Y. "Monuments in Late Elizabethan Literature: A Conservatory of Vanishing Traditions ." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.2 (September, 2003): 4.1-53 <URL:

    This monument five hundred years hath stood,
    Which I have sumptuously re-edified.
    (Titus Andronicus, I. 1. 350-351)

  1. In his Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy, Michael Neill reminds us that any study of Elizabethan tragedy should take its funerary aspect into account. Indeed, the narratives of the plays belonging to this genre are so death-oriented that they are bound to reflect, in some way or other, Elizabethan funerary rituals. Actually, late sixteenth-century playgoers, actors and playwrights considered the stage as a set of funerary items and buildings. The plays often celebrated a heroic death through dramatic actions based such themes as on love, revenge, Roman history or stoicism. More fundamentally, the monumental staging of death in tragedy aimed at subduing its horror--a feeling which corresponded, as Neill argues, to an absorbtion into nothingness, oblivion and indifferenciation. This implied a translation of death into a national collective memory. However, it seems doutful that tragedy was (and is) actually able to fully achieve that goal. The plays may even express some doubt about the efficiency of this cultural strategy.

  2. Indeed, Elizabethan tragedy was not a simple emblem of life and death in the manner of medieval drama. In Titus Andronicus, for instance, funerary monuments are shown in a dubious light, alongside with images of slaughter and physical decay. On the one hand, the Andronici's sepulchre is regularly defined as the token of chivalric honour and dynastic continuity. On the other, the tomb quickly comes to be equated with its opposite--the "blood-stained hole" in which Bassanius' body is thrown, in which two of Titus' surviving sons meet their bloody end. The Andronici's monument likewise shelters bodies of soldiers killed at war and crystallizes barbaric revenge sacrifices. As Michael Neill writes, the tomb is both "the focus of religious awe" and the site of a barbarous, undifferentiated violence which maims humans and tombs alike. [1]

  3. Still, this should not lead us to consider the presentation of death in this play as a clear-cut divide between two mirror images of funerary monuments. Neill insists upon these two symmetrically opposed images, but to my mind, the contrast is more complex. For the idea of a perfect, eternal sepulchre that literally stands for social and ritual order is not part of the play, except as a thing of the past or as a grand illusion. As Neill admits, the Andronici's monument serves as a backdrop for an endless chain of violent events based on civil war, revenge and bloody sacrifice--it is a foil to put death's violence into contrast. But what he forgets is that the tomb is nothing else but a fake monument--a self-conscious theatrical make-believe, the symbolic image of a tomb.

  4. The text bears this artificiality out by evoking the frailty of any funerary architecture. In the quotation above, for example, Titus tells us that the tomb endured half a millennium before he decided to build it anew. These words imply that the edifice was utterly destroyed, that only its name survived as a doubtful misnomer for its successor. The reason for Titus' rebuilding the tomb is never made clear and this silence carries grim, even macabre undertones. Had the tomb fallen into disrepair, or had it become too old-fashioned? Did the father need more room to bury his numerous slain sons? One may also wonder how the remains of the Andronici were handled when the tomb was rebuilt. It is true that these unasked questions have no direct bearing upon the intrigue of the play, and that they are not very likely to occur to a given theatre audience unless the director chooses to put them into contrast. Nevertheless, Titus' silence is part of a disquieting background which may be called the "unconscious" of the play. The dark undertones provide a counterpoint to monumental imagery, for they imply a hidden violence which ruins chivalric codes and funerary rituals. This unconscious dimension is characteristic of the genre as a whole, for this kind of silence recurs time and again in Elizabethan tragedy, especially when violent death and funerary monuments are at stake.

  5. Tragedy, like many writings of this period, reflects a startling fact of Elizabethan culture. After the English Reformation, many holy buildings such as tombs, charnel-houses, cloisters and churches were deconsecrated, emptied of their contents, sold away or destroyed. It seems that this sea-change brought the contemporaries to defend (and also to mourn) an idealized vision of funerary traditions they regretted a mythical time when tombs were holy, time-honoured buildings symbolizing an indestructible collective order. Although these idealized monuments were consecrated to the dead, they addressed the living. They helped them protect their social organization through enhancing a cult of death and stimulating collective memory, as Nigel Llewellyn explains in The Art of Death. [2]

  6. Elizabethan monuments were not only funeral buildings like tombs, churches or charnel-houses. According to Michael Neill, "[the definition of the monument] can extend to all the substantial remains of the past". [3] These "remains" include a wide range of items which were supposed to remind people of their mortality but also to make them aware that they were part of a temporal continuum, the survival of which, precisely, was ensured by the cult of monuments. This is borne out by the fact that death and its images was part of everyday life for the Elizabethans, as Nigel Llewellyn indicates:

    Images reminding people about their own mortality were to be found in all kinds of public and private situations: as furnishings, on the walls of buildings and carried about the person […] [The] skull appears on even modest domestic paraphernalia, including spoons and snuff-boxes. […] In Early Modern England, Death always accompanied the individual on the streets or at home among the family. [4]

    This funeral and social ideal also appears in the lexical definition of the word "monument". In 1604, Robert Cawdrey's dictionary defined monuments in a very wide and straightforward way: "a remembrance of some notable act, as tombs." [5] In his English-Italian dictionary (A Worlde of Words, 1598), John Florio is more explicit. He uses the word "monument" to explain "reliquia" and "stela":

    Reliquia: a relique or old monument, the rest that remains, the remnant, the ashes or bones of the dead, reliques, scraps, fragments, leavings. [...].
    Stela: a cross or other like monument set up by the high way. [...] [6]

    As Cawdrey's and Florio's rather vague definitions suggest, the semantic category of monuments in fact implied various items which, from a modern point of view, seem to have nothing to do with rituals of death. For example, Elizabethan portraits were sometimes called monuments in the sense that they encased the faces of departed people, protecting their features against the obliteration caused by time. Some of these paintings are adorned with a skull which functions as a memento mori sign but also as a reminder of the commemorative dimension of monuments.

  7. Something more specific has to be outlined as regards these cultural objects. They were before all seen as material structures sheltering relics--sacred objects inherited from the past, which helped a community to commemorate it through acts of worship. These material structures were inspired from famous models, especially Roman and Italian Renaissance architecture, but also medieval reliquaries. Various mementoes were supposed to be part of commemorative buildings. English Renaissance tombs allude to the cult of relics in the sense that they often comprise macabre sculpted motifs (for instance, there are two death's heads on Shakespeare's monument). Like the skulls displayed in paintings, they acted both as signs commemorating a departed person and as conventional memento mori emblems. Other signs also acted as reminders of death. For instance, armour and other trophies were often displayed above sepulchres. Paper crowns were hung over young ladies' tombs, a ritual which Shakespeare evokes at the end of Hamlet, in the graveyard scene. When an anxious Laertes asks a priest whether there will be "ceremony else" for Ophelia, the latter answers that "she has been allowed her virgin crants [i. e. crown]."

  8. As Florio's and Cawdrey's definitions suggest, monuments made up a theatre of death and memory in which citizens acted ritualized parts, exchanging the roles of actors and spectators. Apart from being static reminders of death, they recalled the very act of building a commemorative structure out of a specific material, be it stone, metal, paint or even language. They could also prompt such a ritual act. Tombs, as well as various mementoes, allowed a speaker to hold a ritual discourse about death in front of an audience, building this discourse from the objects shown to his/her observers. In Shakespeare's day, the "Monument" (i.e. the semiotic system in which various monuments intervened) was a collective celebration of death that used relics to write down the history of England, defining its present and its future according to strict codes. It allowed people to transform ephemeral ritual events into magnificient speeches and architectures. These works of funeral art were both exemplary and supposedly at least everlasting. [7]

  9. This cultural discourse about death may be considered as the denotative aspect of the word "monument." A connotative dimension, however, intervenes in the ambiguous vision of monuments offered in such literary works as Titus Andronicus. Tombs and shrines, as they appear in late Elizabethan literature, are not merely holy sanctuaries symbolizing the victory of a culture over time. [8] They are also decaying architectures containing dangerous items, even though this duality is not always as obvious as in Shakespeare's first tragedy. [9] It seems that Elizabethan writers reflected the cultural crisis that caused a whole Zeitgeist to be turned upside down. Actually, the language through which death was translated into a cultural phenomenon was becoming obscure.

