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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare’s Unreformed Fictions by Gillian Woods
  • Phebe Jensen (bio)
Gillian Woods. Shakespeare’s Unreformed Fictions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xi + 239. $110.00.

The title of Gillian Woods’s impressive new book, Shakespeare’s Unreformed Fictions, contains its central argument in compressed form. Woods uses the word “unreformed” to describe the seemingly Catholic phrases, motifs, Latin tags, story lines, objects, and visual images that percolate through both early modern English culture and Shakespeare’s plays. This “apparently Catholic” material—the first example Woods gives is the ubiquitous phrase “by th’mass”—could, and indeed often did, “function in an unreformed manner, without denoting straightforwardly Catholic theology” (4). Shakespeare’s interest in the unreformed, Woods argues, is primarily artistic and literary rather than theological—hence the word “fiction” in her title. Taking seriously that “Shakespeare’s works… are primarily stories rather than polemics” (20), Woods traces Shakespeare’s manipulation of unreformed material along the chains of meaning created by plays deeply concerned with the ethical and aesthetic ramifications of playing. As it “reconnect[s] a historical understanding of post-Reformation culture to the aesthetic and theatrical experience of the plays” (21), the book provides a rich, nuanced cultural analysis, and a welcome intervention in recent studies in religion in post-Reformation England.

In each chapter Woods identifies a “representational problem” (22) raised by Shakespeare’s encounter with unreformed material. The first chapter argues that 1 Henry IV “asks how a history play remembers the pre-Reformation past” (23), demonstrating that although the play projects the Reformation binary of Catholic and Protestant backwards onto the figures of Joan of Arc and Talbot, it also suggests that such oppositional thinking is ultimately “unsustainable” (55). Here Woods links the theatrical re-presenting of history to sixteenth-century Eucharistic theology: the body of the actor playing Talbot is “highlighting the absence of the ‘real presence’ of Talbot” and so associating the phenomenological effects of theater with a Protestant Eucharist that was “a divinely instituted memorial,” not a repeated sacrifice (48). Though this first chapter is suggestive, the potential of Woods’s approach is more fully realized in the book’s second chapter, on Love’s Labour’s Lost. Here Woods associates the “topical constellation of names” (60) that refer to politico-religious controversies in 1590s France with the slipperiness of meaning created by the punning, wordplay, vow making and breaking, poetry writing, and witty repartee that is this play’s most obvious feature. As critics have long noted, the name Navarre is a reference to Henri IV of France—an association strengthened, “in case we miss the point” (59), by Berowne, Longaville, Dumaine, and Boyet, all names of men who were followers of the historical Navarre. Woods argues that Navarre, the heroic Protestant leader who notoriously converted to Catholicism in 1593, “represented a person who [End Page 447] had changed and a person who was change itself ” (71); in Shakespeare’s play, the “conversion of a convert’s name to a comic role sets up (paradoxically) a chain of dislocations” (69), so that sectarian conflict and changeability are identified with linguistic slipperiness and generic incongruity. Shakespeare—playfully yet also seriously—puts a “fractured and ironic representation of the…convert in a play where language and signs constantly mislead” (71). The play’s unreformed onomastics serve to “enlarge the drama’s broader linguistic concerns about the slipperiness of meaning” (75).

Whereas in chapter 2 the unreformed material is topical, in chapter 3, on Measure for Measure and All’s Well that Ends Well, it is explicitly theatrical. The representational problem considered here is the “seeming” of the Catholic-costumed characters in these plays: the Duke in his Friar’s cloak, Isabella dressed (possibly) as a novitiate, Helen in her pilgrim’s robes. Woods associates these costumes with the cultural anxiety produced by Catholic priests in early modern England who (by putting on the costumes of English laity) passed as Protestants. In Measure for Measure, a generic discordance is created by the jumbling together of a “notoriously shifty Catholic aesthetic” (99) and the tropes of romantic comedy, which Isabel (the would-be nun) resists, attempting to assert a different mode of female...