Archives of shame in Shakespeare’s drama

Author: Elisabeth Szanto

Archives are “collections preserved permanently because of the enduring value of the information[…] and for the use of others than those who originally created them”1. The etymology of “archive” stems from the Latin archiva, “written records,” and from the place where they are kept, from the Greek ta arkheia “public records”.2

In ancient Greece, official documents were inscribed on wooden plates and papyrus for archival, then carved on stone stelai for “publication” and dissemination, when considered necessary. Herodotus, “the father of history,” states his reasons for writing his Histories:

in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due need of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feud.3

However, because such plates and stones were costly and long to make, Herodotus’s Histories appear to have been publicized more often through “public recitation”4, an orally restored version of the written archive.

In ancient Rome, laws and measures were engraved in bronze after their passage and approval in the Senate and stored in the aerarium5. Temples often served as aeraria due to the belief that the “guardianship” of the gods6 would make the tables with the laws more powerful. Their access was restricted. Looking back at Ancient Greece and Rome allows us to better grasp the authority and near sacredness of the written archive, and also, its need to be controlled.

Jumping forth in time, I would like to look at the status of the written archive in Shakespeare’s time. It had necessarily undergone significant changes with the invention of the printing press, and the rise of print and literacy. However a great diversity of forms of manuscript archives continued to exist side by side with print. More generally, archives were seen as conferring credibility to rising historiographical endeavours. They represented “a source of inspiration and guarantor of truth”.7

Shakespeare’s plays, gave life and body to historical texts and archives on stage. But they also revealed the unstable status and vulnerability of the archive. Not only did Shakespeare draw from historical sources that had themselves processed anew archival material (such as Hall’s The History Of England) but he also frequently addresses the tension between oral and written culture. Cade’s rebellion in 2Henry VI, for example, enacts the conflict between literacy and orality in shaping history. Written documents appear as the means to perpetuate social hierarchies and condemn the illiterate people to oppression. Autocratically advocating a return to an oral culture, Jack Cade commands:

Away, burn

all the records of the realm, my mouth shall be the

parliament of England. (2HVI 4.7.11-3)

Cade’s anachronical accusations of “corruption” against Lord Saye, stress the political and social value of literacy and printing in Elizabethan England. An issue that would have been familiar and still controversial for the Elizabethan audience of the public theatre :

Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of

the realm by erecting a grammar school; and, […]

thou hast caused printing to be used and,

[…] thou hast built a paper-mill” (2HVI 4.7.29-34)

Prince Edward, in King Richard III, also tackles the issue of records versus oral transmission: “Is it upon recòrds, or else reported/Successively from age to age, he built it [the Tower] ?” (R 3.1.72-3). Edward claims that “truth should live from age to age,/As ‘twere retailed to all posterity” (R 3.3.76-7). However, the same play suggests that truthfulness is not guaranteed by the existence of a written document. Archives can be falsified. This is the case with the Scrivener’s manuscript – a historical archive about Hastings’ execution — written before the latter’s arrest. Nor is truthfulness guaranteed by an oral report or an eye witness, as is shown when Richard theatrically stages Hastings’ imaginary attack aiming to murder “my good lord of Gloucester” (R 3.5.39), or when he performs religious piety in a seemingly reluctant acceptation of the crown. Shakespeare thus questions the trustworthiness both of written and oral records. In translating written records into oral performance, the Shakespearean stage underscores its own ambivalence towards historical archives. But even though they reconstruct the written source through performance, Shakespeare’s plays enable a fashioning of historical characters and remarkable historical scenes with a perduring mnemonic effect on the audience. And, by underlining the partial perspectives that are always at work in history and historiography, help the audience shape critical views. But Shakespeare’s exploration of the idea of archive is not limited to this tension between the written document and the oral word. He is also interested in other materials, and especially bodies. Indeed, bodies are turned into alternative archives.

Archeology teaches us that bodies and objects can also be considered as archives. One fascinating example, is that of the Scythians whose oral traditions are being tested against the “excavations of tombs, bodies and artefacts.”8 Recent discoveries and scientific studies of Scythian graves have uncovered “the battle-scarred skeletons of women buried with their weapons, horses and other possessions”9. They have identified them as what legend has as “Amazons”. Scars like “wounds from a battle axe in the skull and a bent bronze arrowhead embedded in the knee” enable archeologists to identify a Scythian woman warrior buried in a mound, near the ancient Greek colony (600 BC) of Tyras. Thus, these “bodily archives” enable a reconstruction of war heroines, They illustrate the ways in which an oral culture preserved its past and ancestry.