  10. The blind violence which plagues Titus Andronicus may be seen as the symptom of a split between two opposed views which mirrored a theological divide. The Elizabethans who held on to Catholicism still thought that monuments showcased holy relics and symbolized an allegorical vision of death. For them, the enshrined remains were in a sense alive because they cast a magical aura around them. This mysterious force linked the living to the dead and the present to the past. As late as 1606, at Father Garnet's public execution, people collected grisly mementoes. An ear of corn that had fallen from the executioner's basket, in which Garnet's head had been thrown away, was picked up and became a sort of Holy Shroud--it reportedly sheltered the martyr's portrait, magically painted in his own blood. [10] The Protestants did not share this conception of relics. While they acknowledged the commemorative dimension of monuments, they had a deep mistrust in the magic power of human remains. From their viewpoint, monuments did not encase magical and holy objects, because the latter were mere "popish tricks" and "impostures," as so many pamphlets of the period claim. Monuments sheltered dead matter which was useless or even poisonous as long as it was not contained in what may be called a "deathtight" edifice. Only the outward shape of the monument was worthy of worship because it symbolized an idealized social order. [11]

  11. The Catholic viewpoint relied upon a sanctified death whose magical icons were supposed to be displayed to worshippers, triggering spontaneous belief and obedience. The Protestant viewpoint implied a barbaric death that had to be emprisoned and controlled before the civic body could correctly function. While the former conception of death became residual in late Renaissance England, the latter became dominant. This gave birth to a very paradoxical situation. Indeed, the theological divide between Catholicism and Protestantism was not so clear-cut as it may appear at first sight. In The Place of the Stage, Stephen Mullaney argues that English Protestants had a secret longing for Catholic shrines. They felt that the Reformation had regrettably wiped out a whole system of magical signs based on the spectacle of relics. In medieval and Renaissance Europe (at least in the Catholic areas of the continent), there existed a spontaneous emotional belief in shrines and magical relics. But in Reformed England, this belief had been discredited as "popery." The drawback was, for the religious and political authorities, that it became difficult to impress believers into practising commemorative rituals based on funerary monuments. True, a new sign system based on the materiality of the tomb and the permanence of social bounds had been hammered out, but people were half-conscious that this system was a superficial and artificial means of control. [12]

  12. This ideological shift also reflects the slow change of European mentalities regarding death, as it is described in Philippe Aries' works. In The Hour of Our Death, he distinguishes between "tamed death" ("la mort apprivoisée") and "wild death" ("la mort sauvage"). The former, which was the norm until the Renaissance, integrated death into society by showing it as man's companion, even though its physical appearance could be unsettling, as it is the case in the Dances of Death. "Wild death" slowly replaced this appeased image afterwards, at the same moment when the holiness of religious icons and relics was put into doubt. In this new mode of representation, death became a frightening character, a burglar or a rapist who brutally intruded into man's life. [13] This eventually led Europeans to a sort of psychological repression--in the 20th Century, death became a frightening, unspeakable void. However, in the case of Elizabethan theology, death still had a meaning and a social function as long as it was penned in the closed structure of the funerary monument. It seems that it was impossible for this ambiguous theological system to altogether dispense with the rituals associated with shrines.

  13. This theological ambiguity is often reflected in late Elizabethan literature. Most of the literary works of the period which deal with death were inspired from both of these conceptions of death. Generally, they do not simply stand for one of them but waver in search of a compromise, as, indeed, the Queen did when she imposed her own vision of Anglicanism all along her reign. Emblem books and tragedy can be considered as the two literary genres in which this twofold image of death is best exemplified. The writers and the playwrights were indeed placed "between the pass and fell incensed points / of mighty opposites," as Hamlet says in the last scene of Shakespeare's tragedy when he evokes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's fate. Artists had to use monumental language to express death. Because monuments had become highly unstable signs, they had to decide whether relics should be shown to observers and readers, or on the contrary hidden inside funerary edifices. They had to choose between a domesticated death or a barbaric one, between magical holy relics or lethal, decaying body parts. And as we shall see, the choice was impossible to make. Just like Protestant and Catholic theologies, opposite visions of death were intertwined into each other.


  14. Elizabethan emblem books often allude to the magical power of relics and the magnificience of shrines. But they may also suggest that the dead body and its components hold a lethal power. Moreover, funerary monuments are sometimes shown as decaying structures which point to a barbaric, uncontrollable death--a violent and eroticized one.

  15. In Renaissance England, emblems were generally conceived as monuments enshrining exempla from a glorious English and Christian past. This is made clear in the preface written by Claudius Paradin for his Heroicall Devises:

    The first and original cause of this practice was this, that diverse men according to the diversity of their special conceits and inventions, were given to represent and express the same with sundry forms and pictures […]. These their devises being thus set down in picture, are termed their arms, for that they were painted in their armes and bucklers, targets or other military furnitures, […] and in their wars where death was always present before their eyes they desired continually to carry about these devises, vowing as it were thereby as well to die as live with these monuments and memorials of virtue.

    The first emblems in human history, Paradin argues, were preserved by heraldry and his own work recapitulates this allegorical genealogy. This emblematic conservatory commemorates a mythical chivalric past, displaying relics and monuments so as to recall "heroicall" exempla. Heroicall Devises translates and compiles two older emblem books (a French and an Italian one), showing highly conventional emblems, mostly weapons, armour and various heraldic signs. Interestingly, there are also tombs, skeletons and death's heads, along with some shocking acts of violence (for instance, a picture represents a torture which consists in driving needles under a man's nails). These pictures may be gruesome indeed but they are meant to be foils to holy monuments. In the coincidentia oppositorum of this emblematic compilation, all the visual signs belong to a conventional heraldic imagery they are "devises" even when they are barbarous or macabre, because Paradin shows both aspects of death as complementary. In Heroicall Devises, the contrast between heraldic signs and tombs on the one hand, and macabre objects on the other, reflects the theological divide that underpins the Monument (relics must be shown because of their magical force, yet they must be hidden inside a monument because they are lethal). In this rather blunt contrast, examples of barbaric death are controlled by the monumental allegories that surround them.

  16. This harmonious contrast is sometimes built in a single illustration. On page 319, emblem Victoria limes (i. e. "Victorie is the end"), displays a large skull crowned with laurel. [15] In this memento mori, death becomes the object of a philosophic meditation based on stoicism. The text which accompanies the picture explains that skeletons were shown at Roman banquets so that people would prepare themselves to their own end. More generally, all of Paradin's "heroicall devises" can be considered as icons of war and death-- graphic and textual monuments set in a larger shrine which is nothing else but the book itself. The latter tries to integrate death into an ideal social order inspired from stoicism, and also into a religious perspective based on the medieval and Renaissance memento mori traditions.

  17. Geoffrey Whitney also provided his Choice of Emblemes with a monumental dimension, but he did so in a far subtler way. This book is more intrinsically coherent than Heroicall Devises, since it is not a compilation of two distinct works. Moreover, Whitney was not content with using the same imagery as Paradin. He endowed his work with a conspicuous architectural structure. His book of emblems is openly assimilated to a magnificient funerary building which the reader/observer enters, visits and finally leaves. The first emblem, which shows a pyramid covered with ivy, welcomes the reader with a solemn praise of Elizabeth I for restoring social order. In the Renaissance, pyramids often illustrated funerary traditions and more precisely a death mastered by culture and reason. Thus, the monarch who put an end to the troubles of the English Reformation is associated to a perfect funerary monument. The last emblem (Tempus omnia terminat) conventionally uses the sunset to symbolize the end of human life while repeating the praise of the Virgin Queen. But just before, emblem 229 b (entitled Ex maximo minimum) shows a skull and bones that are, according to the commentary, "a relicke meete in charnel-house to lye." The words "meete" and "charnel-house" point to funerary conventions which consist in enclosing human remains in ossuaries and shrines. [16] From the obelisk of the beginning to the charnel-house of the end, A Choice of Emblemes displays a macrocosmic architecture which contains microcosmic edifices displaying various episodes of human life. Indeed, many of the pictures situate the reader inside a building or in front of it, so that the image he discovers is set in a smaller architectural frame. This embedded chain of monuments builds a meaningful sequence of events, turning the wild nature of death into mythical history based on Renaissance topoi and Homeric myth.

