Politics of Mourning
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‘Hung be the heavens with black!’ (1.1.1): The First Part of Henry the Sixth opens with the delivery of solemn funeral orations. Before even these first words have been uttered, non-verbal sounds and sights mark the occasion. The ‘dead march’, the burial procession and the black draperies hung from the theatre’s roof or ‘heavens’ all establish the ceremonial performance of official mourning. In the beginning is the funeral: with this opening of what is possibly Shakespeare’s first history play,1 the dramatized War of the Roses begins by invoking the dead hero whose stage appearance, almost a decade and several plays later, will eventually conclude the history cycle. Commemorating King Henry V and gathering around his hearse, the historical actors here invite the audience to join them in a spectacle of grief. The performance thus takes place on two levels at once. To use Robert Weimann’s terms (1967, p. 381), the locus is Westminster Abbey, where the historical scene is located; but the platea of mourning is the wooden stage, the playhouse, whose properties and conventions Bedford’s opening words evoke. The relationship — and potential tension — between these two levels determine the performances of memory and the politics of mourning which this chapter sets out to explore.
KeywordsHenry VIII English History Public Memory Funeral Ceremony History Play
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