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  • Plus Ça Change
  • William E. Engel (bio)
Fictions of Conversion: Jews, Christians, and Cultures of Change in Early Modern England by Jeffrey S. Shoulson (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. xii + 288 pages. $65)

After nearly five hundred years the jury is still out on the matter of Shakespeare’s religion. Anything about his probable beliefs must be inferred from his plays. The most celebrated—if ambivalent—clue [End Page lii] comes in the first act of Hamlet. While young Hamlet has been away at school in Wittenberg, Luther’s own university and the hotbed of Protestant reformation theology, his father’s spirit has been in a “prison-house”: “Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away” (1.5.10–13). This sounds much like Purgatory, even though Purgatory had been written out of standard religious doctrine in England by the time this play premiered during the twilight years of Elizabeth’s reign. In just over two decades England had converted three times: from a Catholic to a Protestant nation under Henry viii, back to the Church of Rome under Mary Tudor, and then once again became Protestant with the accession of Queen Elizabeth. It is no wonder then that among the first acts of her successor, James i—hoping to settle religious issues peacefully—convened a conference at Hampton Court Palace in January of 1604. One of the results of King James’s debates with Puritan leaders at that conference was the commissioning of a vernacular “Authorized Version” of the Bible, authorized to be read in all English churches.

At about the same time Jacobean divines were discussing how to approach the original languages of the Old Testament, George Chapman was working on his translation of Homer—a coincidence that Jeffrey Shoulson develops into a compelling story of nation-building. He argues that both projects participated in a larger national discourse, one that regarded translation as “serving the interests of a specifically English polis.” Accordingly his pivotal chapter, “Converting the Bible and Homer”—taking off from Erich Auerbach’s thesis that translation necessarily contends with the tension between identity and difference—goes on to explore the deeper assumption of the “non-equivalence of the Hebraic and the Hellenic that is also at the very center of European Christianity’s resistance to claims for its Jewish origins.”

The social and political implications of the terms conversion and convert form the groundwork of Shoulson’s carefully considered assessment of “technologies of transformation” during this period of especially accelerated change. Conversion is understood throughout as an ongoing and constantly negotiated process. And, although it was acknowledged that religious change could lead to salvation, it was also associated with deceit and treachery. Regarding the latter, one thinks of Guy Fawkes, of Jesuits sneaking into England, of priest holes and the harrying of recusants. And yet the boundaries between Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as among the newly emerging Protestant denominations including Puritanism were, as Shoulson judiciously acknowledges, permeable and shifting. In the same way that Elizabeth admonished her Parliament that it was not her desire “to make windows into men’s souls,” Shoulson is careful to avoid facile claims to truth about religious conviction based on what people said or were reported to have said. Hence his framing of the issue as “fictions of conversion” initially to discuss the confessional transitions [End Page liii] and shifts during England’s “Long Reformation,” and then his branching out to consider works ranging from alchemical treatises and the influence of Paracelsus to sectarian pamphlets and the influence of Bishop Parker.

But the crux of Shoulson’s thesis involves seeing the Jew as the paradigmatic figure of the potential for transformation that offered both the promise and peril of change, and it is along these lines that he offers an exemplary reading of Donne’s “Satire iii.” Promise in its broadest sense because the conversion of the Jews was considered a prerequisite for Christ’s return; and peril because of the gnawing suspicion that no convert could ever be trusted to be...


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