An Ofrenda to Shakespeare’s Afterlives

A man holding a calavera
Hamlet holding a calavera in telatúlsa’s 2018 production of Tara Moses’s Hamlet, El Príncipe de Denmark. Photo by Russell Mills, courtesy of telatúlsa.

In her 2018 play Hamlet, El Príncipe de Denmark, director and adaptor Tara Moses (Seminole Nation of Oklahoma) sets the events of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in colonial Mexico during Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a ritual with Indigenous roots celebrated on November 1st and 2nd throughout the Américas. During this time, the deceased are thought to return to the world of the living to visit altars made by friends and family members. This practice is reflected in the opening of Moses’s play, which features women whose faces are painted as calaveras, or skulls, leaving ofrendas, or offerings, at the altar of Hamlet’s father. The subsequent appearance of Hamlet’s father within the context of this ritual is therefore interpreted through Indigenous frameworks in which there is no separation between life and death. As in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech indicates his metaphysical uncertainty, but it takes on new resonance in these spiritual contexts:

Ser o no ser, esa es la cuestión.
¿Cuál más digna acción del ánimo:
Sufrir los tiros penetrantes de la fortuna injusta,
U oponer los brazos a este torrente de calamidades,
Y darles fin con atrevida resistencia?
To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub. (3.1)

The emphasis in Moses’s production is not on a Christian afterlife but on the return of the spirits associated with Día de los Muertos. Moses’s version of the soliloquy, moreover, is bilingual, unfolding in a mixture of English and Spanish that registers the title character’s ambivalence about both Christian and Indigenous beliefs and reflects the hybrid linguistic experiences of many living in the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands today.

Día de los Muertos is derived from Indigenous practices honoring the dead which were combined with the Catholic commemoration of All Saints and All Souls Day. As Regina M. Marchi outlines in Day of the Dead in the USA: The Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon, the celebration was popularized in the U.S. in the 1970s and has since grown to be a multicultural Pan-Latino celebration. The altars on which participants place the ofrendas to their deceased loved ones display items symbolizing the natural elements, as well as specific mementos memorializing the dead, such as photos, religious icons, candles, sugar skulls, and food and drink that the deceased enjoyed. Cempasuchil, also called marigolds, blanket the ground leading the way for those who have passed to meet their families. Symbolic of the never-ending cycles of life and death, skulls and calaveras adorn gravesites and fiestas as a reminder that we are all destined for the spirit world. The ritual’s present-day iconography of calaveras, a word used for both skulls or skeletons, reflect the style popularized by the engravings of José Guadalupe Posada, including that of “La Catrina.”

Adaptations that engage with these practices reframe Shakespeare’s meditations on life and death according to Indigenous and Latinx worldviews. Like Moses’s Hamlet, Edit Villarreal’s The Language of Flowers and Olga Sanchez Saltveit’s ¡O Romeo! are multilingual plays that emphasize the Indigenous Mexican aspects of the ritual as well as the ways in which it has been shaped by Spanish colonialism. These playwrights engage with Shakespeare’s works as malleable frames that can be adapted to new contexts, but they maintain an awareness that Shakespeare’s works were written during a period of European colonialism and have frequently been mobilized in the interests of colonial projects. Their plays, examples of what we call Borderlands Shakespeare, draw on Día de los Muertos to explore Indigenous Mexican and Christian views of the afterlife, with cyclical Indigenous worldviews often disrupting the linearity of myths of Western progress and pointing to the persistence and resilience of Indigenous lifeways.

Villarreal’s The Language of Flowers, which first premiered at California State University, Los Angeles in 1991 under the title R and J, reframes Romeo and Juliet’s ill-fated love story through the spiritual belief systems that inform Día de los Muertos. In this play, the Romeo and Juliet characters meet at a Halloween party, hosted by Juliet’s father, Julian, an upwardly mobile Mexican American lawyer who seeks to assimilate to American culture and who does not support undocumented immigrants such as Romeo. Despite Julian’s preference for Halloween over Día de los Muertos, the power of the ritual cannot be suppressed. Calaveras lurk on the outskirts of the party and appear throughout the play, although the living characters usually do not notice their presence. The ethos of Día de los Muertos destabilizes the stark line between life and death that characterizes the tragic ending of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Reunited in death after they are kept apart by Romeo’s deportation, the lovers are materially reintegrated into the earth, their bodies becoming flowers, while their spirits, flying like hummingbirds, enter the thirteen heavens, the Mexica afterlife.

actors with faces painted as calaveras
The cast of Milagro Theatre’s 2014 production of Olga Sanchez Saltveit’s ¡O Romeo!. Photo by Russell J. Young, courtesy of Milagro Theatre.

Olga Sanchez Saltveit’s play ¡O Romeo! takes some of these themes and applies them to Shakespeare’s own life. Devised as part of a Día de los Muertos celebration for Milagro Theatre, the premier Latinx theater company in Portland, Oregon, in 2014, ¡O Romeo! is set as both the Day of the Dead and Shakespeare’s own death approach. Its central conceit is that Shakespeare is writing a play—which he hopes will be his best—about the love story of Xochiquetzal of Tenochtitlan and Don Armando, a conquistador, in the ‘Nuevo Mundo.’ At the same time, his housekeeper Rifke, a Jewish woman from Spain who has fled the Inquisition, teaches him about the Nahuatl language and Mexica practices that she has learned from her brother, a missionary. Shakespeare personally benefits from this knowledge, as the spirit of his deceased son Hamnet returns to an altar that Rifke has constructed, creating space for reconnection and reconciliation.

Día de los Muertos has become more widely known in United States popular culture in recent years, with many cities hosting public celebrations and with the imagery of calaveras and marigolds adorning items in shops and street fairs. The Disney film Coco (the music for which, it is worth noting, was composed by Germaine Franco, who wrote original songs for The Language of Flowers) further introduced the ritual to mainstream audiences. While members of the Latinx community have welcomed the increased representation of Latinx stories and practices, many have also criticized the ways in which corporations have commodified and profited from Día de los Muertos and, in some cases, have evacuated it of its spiritual and cultural essence.

The Shakespeare adaptations by Moses, Villarreal, and Sanchez Saltveit resist this commodification. Performances of these plays are rooted in Latinx communities and are often part of Día de los Muertos events that emphasize community healing and remembrance. Hamlet, El Príncipe de Denmark, for example, was initially produced by telatúlsa as part of Living Arts of Tulsa’s annual Día de los Muertos festival. Audiences were encouraged to arrive at the venue early to learn about the Indigenous origins of Día de los Muertos and to view the altars that would become part of the performance. As Moses explains, “while you are watching the actors on stage, you’re surrounded by altars built by people in our community here in Tulsa.” By honoring Indigenous cultures and local Latinx communities, these adaptations use Shakespeare to facilitate opportunities for learning as audiences participate meaningfully in the traditions of Día de los Muertos.


Folger Book Club

Hear from the blog post’s authors (Katherine Gillen, Adrianna M. Santos, and Kathryn Vomero Santos) at the Nov 3 meeting of the Folger’s virtual book club, Words, Words, Words. The authors will do a presentation on their work and intersections with the novel being discussed at the book club, Ramón and Julieta by Alana Quintana Albertson. The book club is free and open to all. Register to join.