Shakespeare and Memory, by Hester Lees-Jeffries

Jerome de Groot on time, recollection and the Bard

November 7, 2013

“Why memory?” Hester Lees-Jeffries asks at the beginning of this absorbing book, but by the end of her compelling analysis it is tempting to think that there is nothing in Shakespeare’s work but meditations upon, versions of, or entanglements in, memory. Lees-Jeffries thoroughly reads the entire works through various models of recollection (and forgetting), and along the way takes the reader on a quick spin through contemporary thinking about the early modern period, from work on manuscript and material culture to considerations of nationalism, sensory responses to text and performative affect. Memory studies has proven to be a rich vein of investigation for many disciplines over the past 20 years, and Shakespeare criticism has had its key moments in this area too, from work considering rehearsal practice to investigations of history and national identity. Lees-Jeffries contends that “Shakespeare both engaged with and changed the ways in which people remembered”, and she demonstrates this with some distinction.

Hamlet, of course, figures highly in any discussion of Shakespeare and memory, and Lees-Jeffries’ readings of that fraught play are illuminating, ranging from material contemplation of how Hamlet knows which skull is Yorick’s to the various hauntings of the play to the way that audiences – such as Claudius – remember through the performance of events. As Lees-Jeffries argues, “Questions about death are…simultaneously cultural and epistemological, and this simultaneity is carried over into questions of how the dead should be remembered.” How the dead are memorialised, spoken and revived are subjects that obsessed the early modern period as they obsess us now, and the readings here of Hamlet demonstrate how vital the text is still, as well as how deeply embedded in the material aspects of memory (from Hamlet’s writing tablets to the winding sheets that largely figured instead of coffins in early modern burial). I was surprised Lees-Jeffries did not bring in the very interesting readings of Hamlet and radical histories given by, respectively, Jacques Derrida and Elizabeth Freeman, both striking examples of reading the Ghost to think about pastness, memory and haunting – but in the main the readings of the play are enlightening and thoughtful.

Shakespeare and Memory is far more than a consideration of one play, albeit such an important one, and Lees-Jeffries’ interest in memory, time, recollection, haunting, echo and mourning traverses the canon almost entirely. There are chapters on the way that England is figured, constructed and “remembered” in the history plays, particularly in the use of ghosts; the ways that the Roman plays deal with issues of recollection, reanimation, ruin and the Elizabethan narrative of historical exceptionalism. There are considerations of things (rings, handkerchiefs) and their importance as repositories of meaning. A lovely final chapter (before the almost inevitable coda about “remembering Shakespeare” brings us more or less up to date) looks at the haunting and deeply sad ways that recollection and mourning work in The Winter’s Tale. This play teaches that art might enable the return of the dead (despite Hamlet’s warning that we might not want them back), and attempts a kind of consolation in the stasis of memory that might be achieved through engagement with literature. It has always struck me as the bleakest of Shakespeare’s plays, despite its seemingly hopeful conclusion, because of its deep sense of the inevitable passing of time.

Shakespeare and Memory

By Hester Lees-Jeffries
Oxford University Press, 256pp, £50.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9780199674268 and 4251
Published 22 August 2013

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