Divinity and State by David Womersley (review)
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Divinity and State. By David Womersley. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xviii + 409. $110.00 cloth.

Throughout the Elizabethan period, politics and religion were consistently paired as forbidden topics in official measures taken against stage plays. Just as a royal proclamation of 1559 placed restriction on plays dealing with "'either matters of religion or of the gouernance of the estate of the common weale'" (3), so the Privy Council objected in 1589 to plays dealing in "'certen matters of Divinytie and of State'" (3). In Divinity and State, David Womersley argues that these two forbidden topics were connected not only because of the politicoreligious nature of the Elizabethan regime (in 1597, the Lord Mayor and aldermen of London declared "'that neither in politie nor in religion [are plays] to be suffered in a Christian Commonwealth'" [3]) but also because contemporary dramatists, following the example of historians, placed the connection of politics with religion at the center of their understanding of the English nation and its past.

Although scholars have often noticed the influence of John Foxe's Protestant historiography on, for example, the King John plays of Shakespeare and the Queen's Men or on the so-called "Foxeian" history plays mounted at the end of the sixteenth century, critical work has focused instead on what might be called the political preoccupations of Elizabethan historical drama—the nature of kingship, Tudor ideology, legal theory, problems of succession, and the nature of political subversion. In a major revision of this pattern, Womersley places the connection of religion with politics squarely at the center of his reinterpretation of the English history plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Womersley's ambitious and wide-ranging work consists of three parts: an extensive study of interpretations of history in English chroniclers from Robert Fabyan to Holinshed; an analysis of ten non-Shakespeare history plays, from John Bale's King Johan to Thomas Heywood's If You Know Not Me, You Know No Body; and a survey of Shakespeare's history plays, ending with Henry V and making no mention of Henry VIII, that quite unconventionally divides the two tetralogies and King John into a three-phase narrative about Shakespeare's "reformation of the history play" (299), a process by which Shakespeare fused and transcended the two prevailing models of relationship between sacredness and power in the historical works of his contemporaries. These, Womersley contends, were the model of the "justified monarch" in whom spiritual and political legitimacy coincide, and the model of the "martyred subject," whose spiritual integrity comes into tragic conflict with the power of the state (10, passim).

To demonstrate the depth and ductility of the historiography that produced these models, Womersley explores how religious commitment could alter interpretations [End Page 590] of the national past. For example, shifting circumstances combined with editorial changes to produce different politicoreligious inflections in the editions of Fabyan's Chronicle in 1516, 1533, 1542, and 1559. Similarly, versions of Thomas More's life of Richard III incorporated into the chronicles of John Hardyng and Edward Hall appear to have flattened, in the interest of Tudor ideology, some of the political ironies and theological nuances highlighted in the edition published by the Catholic William Rastell in the reign of Queen Mary. The famous quarrel between the Protestant Richard Grafton and the Catholic John Stow over their competing chronicles was not simply the result of commercial rivalry, Womersley suggests, but a function of their different religious perspectives on the past (their treatment of the Lincolnshire rising of 1536 serves as a touchstone). Even "within the reformed Church of England . . . there was scope for a range of positions on matters of on theology and church government" (57), as demonstrated by differences between the Marian exile Robert Crowley and Thomas Cooper, later a bishop and anti-Martinist polemicist, in their editions of Thomas Lanquet's Chronicle.

The differences that matter most from the standpoint of "justified monarch" and "martyred subject," however, are those between Foxe and Hall over the Lancastrian king Henry V. For Foxe, following the work of committed reformers like Tyndale and Bale, Henry V was a religious persecutor "'so...