- Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age by Daniel Swift, and: The Unheard Prayer: Religious Toleration in Shakespeare’s Drama by Joseph Sterrett
To read Daniel Swift and Joseph Sterrett in tandem is to glimpse the second wave, as it were, of the religious turn in Shakespeare studies. These are the students of James Shapiro and Richard Wilson, among others, and their focus has subtly but decidedly shifted. Whereas the earlier generation was primarily concerned with the church as a source of power, Swift and Sterrett are concerned with the church as a source of language. The impression of Shakespeare that emerges from these albeit very different books is of an author whose language was saturated with the rhythms and cadences of the English liturgy, an author whose very understanding of human relations—whether marital or military or devotional or political—depended in part on his culture’s conception of prayer.
Daniel Swift’s Shakespeare’s Common Prayers is the more ambitious of the two books, and it issues a stronger challenge. Swift takes to task earlier critics (this author included) who have discussed the influence of the Book of Common Prayer upon Shakespeare without looking carefully for the actual echoes of liturgy in the Shakespearean text itself. Swift begins his beautifully written—and eminently readable—book with a prologue describing the events of the Hampton Court Conference in 1603. It was here, as he relates it, that Puritan reforms to the Prayer Book were debated at the same time that revels were performed—Shakespeare himself is said to have been present—and this coincidence of church and theater launches his central claim for the profound influence of English liturgy upon the playwright. Of course, the conference occurred after many of the plays that Swift examines, and he by no means suggests that Shakespeare became interested in the Prayer Book due to this single occasion. But the active negotiations that took place in 1603 were the culmination of decades of debate between more conservative and non-conformist Puritan groups, and Swift makes a strong case for Shakespeare’s familiarity with, and interest in the controversies over the rites of burial, baptism, and communion (these, along with the marriage ceremony, are Swift’s primary focus in the liturgy). Swift’s central, and rather sweeping, claim is that Shakespeare “apprenticed by the Book of Common Prayer” (170)—that his career in effect, evolved through his engagement with this text. “The Book of Common Prayer,” Swift declares, “is [Shakespeare’s] great forgotten source” (26).
Having made this bold claim, Swift backs down, identifying a period of the playwright’s great engagement with the liturgy in the 1590s, which then culminated with Hamlet and Macbeth in the early years of the next century. Following Macbeth, the play at the heart of Swift’s argument (his reading of Macbeth occupies roughly a third of the book), Shakespeare’s interest in liturgy is said to decline. [End Page 383] Why the playwright would have lost his interest in the Prayer Book is not explained, and Swift’s account ends somewhat abruptly without considering the romances at all. But this failure to account for the waxing and waning of Shakespeare’s debts to his liturgy does not diminish the strength of Swift’s evidence in favor of the playwright’s use of the various rites and prayers within the texture of his plays, and the resonances in particular of the baptism rite within Macbeth are very revealing.
Shakespeare’s Common Prayers is not only an argument about Shakespeare’s deep engagement with the Prayer Book. It is also an argument about the evolution of the Prayer Book itself. Over the course its pages, Swift tells a powerful story about a liturgy in flux. His aim is to dismantle the idea of the Prayer Book...