  18. Still, the contrast between the relics shown in monuments and hidden inside them is far more ambiguous than in Heroicall Devises. Instead of displaying a sacred architecture and martial signs in most of the emblems and macabre elements in a few others, this book uses posing characters, buildings, statues, and macabre items as the recurring motifs of its pictures. When macabre objects and violent acts are situated within Whitney's monuments, one sometimes wonders whether they are holy relics or if they cast an aura of violence around them. Emblem 33 puts the stress on the former theme. A statue showing Medea about to slaughter her children symbolizes the reproof of infanticide. [17] In this case, death is clearly shown as a contained force, even a holy force. "Medea about to strike" is a pose in which the observer/reader does catch a glimpse of a savage irrational impulse, as it it the case with Pyrrhus' sword hanging over Priam in Hamlet's declamation. However, in Whitney's emblem, this pose involves nothing else but a classical statue and no macabre object is to be seen. What we behold here is nothing else but a petrified and appeased representation of violence. In the didactic commentary appended to the picture, Whitney tells us to worship this mythical monument in order to avoid the unpredictable consequences of anger--a leitmotiv of his book.

  19. Still, in other emblems, a monumental frame enhances the barbarous aspects of death instead of putting it at a safe distance. Doubt is sometimes cast over the holiness of relics. In emblem 46 (Varii Hominum Sensus, i. e. "The diverse opinions of men"), opinion is firmly condemned when it invades the thoughts of men, Whitney argues, the sacred truth contained in funerary traditions crumbles into oblivion. [18] In this picture, a few skulls lie scattered on the ground, away from a chapel standing on a hill. An old woman walks up the hill to carry them back to the holy shelter. This act obviously stands for the cultural order of the Monument. Interestingly, the old woman is shown twice, according to the medieval principle of représentation simultanée--on the left, she picks up the skulls; on the right, she stumbles down and they fall from her lap. [19] Représentation simultanée, here, is far from conventional because it endows the emblem with an ironical warp which is typical of late Renaissance English iconography. If we interpret the picture in a sequential order, things seem relatively simple. We discover a satirical reading which evokes the eschatology of Morality Plays--barbaric death will be subdued by religion and culture as soon as the skulls are laid to rest against the wall of the chapel. Chaotic death is therefore enshrined in a theological frame. The didactic verse which accompanies this picture blames men for being submitted to the power of opinion. It also extolls the holiness of the monument which is enthroned on the hill. In the picture itself, moreover, the chapel's stability and existence are never put into question--this elevated monument situates the emblem in the memento mori tradition. Although skulls may fall down and be lost, the Church won't be submitted to the chaos of "opinion."

  20. In a non-sequential interpretation of the picture, however, the skulls are picked up by the old woman and fall down to be picked up again, ad infinitum, as in Sisyphus' or Ixion's everlasting torments. This view, arguably, is as satirical as the first. Yet, it doesn't totally fit in the traditional and dogmatic vision of monuments because it sheds ironical light on their ability to protect man from the chaos of opinion. [20] In this light, indeed, unsettling questions emerge. For example, while acknowledging that Whitney wants us to worship religious monuments and funerary traditions, we may wonder which Church he is referring to. The chapel in the background can be seen as the regrettably vanishing world order of Catholicism, in which bones and skulls were neatly piled up in charnel-houses and shown to the community as holy relics. The skulls scattered in the foreground, on the contrary, may well symbolize the new status of human remains in the Protestant world--derelict and unsafe objects which indecently lie out of their monuments. Because Varii hominum sensus blames men for not taking care of relics, the forsaken skulls may appear as holy as dangerous. In this muddled theological context, a barbarous death seems to be oozing out from religious and funerary buildings, no matter how people strive to keep them inside. [21]

  21. As Varii hominum sensus, the two emblems studied below are more ambivalent than one could think, even if their didactic commentaries subdue the chaotic dimension of the picture by enclosing it in the monument of homeric myth. They show a more disquieting image of death because they evoke the encounter of Eros and Thanatos. In emblem 30 (In Victoriam dolo partam, "Of victory gained by deceit"), a lady sits on Ajax' tomb tearing her hair in grief. [22] As with Medea's statue in emblem 33, classical mythology is called upon in order to warn us against the unpredictable effects of emotions. The satirical commentary explains that Ajax went mad with anger and killed himself when Agamemnon granted Achilles' arms to Ulysses. The picture provides this legend with monumentality since it turns it into an act of mourning performed on a sepulchre. However, the violence of this act of grief eclipses its ritual and mythical dimension. Like Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, this emblem mocks Greek heroes while celebrating them as ideal exempla. For what is actually recollected here? The fame and fate of Homeric warriors, of course, as in countless medieval and Renaissance books describing the fall of princes (for example Boccacio's De Casibus Illustrium Virorum). But the emblem also alludes, more obliquely, to the catastrophe triggered by Ajax's surge of envy and by Agamemnon's stupid political decision. The motif of the lady tearing her hair in grief over her lover's tomb implies that political ineptitude and unmastered envy entail violent death, erotic frustration and physical disfigurement, just as the Andronici's monument does in Titus Andronicus. Since Whitney's characters are supposed to be ideal representations of mankind, the emblem may also hint at the utter inability of men to control such catastropic impulses.

  22. A violent and eroticized death appears even more blatantly in emblem 193 (Strenuorum immortale nomen, "the immortal fame of men of valour"), which praises Achilles' tomb as a monument of eternal fame. [23] The picture shows a naked woman wading out of the sea and approaching the sepulchre. Her hand touches the tomb in homage to Achilles. Whitney's commentary tells us that she is goddess Thetis, Achilles' mother. The left part of the picture seems to symbolize the realm of desire and irrational emotions. Indeed, Thetis' breasts and sexual organs are clearly visible. Moreover, this zone is filled with unstable and chaotic forms (the waves of the sea, a monster in the background and of course beautiful Thetis, naked and loose-haired). The right part, on the contrary, stands for stability and order, as the geometrical, square shape of the tomb shows. But the latter lies at the very limit of the shore, so that it seems about to collapse into the sea through which Thetis is wading. Here again, the emblem suggests a chain of catastrophic, unspeakable events triggered by irresistible emotions. Achilles' tomb, which symbolizes posthumous reputation but also taboo and social order, is about to be overwhelmed by the waves of blind desire. The erosion caused by the waves might cause it to fall into the sea and disintegrate, disclosing the mangled remains of the hero. [24] From a Freudian perspective, this gesture also evokes incestuous desires since a mother is about to join the body of her dead son. [25] These necrophiliac undertones recall the last scenes of Romeo and Juliet, which use the Capulets' vault to stage an extremely unsettling vision of death.

  23. Still, even though elementary social and logical boundaries seem about to collapse, the didactic poem brings us back to a conventional praise of posthumous reputation. After providing the naked woman and the tomb with Homeric names, it points out that Achilles' sepulchre is covered with "branches sweete" as a sign of honour, much as Paradin does when he shows us a skull crowned with laurel. Then, the poem draws a neat conclusion about eternal fame and the integrity of monuments:

    [This] shewes, thoughe deathe the valiaunt overthrowe,
    Yet after fate, their fame remaines behinde:
    And triumphes still, and dothe no conquest knowe,
    But is the badge of everie noble minde:
    And when in grave their corpes inclosed lye,
    Their famous actes doe pierce the azure skye.