Bodily archives of shame in the Shakespearean drama

I would now like to turn to my main topic for today, bodily archives that Shakespeare employs to convey shame and to illustrate hurtful societal patterns. These bodily archives emerge as a symptom of a particularly violent age. Scars, wounds and mutilations in his plays recount diverse stories of violence. Scars, on the one hand, very often signify courage in battle, distinguishing the valiant enduring soldier having outlived fierce battles. Bleeding wounds and mutilations, on the other hand, often point to a victim, such as Henry VI’s “wounds [that]/Open their còngealed mouths and bleed afresh” (R 1.2.55-6), or Lavinia’s “crimson river of warm blood,/[…] Doth rise and fall between thy [her] rosèd lips” (TA 2.4.22-4). These open wounds symbolize shameful incontinency, limited power and lack of agency within the action of the play.

Shakespeare’s theatre functions as a memory space, a sort of aerarium of “living,” staged archives, which can reanimate suppressed archives of shame. Archives and theatrical performance may appear to be two opposites, the first being stable and fixed, the second dynamic and in flux. Yet, archives that are “performed” have the power to restore history, constructing it anew. The dynamic art of theatre enables a double interaction between the archive and the audience: both aural and visual – the actor’s body on the stage gives access to the archive, reviving and voicing it. Body parts and bodily props in particular form an effective archival language.

Shakespeare often stages mauled or destroyed bodies as archives of shame or documents of a traumatic past. Shame is visibly inscribed into the body so as to be publicized. Historical plays and tragedies abound in bloody and atavistic deeds performed so as to engrave into the public memory, not only the mark of a destroyed traitor, but also the annihilation of his pride, ultimately “archived” as shame and dishonor. York’s lopped off head “fixed” on the city of “York gates” (3H6 2.1.179) is an utmost display of gruesome shaming and abasement, a purposed eradication of York’s male warlord name and postmortem honor in 3Henry VI. In Macbeth, the traitor MacDonald’s head is “fixed” “upon our battlements” (M 1.2.23). And Macduff’s personal and political retaliation against the tyrant Macbeth is illustrated through his exposing “th’usurper’s cursèd head” (M 5.7.86).

Anatomized bodies represent archives of dishonor and shaming as the body is violently transformed into discreet parts creating “legible” signs, widely publicized. The gruesome picture of the London Bridge gate-house, where the heads of the executed traitors were impaled10 would have represented a well-known image for the early modern audience. The morbid oral and visual rhetoric of the severed heads would hold a political meaning for the early modern public – that of the State’s constant victory in punishing traitors

The numerous cut off heads in Shakespeare’s tragedies and historical plays hold diverse meanings. In Macbeth’s case, “Th’usurper’s cursèd head” (M 5.7.84-5), is exposed “to be the show and gaze o’th’ time” (M 5.7.54), as a “rarer monster[s]”. Displayed “Painted upon a pole, and underwrit/‘[…] the tyrant’” (M 5.7.55-7). It reminds the audience how excessive pride and envy can be rewritten into shame.

York’s head “fixed” on the city of “York gates” (3H6 1.4.179-80) is the very embodiment of an indelible shame and dishonor, accompanied as it is by Queen Margaret’s grisly joke “So York may overlook the town of York” (3HV6 1.4.180). This publication of the shame of a defeated warlord and pretender to the throne is rendered even more powerful through the severed head of the traitor overlooking “his” eponymous town.

Chopped off heads are sometimes the objects of a gruesome mockery as in the case of Lord Saye and his son-in-law Sir James Crowmer, whose heads are lopped off on Cade’s command by his followers and “fix’d” “upon two poles” (2HVI 4.7.105). In a macabre degrading joke, Cade devises to “at every corner have them kiss” (2HVI 4.7.128). A practice resembling carnivalesque mockery and humiliation, pointing to the spread of anarchy. The traitor Cade’s own head will finally join the others’ – impaled after his beheading by Alexander Iden. His body is shamingly left unburied:

And there cut off thy most ungracious head,

Which I will bear in triumph to the king,

Leaving thy trunk for crows to feed upon. (2HVI 4.10.81-3)

The beheading of Titus’s sons, Martius and Quintus, in Titus Andronicus, covers them in shame in the eyes of the Roman society. Their position as valorous Roman war heroes is abased to that of common criminals. The “archive” of the dismembered body of the captive Goth Alarbus echoes the ancient customs of ritual sacrifice to honor the Roman war dead. In His unwarlike death his “limbs are lopped,/And entrails feed the sacrificing fire” (TA 1.1.143-4), recalling both a dishonorable and shaming death for a warrior and the execution of a traitor in Early Modern England.

