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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theater in Renaissance England
  • Huston Diehl (bio)
Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theater in Renaissance England. By Jeffrey Knapp. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. xvi + 227 pp.

The religion of early modern England has recently become a focus of critical attention in literary scholarship. Students of the secular Renaissance stage, in particular, have begun to rethink long-held assumptions about the relations between church and theater, sacred rituals and dramatic performances, and preachers and players in Tudor and Stuart England. Jeffrey Knapp aligns Shakespeare's Tribe with this revisionist scholarship. However, he then makes a bolder and, I think, more controversial claim for the stage than previous scholars have made when he suggests that players and playwrights may have viewed their profession "as a kind of ministry" (9). Entertaining "the possibility that Renaissance plays may have been intended and received as contributions to the cause of true religion," Knapp argues that "English theology and ecclesiology shaped the drama at a fundamental level, in helping to determine the conceptualization of the player and the playwright as professions, and of the theater as an institution; these self-images in turn disposed theater people toward the enacting of certain confirmatory plots, themes, and characters on stage; and thus religion had a crucial say in the creation of plays, in their content, and, by extension, in their presumed social effects" (9). For Knapp, who critiques the work of Stephen Greenblatt and Louis Adrian Montrose because he believes that neither "credits the established church with any cultural capital of its own" (8), Shakespeare and many of his contemporary playwrights sought to legitimate their theater in part by locating it firmly within the moderate theology of the established church. In doing so, Knapp argues, they helped forge a community in the wake of England's schism with Rome. By focusing on issues of community, nationhood, and international Christianity more fully than earlier scholarship on religion and drama, and by insisting on the homiletic and sacramental function of the Renaissance stage, Shakespeare's Tribe makes a distinctive contribution to the current critical debates in this field.

An ambitious and remarkably learned book, Shakespeare's Tribe examines both canonical and noncanonical plays from the Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline eras, including many that are rarely read today, as well as Restoration writings about those plays. Knapp draws on an impressive range of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century nondramatic texts—sermons, catechisms, polemical tracts, theological treatises, diaries, antitheatrical texts, defenses of the stage, coney-catching pamphlets—often surprising the reader with compelling evidence from these texts that calls into question widely held critical assumptions about theater people, their religious views, and their connections to the established church. Indeed, the power of his book largely [End Page 609] derives from Knapp's ability to discover, interpret, and deploy illuminating passages from his primary sources in a persuasive and imaginative way. While the sheer breadth of his study occasionally effaces historical changes within this period, Knapp remains alert to the evolving nature of both the English church and the London theater, and he explicitly addresses developments in theology and drama during the fifty-year period he studies.

Knapp argues that London's playwrights, drawing on "the Erasmian spirit of the English religious settlement" (169), embraced inclusiveness, Pauline adaptiveness, and a communitarian ideal in the face of antitheatricalist attacks that sought to exclude them from the Protestant community. They thus defended the stage by appropriating the accommodationist rhetoric of the preacher and by claiming to minister to their prodigal audiences. By persuasively showing how fellowship retained a spiritual dimension during this period, Knapp counters scholars who assume a sharp division between the "profane" activities of the alehouses and playhouses, on the one hand, and the sacred rituals of the church, on the other.

In part 1, "England and Christendom," Knapp turns to the way religious reforms threatened Christian fellowship. He makes original and provocative claims about how the figure of the rogue "strangely comes to represent the grounds for a new sort of fellow feeling in England" (64), and he argues that players and playwrights paradoxically used their own association with roguery to promote...


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pp. 609-612
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Archived 2004
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