    This emblem reveals that Whitney is caught in a strange double bind in which monuments are both eternal and inevitably destroyed by Time. While some pictures of A Choice of Emblemes extoll the integrity of monumental architecture, others deny its eternity. For instance, emblem 131 (Scripta manent) displays a palace shattered to rubble by an earthquake. Or perhaps do we witness, in a sort of speeded-up motion, the havoc slowly wreaked by Time. Yet this is certainly not a nihilistic image of architectural and human ruin. Whitney's commentary subdues the image of decay by explaining that the act of writing is stronger than Time--as Shakespeare writes in his Sonnets, material architectures are bound to collapse but poetry shall survive for ever:

    If mighty Troy, with gates of steel and brass,
    Be worn away, with tract of stealing time, […]
    Then, what may last, which time does not impeach,
    Since what we see, these monuments are gone,
    Nothing at all but time does over-reach,
    It eats the steel, and wears the marble stone,
    But writings last, though it do what he can,
    And are preserved, even since the world began. [26]

    These lines from A Choice of Emblemes extoll a very widespread Elizabethan topos. Whitney acknowledges that men and edifices are bound to be destroyed by natural erosion, erring opinions, physical violence and sexual desire. But he maintains that eloquence and writings are unperishable monuments. [27]

  24. The monumental dimension of Whitney's book is preserved, then, because the written text systematically clarifies the double bind which is regularly (though by no means systematically) suggested in the pictures. As I have shown, Whitney's graphic allegories often enhance a disordered image of death through denouncing the oblivion of funerary traditions. This thematic instability echoes and amplifies the semiotic ambivalence that is characteristic of visual art. Indeed, the allegorical dimension of a graphic, painted or photographic work is fundamentally debatable because it can be reversed at will by the observer. The latter's interpretation largely depends on complex unconscious motivations. Anyone who looks at Whitney's emblems is fascinated by their monumental dimension, but he/she is also allured by their eroticism and their violence. He/she may also be led astray from the main principles dictated by theology, memento mori ideology or merely social taboos. The didactic poems, on the contrary, bring us back to elementary cultural principles. Through performing a logical analysis of the pictures, they sift away their ambiguities and build a stable, univocal meaning based on a conventional vision of death and monuments.

  25. The precedence of text over picture is actually more than a didactic message. It is a method to interpret the book. The reader is supposed to look at the picture on top of the page and then to read the text printed at the bottom. This defines a ritual passage from an ambiguous interpretation that errs between different viewpoints to a univocal allegorical message displayed in monumental guise. Very frequently, Whitney asks rhetorical questions to guide our mind's eye (many lines begin with questions such as "what is…,""who is….," or statements like "this is to show"). He comments upon the pictures in order to infer a dogmatic message based on the statement highlighted above death, violent and eroticized as it may be, shall be kept prisoner in the eternal monuments of memento mori, satirical poetry and classical myth. In a third step, the picture can be reconsidered in the light of this conventional interpretation, thereby eliminating any devious readings elaborated at first sight. Like Paradin's book of emblems, but in a far subtler manner, Whitney's reflects the Renaissance concept of coincidentia oppositorum. Its dialectic progress claims it possible to reconcile opposed ideas in order to build a coherent and harmonious allegory, a clear-cut monumental vision of death.

  26. But does it really work this way? The pictorial violence of these two emblem books potentially contradicts the monumental dimension of the pictures and of the poetic commentaries. In spite of the allegorical landmarks set in and around the pictures, the observer/reader may be fascinated or shocked by a ruined monument, a nude body or an empty skull, so much so that the visual and emotional impressions exert a stronger impact than the allegorical monument built through the didactic poem. As David Freedberg shows in The Power of Images, pictures and objects representing dead or suffering human faces can be very shocking. Sometimes this emotional impact is so strong that it prevents the observer from building any rational discourse from it. Anyway, this impact comes first so that it inevitably influences the rest of the observer's perceptive and intellectual analysis. [28]

  27. Paradin's Victoria limes, discussed above, displays a grinning skull whose empty eyes are staring at us. But what are we actually looking at? As in Whitney's Varii hominum sensus, the skull is first of all a disquieting sign. At the early stage of interpretation, it is an empty human head which seems to be endowed with a life of its own. Later, this macabre sign is turned into a monument by visual and textual signs (the laurel wreath and stoic philosophy). If the reader looks at the skull again after reading the text, the commentary fades into the background and death recaptures some of its frightening and mysterious dimension. However, the allegorical signs of the picture are still there to remind him of its "true," monumental meaning. The skull is also turned into a memento mori stereotype because the rest of the book integrates this potentially frightening object into a heraldic and philosophical monument. Even when there is a disintegration of the memento mori perspective, the array of emblematic signs displayed in Paradin's book guarantees what I shall call a "reintegration," i.e. the return to an allegorical interpretation based on the Monument.

  28. In Whitney's Ex maximo minimum, the situation is different. The emotional impact of the skull is probably as important as in Paradin's Victoria limes since both emblems are close-ups of empty eye sockets whose gaze is far from reassuring. Yet Whitney seems more conscious of the consequences of this emotional dimension than Paradin, and less eager to merely extoll the traditions of his day. Whitney's final zooming in on the skull does not build a coherent image of death based on stoic philosophy. It shows a gap between the Catholic and Protestant doctrines, and more fundamentally, between materiality and theology, spontaneous reactions and rational discourse. The empty head of Ex maximo minimum is bare--it has got no laurel wreath, no cover of any sort. Neither is it set in an ossuary, for it merely lies on the ground, as forsaken as the scattered skulls displayed in Varii hominum sensus. The line "a relicke meete in charnel-house to lie" makes it clear that this bone is regrettably not part of any monument. Neither is it a holy relic. Because no visual sign garantees the allegorical validity of the emblem, the empty gaze of the eye sockets remains disquieting. In a satirical perspective, it may be blaming us for disregarding funerary rituals, for keeping death in an undomesticated, barbaric status. And even if the reader can turn the page to replace the gaze of the skull with a reassuring sunset, the emblem has nonetheless recapitulated all the macabre images displayed in the book.

  29. Of course, these devious connotations are always contained in some form of conventional architecture. Emblem books allow allegories of death eventually to triumph over their chaotic counterpart, although this chaos has to be shown before it is more or less successfully subdued. Even the abandoned skull of Ex maximo minimum belongs to a series of frames--literary monuments such as the poem that accompanies the picture, the large frame which surrounds it, [29] the book to which the emblem belongs, its literary genre, and more generally the whole memento mori tradition. Whitney's book of emblems is therefore able to extoll the Monument while suggesting that it might be nothing but an empty, meaningless sign system. He also follows the hesitations of Elizabethan theology to suggest that relics might actually be lethal objects or meaningless, disposable remains. These emblems present us with a death that is impossible to clearly describe in pictures or words, a death that no monument can successfully contain. To forget this fact, one can of course take refuge in the easy explanations provided in the simple visual and textual signs that are scattered in the book--for example the pyramid of the beginning, the sunset of the end, the Homeric or medieval heroes, and above all the didactic poems.

  30. Although emblem books managed to find a precarious compromise between the Catholic and Protestant conceptions of the Monument, this theological recuperation was not so efficient in other literary genres. For example, Stow's Survey of London (1598) turns relics and monuments into problematic cultural forms. The author considers the Elizabethan capital as a perfect example of cultural organization. The description of London, one parish after another, clearly mirrors the development of emblem books. A Survey of London displays "pictures" of urban life in sequential order, adorned with allegorical comments. Like Whitney, Stow often mentions damaged monuments, but instead of alluding to mythical examples, he describes buildings which the shockwave of the Reformation has maimed, especially tombs that have been destroyed, lost, looted, sold, or turned to secular uses. His narrative is permeated with a sense of urgency and despair, as if collective memory, ritual celebrations and monuments were threatened with an awful absence. While the narrator desperately recalls damaged or illegible shreds of London's past, a wild death is seen escaping its cultural bounds. Relics lose their magical dimension to become mere meaningless matter--dead objects that may be sold, bought or destroyed at will. As Edward T. Bonahue writes in "Citizen History: Stow's Survey of London,"

    The Survey expresses Stow's fear that almost anything in London could be bought or sold, even items that should be nonnegociable. Stow is aghast at the confused jumble of church graves and monuments inside Aldmarie Church […] where men have bought and sold the holy tombs intended for others. [30]

    Because Stow's monuments are actual instead of mythical, his allegorical discourse is doomed to failure--coincidentia oppositorum is not so much the aim of the book as its inaccessible horizon. This problematic situation was further explored in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy. In this genre, death clearly becomes a paradoxical symbol, for it is both described as ordered and barbaric. Theatrical monuments such as the play's text, the properties and even the actors both commemorate the traditional cult of the dead and show that this cult can't properly describe death or subdue its wildness.


