"I Know My Clay": Some Musical Afterlives of Hamlet's Gravedigger

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Robert Scarlett, a gravedigger at Peterborough Cathedral who died aged 98 in 1594, is commended in an epitaph on the building’s west wall for having “interd two Queenes within this place”: those royal bodies belonging respectively to Katherine of Aragon and Mary Queen of Scots. But along with figures of high significance, Scarlett – across a career of near-mythic length – was also said to have dug graves for so many ordinary Peterborians that their numbers constituted “his townes hovse holders in his lives space / Twice over.” As “probably the only sexton in any age to be found in the Dictionary of National Biography,” (Dixon 1997, 23), Scarlett has probably inspired a certain tendency towards exaggeration (he seems unlikely, for instance, to have physically buried Queen Mary at age 90), but he nonetheless emerges from his public epitaph and from George Dixon’s historical pamphlet as a singularly vivid figure through whom to consider the cultural image of the gravedigger in sixteenth-century England.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-25
Number of pages25
JournalBorrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 15 Feb 2021
Externally publishedYes

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