Skeptical Epitaphs and Prospective Memory in Donne and Shakespeare

  • Anita Gilman Sherman

Abstract

Both Shakespeare and Donne wrote epitaphs for themselves and on commission—material evidence of attitudes toward memorialization that bear comparison with the representation of epitaphs in their literary work. But the business of writing epitaphs did not engage Shakespeare’s heart as it did Donne’s. While economics may partly account for this difference—Shakespeare being more independent financially and hence more free to distance himself from the customs and obligations of aristocratic patronage—the epitaphs they wrote for themselves suggest that their skepticism about future memory may have mattered as much as their sensitivity to their social positions. Donne is skeptical about memory in a way that causes him to appropriate and revise the fashion for monumentalization. But while he may seem skeptical of epitaphs in his lyric poetry, he is committed to them in practice. Indeed, Donne’s exceptional intensity regarding these valedictory markers manifests his skeptical anxiety regarding the value and veracity of both retrospective and prospective memory. By contrast, Shakespeare has equanimity. In both life and work, he laughs skeptically at the memorial aspirations of epitaphs, although even he acknowledges their disturbing power.

Keywords

Dust Foam Pyramid Egypt Burial 

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Notes

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© Anita Gilman Sherman 2007

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  • Anita Gilman Sherman

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