  31. Contemporaries held conflicting opinions of Elizabethan tragedy. It was either considered as a despicable popular amusement or as a noble literary genre. Curiously enough, this divide reflects the notions which underpin the Monument. Puritans, for example, thought that tragedy and more generally drama allowed the Londoners to leave the architectural, moral and religious structures which enclosed them within the bounds of social order. From their viewpoint, when Londoners witnessed the staging of death in tragedies, they entered a fake monument--set aside from the normal world an illusory representation of society that set free erotic desire and dangerous opinions while pretending to contain them in monumental architectures.

  32. On the contrary, the defenders of English drama claimed that this arena could act as a shrine because it sheltered actors who celebrated heroic feats and an idealized representation of death. Many examples of tragedy's commemorative power can be found in Elizabethan critical essays, for example in Thomas Heywood's An Apology for Actors or in John Webster's "An Excellent Actor." And in plays belonging to this genre, tombs and relics very often act as sacred objects which contain death and extoll a world order based of funerary rituals. In Shakespeare's 1 Henry VI, the Duke of Burgundy draws a heroic portrait of Talbot. Foretelling that his fame shall live on for ever, he turns him into a statue celebrating English chivalry:

    Warlike and Martiall Talbot, Burgonie
    Inshrines thee in his heart, and there erects
    Thy noble Deeds, as Valors Monuments. [31]

    The prophetic dimension of these lines must have been strong indeed for Elizabethan playgoers since Talbot (as they most certainly knew) is just about to be killed in battle. Through this advanced commemoration of the hero, the audience was brought to realize that Talbot was about to die and to be turned into a monument, but also that plays (history plays in this example) could show time-honoured citizens enshrining the glory of the nation. [32]

  33. English Renaissance tragedy stood at a crossways between the celebration of the past through monuments and a more chaotic semiotic system. On the one hand, idealized monuments do act as memento mori emblems, especially when they act as frames for allegorical situations. This use of monuments was probably inspired from emblem books, in which, as I have shown, tombs already have the same function. Tragedy may also have borrowed this emblematic sign system from medieval drama, in which pageants also framed holy examples, notably Christ's crucifixion, the Visitatio sepulchrum and His rising from the dead. On the other hand, however, late Elizabethan tragedy uses ruined monuments to suggest an uncontained, wild and eroticized death, in a far more overt manner than Whitney. In Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet, tombs and dead bodies displayed on stage are mostly receptacles for blind violence and barbarous eroticism evil wombs that breed monstruous destruction.

  34. What is interesting is that many plays simply reflect both aspects of the Monument. In The Revenger's Tragedy (1607), for example, a "discontented lord" swears revenge in front of the body of his abused wife. This body is not a forsaken corpse but a very sophisticated funerary object which functions as a memento mori reminder as well as a prompt for the revenge that closes the play. The husband describes the relics that adorn his wife's body ("a prayer-book" is "the pillow to her cheek" and a slip of paper in her hand claims that it is better to die than to live without honour). Then, he and his friends solemnly swear the oath of revenge. But the play also indicates that the human remains shown on stage can be dangerous, devilish properties. The relic-like body upon which revenge is sworn is later replaced with a damaged corpse--the remains of the lecherous Duke, who kissed a poisoned skull disguised as a prostitute.

  35. Webster's Duchess of Malfi (c. 1613) also shows monuments and relics in an ambiguous light. When Antonio stands in a ruined cloister, in front of the Duchess' tomb, he hears a prophetic echo of his doom. It answers him "thou art a dead thing" and "O, fly thy fate," which prompts him to declare that living as he does (i. e. as a banished man) is "a mockery and abuse of life." This monumental setting also restores some form of communication with the deceased heroine since he says he can make out "a face folded in sorrow" on a wall. In spite of this, Antonio never notices that he is standing just in front of his wife's tomb, which sheds ironical light upon this communication with the afterlife. Webster's tragedy is fraught with examples of violent death, for which potential relics often act as catalyzers instead of converting it into a holy force (it is the case, for example, with the dead hand that Ferdinand enjoins his sister to kiss in the dark). The Catholic and Protestant views of the monument are therefore set against each other, and it seems that no reconciliation is possible.

  36. In this part I shall examine these two tendencies in two plays, Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy (1611) and Shakespeare's Hamlet (c. 1600). The first one can be compared to Whitney's book of emblems because it uses monuments to control a potentially dangerous death, even if this control seems imperfect. The second play, on the contrary, considers monuments as ambiguous and imperfect cultural objects from the start, much in the way Stow does in A Survey of London. The presence of monuments will be studied in the literary texts, but also from the point of view of drama.


  37. This play is mostly concerned with the defence of a social order based on the binding force of tradition. The customs and rituals dealing with death play a central part in Tourneur's didactic strategy. The dramatic text is fraught with allusions to funerary monuments. For example, when D'Amville's accomplice kills his brother Montferrers by pushing him down into a gravel pit and knocking his head against a stone, the villain compares his machiavellian schemes to the erection of his "house" (i.e. his palace and his own dynasty, which implies the demolition of his brother's). The cornerstone of the villain's imaginary building is nothing else but his brother's skull. [33] D'Amville's fall at the end of the play is likewise associated to the collapse of a building deprived of foundations.

  38. Tourneur seems to have considered words themselves as monuments. Indeed, they act as linguistic showcases in which allegorical meaning is displayed. This is obvious when they are connected with death and funerary rituals, as it is often the case (words such as "skull," "death's head,""tomb,""epitaph" are put into contrast). Still, in spite of this allegorical straightforwardness, the play has a complexity of its own. The words used by the characters may be correct or incorrect from the orthodoxy that the play defends. Devious words are used by D'Amville when he presides over the funeral of Montferrers and Charlemont. He has murdered the former and disinherited the latter (his nephew) by reporting that he died during the siege of Ostend. The atheist's funeral speech is part of a pompous ceremony, complete with volleys, elegies and various acts of worship. But the presence of the Monument in this speech ironically betrays D'Amville's hypocrisy. He praises the departed by saying that their fame is like two columns on which could be written "non ultra" (i. e. "there is nothing beyond"), imitating a famous emblem which described Hercules. This literary allusion is double-edged since it points to a disquieting void--the villain actually compares Montferrers' and Charlemont's monuments to Greek temples reduced to their fronts. Owing to this devious vision of monumentality, the whole ceremony is revealed as deceitful appearance.

  39. In the two last acts, however, monuments are invoked as sacred buildings in order to punish D'Amville. When he attempts to defile his daughter-in-law in the churchyard, she relies on the sacred force of the tombs to resist this agression. She claims she had rather be tied for ever to a corpse than to "entertain the lust of this detested villain" (IV. 3. 153-155). This sentence denounces a disjunction of relic and shrine, desire and containment, but this is only meant to condemn the atheist for his incestuous attempt. From that episode on, all the textual allusions to monuments symbolize D'Amville's fall and punishment. Soon afterwards, he inadvertently stares at a skull, which spontaneously brings him to confess his crimes. He becomes mad, hallucinates and says that he sees his brother's ghost "in a white sheet" walking up a hill "to complain to heaven of [him]" (IV. 3. 198-225). The static monumentality of the next (and last) scene is obvious--the tribunal and the scaffold solemnly reinstate a world order based on the Monument. D'Amville appears before a court and he "strikes out his own brains" on the selfsame scaffold where Charlemont and his bride are reunited after their ordeal.