Shaming also afflicts the noble Roman warrior Titus, reduced to powerlessness and harmed in his body, victim of the enviousness and utter ingratitude of his own people. Titus puts forward the honorable “archive” of his and his family’s full engagement and sacrifice for Rome:

Rome, I have been thy soldier forty years,

And led my country’s strength successfully,

And buried two-and-twenty valiant sons, (TA 1.1.193-5)

Titus is downgraded and made to assume a supplicant stance before the tribunes (TA 3.1) to save his two sons’s lives. Titus is further the object of a morbid and vengeful “merry jest” (TA 5.2.174), when he credulously accepts Aaron’s proposition of ransom to have his sons’ lives spared in exchange for a part of his own body. However, this sacrifice is to no avail. Titus is further shamed and disgraced when he is given back his two sons’ lopped off heads and his own severed hand. Titus’s cut off hand is the token of a sacrificial humiliation. But Titus transforms his archive of shame into an archive of revenge:

[…] what I mean to do

See here in bloody lines I have set down;

And what is written shall be executed. (TA 5.2.13-5)

Rhetorically inviting Tamora to look into his archive of shame and suffering:

Witness this wretched stump, witness these crimson lines,

(TA 5.2.22-3)

Female archives of shame are, as for them, more literally erased. This is the case of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, “deleted” by her father Titus, to wipe out the dishonor brought on him and on the patriarchal name of the Andronici through her rape and mutilations.

Carving the humiliation into the flesh, as in the case of Lavinia’s and Titus’s mauled bodies, transforms them both into “living” archives of shame and trauma. However, Lavinia, described as a muted “map of woe” (TA 3.1.12), represents an encrypted archive of shame and suffering, for which Titus needs to “wrest an alphabet” (TA 3.2.44) out of “all her martyred signs” (TA 3.2.36). So as to decipher the truth of her torment “buried” in her muted body. She opens her “encrypted” archive when she writes in the sand with the staff in her tongueless mouth and between her handless arms, as if she was trying to actively carve herself into the present, creating the true archive to be preserved in the collective and individual memories of the audience. Lavinia stands as a trope of the anamorphosed Rome. She becomes the living archive of the utter shame of Rome.

In the final section of this paper I would like to dwell on how Shakespeare ponders on the relationship between a historical archive and a theatrical performance in a later play, Coriolanus. Here, Shakespeare stages Coriolanus’s inner debate, on how to accommodate warrior masculinity with what he considers to be a debasing “actor’s performance”. Through Coriolanus’s reluctance to publicize his “bodily” archives, Shakespeare appears to stage his own doubts regarding the theatrical representation of historical archives, regarding their veracity and their further interpretation by the audience.

While Plutarch11’s Coriolanus, follows the custom of “disclos[ing] his many scars from many contests”, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at first refuses to show the bodily “archives” of his heroism authenticated by the numerous war scars on his body. He views this exposition as an actor’s role, a shameful performance that makes him “blush in acting” (C 2.2.145). The “showing off” of his scars appears to Coriolanus as a mere theatrical act, shamefully aimed at obtaining the people’s voices. It endows his scars with a basely promotional and political value:

Show them th’unaching scars which I should hide,

As if I had receiv’d them for the hire

Of their breath only! (C 147-50)

For Coriolanus, the display of scars is rather as a sign of “vulnerability”12, contrary to his proud warrior masculinity.

Coriolanus finally decides to entrust his “private archives”, to a limited public who might ensure their correct publication

For if he show

us his wounds and tell us his deeds, we are to put our

tongues into those wounds and speak for them; (C 2.3.5-7)

But these archives of “his deeds” are swiftly defeated by the tribunes’ and the people’s will to affirm their own “great power” (C 3.3.82) by banishing him. Recalling Coriolanus’s bodily “archives”, Menenius pleads for their not remaining unheard:

The warlike service he has done, consider. Think

Upon the wounds his body bears, which show

Like graves i’th’ holy churchyard. (C 3.3.47-9)

When Coriolanus later joins his former enemy, the Volscian general Aufidius, against Rome, his previous scars of valor are revealed as an accusatory witness of the Volscian people who cry

Tear him to pieces! […]

He killed my son!–My daughter!–He killed my

cousin Marcus!–He killed my father! (C 5.6.121-3)

Coriolanus’s scars are fundamentally ambivalent archives.

The pattern here is reversed in comparison to the case of Lucius, in Titus Andronicus. Lucius’s “scars” more directly bore “witness” to heroism. They supported the truth of his “report”. From one of his earlier plays to one of his later plays, we see how Shakespeare further complicated the status of the body as an archive of either valour or shame, ultimately showing their mutual embeddedness and reversibility.

To conclude, a warrior’s lopped off body parts, in a sacrificial or vindictive act, or in punishment of treason, function as archives of shame and disrepute for valiant soldiers who are dishonored and deprived of their male-warrior agency and reputation. Body parts in Shakespeare’s plays are complex archives, which can bespeak but also reverse honor and shame

The playwright uses “body” archives as a powerful instrument to critically stage social, political and gender issues of the early modern period. But he also employs their aesthetics to provoke deep, cathartic responses in the audience. Nearly buried or forgotten memories of historical and tragical events are revived through the actors’ performance and given a new body – a new corporal existence and archival thickness.


