Dead march: Liturgy and mimesis in Shakespeare's funerals

Brian Cummings*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This essay considers the dramatic topos of the dead march, a form of funeral procession used on the stage which enjoyed a peculiar vogue at the end of the sixteenth century. The dead march mimics religious ritual, and also seems to have inspired some borrowing in the opposite direction, as a form of procession used in later state funerals in historical reality, in which (we might say) death imitates art. This also raises some general questions about the interpretation of religious ritual in the Reformation, and also about the interpretation of religion in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. In what way is ritual an event and in what way is it a representation? Some anthropologists have used the theatre to create a rigid distinction between participation in ritual and the spectatorship of the theatre. They thus invoke the concept of mimesis to define ritual practice in reverse. Historians of theatre have then applied a version of the same theory to explain Elizabethan theatre as an emptying out of medieval functions of religion. As Stephen Greenblatt puts it, King Lear is haunted by a sense of rituals and beliefs that are no longer efficacious, that have been emptied out. This essay questions the boundaries used in such discussions between ritual and mimesis, and uses Shakespeare's dramatic representation of medieval religion to suggest new ways of interpreting the relation between religion and theatre.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)368-385
Number of pages18
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2012


  • death
  • funeral
  • ritual
  • theatre

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