  40. The text of the play uses these symbolic places as frames to display emblematic situations. However, they are also visual signs, actual monuments which make up the scenery. George Kernodle, in an article about King Lear, points out that the action of Shakespeare's play never actually discards a monumental setting, even though the main character is excluded from his castles and from society as a whole. Undoubtedly, even though Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy showed the world as an awful chaos to contemporary playgoers, the building which sheltered actors and audience contained this chaos in a monumental architecture:

    Lear is cut off from his throne, his house, his ancient dignity, and thrust out of doors, out onto the empty forestage, huddled with a few lonely outcasts and fools. In that pelting storm even the heavens seem his enemy. […] The very basis of human and divine order is questioned. But there before the eyes of the audience, as always implied in the imagery of the dialogue, stood the columns, castle gates, parapet-balcony, canopy-heavens that for centuries had symbolized the social and cosmic order man and realm, earth and heaven.

    This state of things is repeatedly acknowledged in The Atheist's Tragedy. Although there is no proof for what follows, we may admit that the tragedy was written for the popular stage, on which two columns adorned the playing area. [35] This hypothesis is tempting since in this case, D'Amville's "non ultra speech" at his brother's funeral overtly becomes an architectural episode. In this ironical passage, Tourneur may have intended the actors to remind the audience of Hercules' mythical columns (a monumental symbol of his heroism, assimilated, in this case, to Charlemont's). More subtly, he may also have decided to use these columns as properties showing spectators that nothing but the stage and the actor's tiring-house lay behind D'Amville's fake ceremony.

  41. More generally, the New Globe suggests how easy it would be to frame the scenic tableaux of The Atheist's Tragedy in monumental settings, not only because its stage is adorned with various allegorical pictures that are actually visual frames, but also because it can quite easily symbolize a monument (be it a palace, a castle or a sepulchre) or a place sheltering monuments (especially a graveyard but also a wall covered with paintings or trophies, a gallery with columns and statues, and so on). The inner stage could also be used to display tableaux vivants illustrating conventional emblems of mortality. Indeed, this highly didactic tragedy is composed of a series of conventional tableaux displaying visions of good and evil, like the key scenes of Morality Plays or the Chritian spectacle of medieval pageants. They draw from these dramatic traditions while imitating the succession of allegorical images in emblem books.

  42. As in both of these genres, the objects displayed on stage are icons which help us distinguish truth from illusion. Indeed, this was the function of the props used in sixteenth-century English Morality Plays (especially tombs, symbolic characters, crowns, weapons and scaffolds). Here too, symbolic props are meant to help the audience distinguish between good and evil, truth and deceit, fake monuments and actual monuments. The charnel-house in which Charlemont finds a sanctuary makes use of this sign system. In antithesis to D'Amville's hypocritical use of monuments, this tableau highlights a perfect conjunction between human remains and their containers:

    Charlemont. […] I fear I am pursued: for more assurance I'll go hide me here i'th' charnel house, that convocation-house for dead men's skulls.
    [To get into the charnel-house he takes hold of a death's head; it slips and staggers him.]
    Death's head, deceiv'st my hold? Such is the trust to all mortality.
    [Hides himself in the charnel-house.] [36]

    The saintly character climbs inside a holy shelter (which may well have been the inner stage). He picks up a skull on his way; it falls down, which gives rise to a sententious allegorical comment ("Such is the trust to all mortality.") This episode so strongly recalls Whitney's Varii hominum sensus that I am tempted to think that Tourneur deliberately adapted it for his play. Like Whitney's emblem, Tourneur's monumental tableau builds a sequential interpretation which gives priority to text over picture. After showing the hero performing his sacred act in a house of death, he has him utter a totally conventional commentary. Even though spectators might startle when the skull is dislodged from the charnel-house (and their surprise can be strong, especially if the object rolls down into the audience), this reaction would probably be subdued into a monumental vision--a man meditating upon a skull, who leaves this prop behind him when he has understood the vanity of life.

  43. Was Tourneur a staunch Catholic? Not at all. From this point of view, the evidence above is misleading. Michael H. Higgins has proved that the play is inspired by Calvinism, which clearly situates it in the Protestant conception of the Monument. [37] In the episode quoted above, the charnel-house may indeed be seen as a traditional shrine and the skulls as a relic. However, in Tourneur's perspective, the point is not that skulls and charnel-houses are holy or magical, not even that they hold a dangerous force, although these notions certainly linger in the background of the play. They are mostly useful objects of devotion which allow the hero to understand a Protestant allegory of death. Similarly, if the holy edifices of The Atheist's Tragedy are sanctuaries, it is not because they hold the sacred aura of the dead. They simply contain human remains to symbolize social and theological order, allowing individuals to examine their souls and distinguish between the precepts of memento mori and extravagant "opinions." These individuals are of course the characters of the play, but the spectator too is supposed to carry out this introspection when he sees the actors interacting with monuments, or with other actors in front of monuments. Another Protestant feature is perhaps that the showing of relics is only an intermediary step in the dialectic development of the play. Once the tragic situation has been solved (i.e. once the cultural treatment of death and social hierarchy have been restored), skulls and dead bodies become useless and therefore disappear. The monuments that are shown in the last act perfectly contain violent death and control it--in the last episode, the heroic, statue-like Charlemont and Castabella literally step over the mangled body of D'Amville on the scaffold.

  44. In post-Renaissance Europe, it has become daring to stage plays like The Atheist's Tragedy. In any case it is very difficult to extoll monumental emblems in the way Tourneur's text suggests the actors should do. In Europe and America, this kind of allegorical drama is often criticized for being naive, simplistic or deprived of literary value, even though it flourishes elsewhere, for example in Japanese or Chinese theatre. It is true, of course, that a modern Western audience is unlikely to be interested in Calvinistic doctrine or in the Protestant vision of funerary monuments. Monuments and macabre properties have survived on the stage, but they now suggest other meanings for death. It is for this reason that the 1994 production of this play at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre systematically reversed the didactic message of the play, turning the villain into the hero and ridiculing such monumental passages as Charlemont's encounter with the ghost of his father, his bride Castabella's lamenting her beloved's death over his grave, and the atheist's demise on the scaffold. The producer, Anthony Clark, chose to play the first episode as a parody of Michelangelo's fresco in the Sistine chapel. Montferrers' ghost pointed at his son--a gesture that echoed God's Creation of Adam--but he did so through a ruined canopy. The second episode implied an erotic and even sadistic perspective, since Castabella appeared in front of a wall on which was written "give her one tonight !" Last, D'Amville's death was played on a kitsch star-shaped podium inspired from American TV shows. His knocking out his own brains with the executioner's axe was played as a mock suicide after deliberately using the axe on himself, D'Amville extracted his own brain from his skull and held it in front of the audience. [38] These three episodes made fun of Tourneur's late Renaissance Protestantism, ridiculing the idea of an introspection through the contemplation of monuments. Objects of faith, love and justice were turned into decaying and corrupt structures while the remains they were supposed to contain were systematically brought forward to symbolize a barbaric and grotesque death. Very probably, the audience was less horrified than startled, since the potential horror of the play was quickly situated in a comic perspective.

  45. The parodic reversal upon which the production was based relied on a systematic physical--and architectural--displacement. For example, the ghost who was perched on a dilapidated roof pointing at his son was outside his canopy. This displacement recurred when Castabella lamented over her forced marriage. Whereas Tourneur's text situates her near Charlemont's funerary monument, a wall covered with obscene graffiti lay behind the actress. Similarly, the holy justice of the scaffold on which D'Amville lives his last moments was replaced with a grisly spectacle of death, which some spectators described as both comic and disgusting. This episode was not played centre stage but on a small podium installed near the audience. This particularly obvious displacement emphasized the complicity between the villain (who could also be defined as a demolisher of monuments) and the spectators.