Primary sources

Shakespeare, William, Titus Andronicus, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008

Shakespeare, William, Coriolanus, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008

Shakespeare, William, Macbeth, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008

Shakespeare, William, King Henry VI Part II, London: Bloomsbury, The Arden Shakespeare, 2018.

Shakespeare, William, King Henry VI Part III, London: Bloomsbury, The Arden Shakespeare, 2017.

Shakespeare, William, King Richard III, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017

Other primary sources

Hall, Edward, The History Of England, During The Reign Of Henry The Fourth, And The Succeeding Monarchs, To The End Of The Reign Of Henry The Eighth, “Kyng Henry The. VI”, 221,

Herodotus, Histories, Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions limited, 1996

Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, “The Life of Coriolanus”,*.html

Secondary sources

Battaglia, Giulia, Clarke, Jennifer, Siegenthaler, Fiona, “Bodies of Archives / Archival Bodies: An Introduction”, First published: 04 July 2020,

Brodersen, Kai, Review: “Mapping (In) the Ancient World” Reviewed Work(s): “Mapping Augustan Rome by L. Haselberger: Formae Urbis antiquae. Le Mappe Marmoree di Roma tra la Repubblica e Settimio Severo by E. Rodríguez-Almeida : Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World by R. J. A. Talbert, The Journal of Roman Studies, 2004, Vol. 94 (2004), pp. 183-190, stable URL:

Culham, Phyllis, “Archives and Alternatives in Republican Rome”, Classical Philology, Apr., 1989, Vol. 84, No. 2 (Apr., 1989), pp. 100-115, stable URL:

Friedrich, Markus, The Birth of the Archive, A history of Knowledge, Ann Arbor (USA): University of Michigan Press, translated by John Noël Dillon, 2018

Mayor, Adrienne, The Amazons, Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014,

Karremann, Isabel, The drama of memory in Shakespeare’s history plays, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015

Owens, Margaret E., “The Many-Headed Monster in “Henry VI, Part 2″”, Criticism, summer, 1996, Vol. 38, No. 3, pp. 367-382, stable URL:

Perkins Wilder, Lina, Shakespeare’s Memory Theatre, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 20210

Sanders, Eve Rachele, “The Body of the Actor in “Coriolanus”, Shakespeare Quarterly, Winter, 2006, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Winter, 2006), pp. 387-412, stable URL:

Sickinger, James P., “Inscriptions and Archives in Classical Athens”, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 3rd Qtr., 1994, Bd. 43, H. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1994), pp. 286-296, stable URL:

Stern, Tiffany, Making Shakespeare, From stage to page, London: Routledge, 2004

Sychterz, Jeffrey, “Scarred Narratives and Speaking Wounds: War Poetry and the Body”, Pacific Coast Philology, 2009, Vol. 44, No. 2, Violence and Representation (2009), pp. 137-147, table URL:

Vivo de, Filippo, Guidi, Andrea, and Silvestri, Alessandro, “Archival Transformations in Early Modern European History”, European History Quarterly, 2016, Vol. 46(3) 421–434 Birkbeck, University of London, UK, DOI: 10.1177/0265691416648257

Walsham, Alexandra, “The Social History of the Archive: Record-Keeping in Early Modern Europe”, Past and Present, vol. 230, Issue 11, November 2016: 8-48.

1 Alexandra Walsham, “The Social History of the Archive: Record-Keeping in Early Modern Europe”, Past and Present, vol. 230, Issue 11, November 2016: 8-48.


3 Herodotus, Histories, Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions limited, 1996, p. 3

4 Herodotus, Histories, Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions limited, 1996, “Introduction”

5 State treasury in the Roman Republic

6 Phyllis Culham, “Archives and Alternatives in Republican Rome”, Classical Philology, Apr., 1989, Vol. 84, No. 2 (Apr., 1989), pp. 100-115, stable URL:, p. 109-10

7 Markus, Friedrich, The Birth of the Archive, A history of Knowledge, Ann Arbor (USA): University of Michigan Press, translated by John Noël Dillon, 2018

8 Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons, Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 20

9 Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons, Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 20

10 Tiffany, Stern, Making Shakespeare, From stage to page, London: Routledge, 2004, p. 9

11 Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, “The Life of Coriolanus”, §15,*.html

12 Eve Rachele Sanders, “The Body of the Actor in “Coriolanus”, Shakespeare Quarterly, Winter, 2006, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Winter, 2006), pp. 387-412, stable URL:, p. 389

Cite this blog post
webmaster (2021, December 14). Archives of shame in Shakespeare’s drama. Shame Network. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from

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