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  • Shakespeare’s Religious Language: A Dictionary
  • John D. Cox (bio)
Shakespeare’s Religious Language: A Dictionary. By R. Chris Hassel Jr. London, New York: Thoemmes Continuum, 2005. Illus. Pp. xxiv + 456. $300 cloth, £25 paper.

This is the sixth Shakespeare dictionary that Thoemmes Continuum (formerly Athlone Press) has published since 2000, four of them reviewed thus far in Shakespeare Quarterly, with generally favorable results. R. Chris Hassel is the right scholar to grasp the nettle of Shakespeare's religious language, since Hassel's authority where Shakespeare and religion are concerned is well established. (He appropriately lists three books and twelve articles of his own in the bibliography.) The single-handed compilation of a dictionary is a bold and arduous task, as Samuel Johnson well knew. Even with the modern advantages of electronic text and with concordances, bibliographies, and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online, the job is anything but mechanical. In addition to the challenge of deciding which entries to include (and which to omit, and why), the compiler of a topical dictionary [End Page 132] has to describe the entries appropriately, cross-reference where relevant, and find contemporary and modern references to aid the reader. Hassel's dictionary includes a thirty-four-page bibliography, including primary and secondary works, all copiously cited throughout the book in entries that warrant them. Such entries are divided into three sections: definition and context, examples of Shakespeare's usage, and relevant bibliographical items for that entry.

Hassel omits words that are "merely moral" with no "compelling religious dimension" (xxii), as Shakespeare uses them. Another principle of omission, although Hassel does not mention it, is semantic change, a principle that accounts for one important omission: atone and atonement(s), words which appear some ten times in Shakespeare's plays, from Richard III to Cymbeline. As the OED makes clear, the verb "atone" is a contraction of "at one," and its original meaning was "to set at one, bring into concord, reconcile," which is how Shakespeare always uses it, together with the likely pronunciation, "atwon." The familiar English verb was used by translators of the Bible in the sixteenth century to describe the reconciliation of God and humankind. Eventually, the theological sense of the word became its exclusive sense, and its pronunciation shifted. However, that development had not yet occurred for Shakespeare, who never uses the word with theological connotations, presumably because it was alive for him only in its original sense; Hassel is therefore right to exclude it.

Shakespeare's religious language is a nettle to grasp because opinion is still divided on his response to the Protestant Reformation. The first three words in Hassel's dictionary are abbess, abbey, and abbot—all used by a poet who had no firsthand experience with what any of them meant. England's abbeys had been dissolved almost thirty years before he was born, so he knew them either as ruins or as the seats of the noble families who had purchased them. Does his use of these obsolete "Catholic" terms (and many others like them, including beadsman, chantry, holy water, Mass, nun, pax, purgatory, unanel'd, and unhousl'd) mean that he was secretly a Catholic himself, who bared his soul in his language, and does Hassel's dictionary give us a window into it? Hassel confronts the question directly in his introduction, where he agrees with "most readers," who "reserve judgement on just what and how Shakespeare believed" (xxi). Moreover, Hassel points out, although "the amount and the range of Shakespeare's religious usage show him to be an unusually well-informed Christian layman" (xix), he did not write as a theologian but as an entertainer, so "the religious issues in the plays, like the religious words that convey them, are almost always exploited for dramatic fun or dramatic tension rather than explicated to make a theological point or take a theological stance" (xxi). While Hassel therefore helpfully annotates controversial issues (such as faith, grace, and works), his point is not to identify which side Shakespeare took; on that question, this dictionary is agnostic.

To be sure, agnosticism about Shakespeare's religious adherence is itself a position for some readers, and they will...


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