  46. Even if this production mocked what Tourneur presents as sacred truth, we can notice that it did not actually discard this emblematic message. Paradoxically enough, in order to reverse the meaning which underpins Tourneur's heavily didactic text, the production had to rely upon it as a conceptual and architectural foil. Probably any production of The Atheist's Tragedy is bound to reflect its monumental background since even a parody of the play has to take into it account. Emblematic traditions are not so easily erased, even when they are three hundred years old. And it may well be that any culture needs such traditions, whatever shape they take.


  47. Like Tourneur, Shakespeare probably drew his inspiration from Whitney's book of emblems, even if he borrowed from this source in a far more subtle way. Instead of using monuments as conservatories of tradition, faith and domesticated death, Hamlet gets spectators and readers to put this allegorical context into question. Significantly, Shakespeare does not try to situate the Monument in a specific religious doctrine. Like Whitney, he borrows from Catholicism and Protestantism in order to build a synthetic (and therefore highly unstable) vision of the Monument.

  48. In Hamlet as well as in Titus Andronicus, monuments are considered as theologically doubtful structures. The scandalous mistreatment of humain remains is openly expressed in at least three key scenes of Hamlet. As early as scene I. 4, Hamlet and the Ghost allude to this topic. Old Hamlet's vacant tomb becomes a terrifying object when his son asks whether he has been properly buried. The monument is both an exploded building and a wild beast turned loose:

    …I'll call thee Hamlet,
    King, father, royal Dane: O, answer me!
    Let me not burst in ignorance; but tell
    Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
    Have burst their cerements; why the sepulchre,
    Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn'd,
    Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws,
    To cast thee up again. [39]

    This literally haunting vision of the open grave recurs with renewed impact at the end of the play. After Polonius and Ophelia have both died violently and been buried "in hugger-mugger," as Claudius tells Gertrude, the mistreatment of the dead is shocking indeed. If Polonius, the "tedious old fool," will hardly be missed, the text insistently invites us to sympathise with his daughter and to deplore her catastrophic fate. Claudius, the arch-hypocrite of the play, promises Gertrude a "living monument" for Ophelia. [40] But this tomb will probably never be built since the deceased is refused proper rites of burial in the first place. Similarly, Yorick's skull is deprived of any monumental frame since it is simply dug out of the earth. It belongs to a man who was Hamlet's best childhood friend, which brings us back to a cruel, blind death that simply tatters our lives into shreds.

  49. Of course, the pose of Hamlet holding the skull of Yorick is itself a "living monument" translated into dramatic language. [41] Hamlet recollects memories of his childhood while he holds the skull, building his pose from a famous contemporary visual topos. [42] It is more interesting to note that Hamlet's most famous memento mori speeches are deliberate patchworks of Renaissance commonplaces upon death, just as the "to be or not to be" monologue and Ophelia's "snatches of old lauds" are composed, respectively, of stoic commonplaces and Elizabethan ballads. This heterogeneity appears, for example, in Hamlet's improvised couplets when he beholds the skull:

    Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
    Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
    O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
    Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw! [43]

    As is often the case, the hero is only playing with words and literary conventions. He builds a conventional death speech from the skull while his pose reflects generic codes, those that are associated to the meditation upon death, of course, but also all the dramatic conventions that have built up around the most famous passage in Hamlet. However, contrary to what Jeffery Alan Triggs, among others, confidently asserts, Hamlet's pose with the skull of Yorick can't be assimilated to an aesthetic absolute--a theatrical monument that would harmoniously express the archetype of man facing his own end. [44] Because of the fluidity that is proper to drama, the translation of this emblematic pose on the stage indicates that such monumental structures are artificial. Just as Titus' monument in the opening quotation of this article, Hamlet's pose is a fake funerary structure--a purpose-built translation of death. The contemplation of Yorick's skull is part of an acting continuum--this pose has to be built by the character (who is himself an actor playing a role for his friend Horatio) and it will not last for ever. It may even fall to pieces if Hamlet's staging proves too awkward. Even if this passage is certainly not a parody of the memento mori tradition, its fragmental nature and theatrical self-awareness prevents us from being fully convinced of the reality of the literary monument the actor-hero is building. The skull, which is visible all the time as the hero builds his pose, generates it and silently mocks it. [45]

  50. If the skulls of this scene are not mere allegories, as Tourneur invites us to consider them in the scene of The Atheist's Tragedy studied above, it is because Shakespeare's scene implies a strong, unspeakable violence. It is also because these macabre properties cause the play to ask unanswerable questions instead of providing us with ready-made allegories. The skulls handled by Hamlet are undoubtedly relics and they recapitulate various discourses upon death, society and monuments. The first ones (the Lawyer, the Landowner, "Lady Worms") recall the dreadful undifferenciated death of the Danse Macabre, with its processional destruction of degree and its ominous neglect of funeral monuments. Yorick's skull, on the contrary, may be considered as a holy monument in its own right, and also as a reconstructed individuality endowed with a paradoxical life which prompts Hamlet's memory and meditation. Nevertheless, from a Protestant viewpoint, all these human remains are also useless fragments of dead bodies which have been mishandled and deprived of their shelters--mysterious, fascinating signs from a twilight zone that the spectators at once want to gaze at, listen about, and get rid of. [46] This scene turns the skull into a dead-and-alive object, not so much because it might be a genuinely living thing but because he brings us to understand that we don't really know what death is, because we realize that all discourses built upon it are both superficial and contradictory.

  51. This ambivalent status was suggested in Matthew Warchus' Hamlet (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1998), in which Hamlet held a grimy skull whose jaw and empty eyes cast an alarming aura, even though the pose of the actor strived to build a monument out of this deadly sign. [47] In Peter Brook's 2000 production, Adrian Lester faced a pure white form set on a bamboo pole, but Hamlet's emphatic pointing at the skull betrayed a desire to stay apart from this disquieting object. In this production, other properties discreetly echoed the skull while casting an alarming aura over the performance--Hamlet physically threatened Rosencrantz by pointing the recorder at his throat.

  52. As I have shown, in The Atheist's Tragedy, Tourneur strives to de-realize skulls and charnel-houses in order to turn them into mere allegories, because his objective is to turn a vision of horror and fascination into an emblem of tame death. The point of Shakespeare's play is very different indeed. Hamlet isn't a succession of tableaux illustrating barbarous or domesticated death. It strives to establish monumental scenes while the very material out of which they should be built resists such transformation. All the emblematic language invested into properties (skulls, dead bodies, tombs) and into the living body of the actor (through voice, gesture, words) can't really make sense of death--all they can do is translate some of its aspects into speech, pose or architecture. The tragedy of this tragedy is that such meaning-making is both necessary and impossible. [48]


  53. The presentation of death in emblem books and tragedy between 1580 and 1610 mirrors the crisis of a theology, but also of a whole culture. During these decades emerged the idea that death had to be hidden because it was dangerous, and contemporaries were also regretting the time when holy relics were shown and worshipped by the whole civic body. One may easily consider Whitney's and Paradin's works as conventional presentations of memento mori ideology, but things are far more complex than that since they reflect all these contradictions and misgivings. To understand how this paradox is embedded in emblem books, it is necessary to explore the visual icons and textual conventions of the Monument, because they have become for us obscure, little-known signs. Elizabethan tragedy, on the contrary, doesn't demand so much explanatory criticism. It is still part of our culture and it provides us with images of death that are far easier to grasp, emotionally and intellectually. Whereas the conventions of the Monument, as they appear in emblem books, situate us in front of a closed, complex and rigid sign-system, theatre is by essence an open form--the dramatic text is supposed to be translated into a current cultural language. The basic conditions of theatrical performance force actors to use words and signs that the audience can understand. Tragedy and its offshoots (I am thinking of Barker's and Bond's drama) focus on archetypal signs instead of merely embedding them in the topoi of a specific period. In a sense, stage properties like skulls and notions like funerary rituals are both historically marked signs and universal symbols. So is the notion of cultural crisis as it is expressed through tragic drama, with its insistence upon the neglect of monuments and rituals of death. Nobody is going to translate Whitney's Book of Emblems into contemporary language--it fully belongs to a literary period and only criticism can explain it. On the contrary, a producer who tackles Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, or The Atheist's Tragedy must find a way to translate their visions of the Monument into contemporary language. This is highly rewarding work, for it allows the audience and the actors to recover a forgotten cultural past--the Monument--to experience different cultural translations of death, and to get a sense of its fundamental irrationality.


1. Michael Neill, Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1997), 311.

2. Nigel Llewellyn,The Art of Death: Visual Culture in the English Death Ritual 1500-1800, (London: Reaktion Books, 1991).

3. Neill, Issues of Death, 306.

4. Llewellyn, The Art of Death, 25.

5. Robert Cawdrey, A Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the understanding of hard usuall English wordes, 1604 (Early Modern English Dictionaries Database).

6. Early Modern English Dictionaries Database <http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/english/emed/-patterweb.html>

7. As Michael Neill writes, "monuments functioned as the culminating episode of the heraldic obsequies, in which ephemeral pageantry was transformed to everlasting marble, freezing the triumphal symbolism of funeral rites for all time" (Issues of Death, 41).

8. The "late Elizabethan" period here refers to the last decade of the sixteenth century and the first decade of the seventeenth (therefore including the beginning of the Jacobean era).

9. For instance, one might ask whether Zenocrate's hearse in Marlowe's 2 Tamburlaine is a holy relic a mere object of worship for the hero or if it situates the latter's acts and ruminations in a disquieting, ominous light.

10. This occurred on May 3rd 1606. For this anecdote, see "The Gunpowder Plot Society: Profile of Henry Garnet,"<http://www.gunpowder-plot.org/people/h_garnet.htm> ; and also Antonia Fraser, Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot (New York, Doubleday, 1996).

11. See Scott Dudley, "Conferring with the Dead: Necrophilia and Nostalgia in the Seventeenth Century," ELH 66.2 (1999): 277-294.

12. Stephen Mullaney, The Place of the Stage: License, Play and Power in Renaissance England (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997). The author describes a "pre-Reformation utopia"--i. e. a longing for a magical and ritual syntax based on the spectacle of death in his fourth chapter ("Apprehending Subjects," 88-115, see especially 93-94).

13. This image is mentioned at the end of Hamlet, when the hero is dying: the "fell sergeant" Death, who is "strict in his arrest," is about to seize him. One may also think about Tamburlaine's "imperious Death," "keeping his cricuit by the slicing edge," who is about to slaughter the virgins of Damascus (1 Tamburlaine, V. 2. 43-55).

14. Claudius Paradin, Heroicall Devises (1591), préface, pp 1-2 (Penn State University Libraries, < http://emblem.libraries.psu.edu/catalog.htm>).

15. Heroicall Devises.

16. Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes and other Devises (1586), in Alciato's Book of Emblems: The Memorial Edition in Latin and English (<http://www.mun.ca/alciato/whit/w229b.html>)

17. A Choice of of Emblemes, Ei, qui semel sua prodegerit, aliena credi non oportere ("He, who has once squandered his own goods, ought not to be trusted with another's."

18. A Choice of of Emblemes. We may define "opinion" as the right to search for one's own ideas and to put religious dogma into question.

19. The funerary portrait of Sir Henry Unton is another example of représentation simultanée (see Neill, Issues of Death, fig. 25, p. 271). Although this pictorial system was on the wane in Renaissance Europe, it was still practised in England, except by court painters like Holbein or Hilliard.

20. One might also argue that this picture, contrary to the former one, does not display a statue but a supposedly real person. Sculpture is replaced by theatre, which increases the dramatic tension of the emblem.

21. One of the skulls at the bottom of the illustration is encroaching upon its border, which to me suggests that the didactic frame of the emblem is threatened by a macabre disorder.

22. http://www.mun.ca/alciato/whit/w030.html.

23. http://www.mun.ca/alciato/whit/w193.html.

24. Here again, a comparison with Shakespeare's tragedies is possible. Timon of Athens suggests the same macabre event when the hero's tomb is described at the end of the play.

25. In Elizabethan English, the word "mother" also meant "suffocation" or what we would call today hysteria.

26. http://www.mun.ca/alciato/whit/w131.html.

27. This ideal vision of literature derives from classical precedents, maybe also from the absolute authority conferred on the Bible, which can be considered as the perfect Christian monument since it enshrines a whole religious tradition.

28. David Freedberg, The Power of Images (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1989). Freedberg is not concerned with allegory since he makes a distinction between the spontaneous reaction to the picture (which can be overwhelming) and the logical analysis which leads the observer to consider it as mere illusion. Yet, I think allegory is one of the strategies through which spontaneous reactions can be channelled and mastered.

29. This frame has not been reproduced on the website I have indicated above.

30. Edward T. Bonahue Jr., "Citizen History: Stow's Survey of London," Studies in English Literature 38.2 (1998): 61-85, 73.

31. 1 Henry VI, III. 2.

32. Julius Caesar also alludes to the eternal glory conferred on human history through theatre. Just after Caesar's murder, in Act III scene 2, Cassius utters out this prophecy : "How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!" Here again, barbaric violence and theatrical monumentality are juxtaposed.

33. The villain solemnly vows: "Upon this ground I'll build my manor-house / And this shall be the chiefest corner-stone" (II. 4. 104-105).

34. George R. Kernodle, "The Open Stage: Elizabethan or Existentialist?," Shakespeare Survey 12 (1969): 1-7, 4.

35. The architectural dimension of the Renaissance stage was not reserved to popular theatres, however. It is probable that any stage was conceived as a sort of building, as the words "playhouse" and "tiring-house" suggest.

36. The Atheist's Tragedy, IV. 3. 69-76.

37. Michael H. Higgins, "The Influence of Calvinistic Thought in Tourneur's Atheist's Tragedy," Review of English Studies 19 (January 1943): 255-262.

38. On this production, see Peter J. Smith, "The Atheist's Tragedy," Cahiers élisabéthains 46 (October, 1994): 81-83; and Anna-Marie Taylor, "'Make SPACE!': On a recent exhibition of stage design," Planet 127 (February-March 1998): <http://www.cambria.demon.co.uk/-theatr/critical/design.htm>.

39. Hamlet, I. 4.

40. As Harold Jenkins explains in his notes to the Arden edition of the play, a "living monument" was a magnificent tomb adorned with statues, meant to recall the fame of the departed for eternity.

41. It is this pose that Tourneur uses and adapts in The Atheist's Tragedy, when Charlemont climbs up into the charnel-house.

42. See Roland Mushat Frye, "Ladies, Gentlemen and Skulls: Hamlet and the Iconographic Traditions," Shakespeare Quarterly 30.1 (1979): 15-28.

43. Hamlet, V. 1. The fates of Caesar and Alexander had been cited as memento mori exempla since the Middle Ages.

44. See Jeffery Alan Triggs, "A Mirror for Mankind: The Pose of Hamlet with the Skull of Yorick," The New Orleans Review 17:3 (Fall 1990), 71-79.

45. In The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (London, New York, Routledge, 1980), Keir Elam writes that theatrical properties are never identical to the objects they are supposed to represent. All they have to do is convince the spectators that they are those things and that they fulfill the same functions as them. This gap between reality and theatrical sign is always taken into account (and used) in Shakespeare's tragedy.

46. The pose of the man contemplating a skull immediately follows the passage in which skulls are thrown out of the earth by the gravedigger. And when Ophelia's "maimed rites" come into play, Hamlet forgets the skull so that it is turned back to the negligible, useless vestige that was thrown away by the gravedigger at the beginning of the scene.

47. Pictures of that production are shown at <http://www.alexjennings.com>.

48. While Michael Neill thinks that the last scenes of Hamlet draw attention to the play itself as a successful rite of memory, I am more inclined to think that the last act ironically gives us a fragmented perspective upon death while pretending to give a coherent view of it. If these scenes indeed draw attention to the play as a sort of monument, this invites us to reconsider all the cracks in the emblems of death built along the performance.

Works Cited



Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).