- Shakespeare’s Religious Language: A Dictionary by R. Chris Hassel, and: Shakespeare and Religion by Alison Shell, and: The Reformation of Emotions in the Age of Shakespeare by Steven Mullaney
Three new titles on Shakespeare and religion examine the effects of the Protestant Reformation on playwriting and theatergoing in early modern England. Without making arguments for Shakespeare’s own theological leanings, these books examine how he employs concurrent religious controversies to engage his readers and listeners in meaningful ways.
The ambitious project of Arden Shakespeare Dictionary Series’ thirteenth volume, Shakespeare’s Religious Language: A Dictionary, is well managed by R. Chris Hassel Jr. In over one thousand entries, he attempts to define and contextualize “all of the words of Shakespeare with any religious nuance” (xxii). Looking to biblical, theological, meditative, and liturgical texts preceding and contemporary to Shakespeare, Hassel pieces together definitions of terms that he qualifies as denotatively or connotatively religious. He then applies those definitions to select instances of each term’s usage in Shakespeare’s complete works. Entries vary in length from several lines (“Ill” or “Cloistress”) to several pages (“Grace” and “Saint”). In many cases, Hassel furnishes more than one definition, according to the nuances of a term.
Since Shakespeare often employs religious language as a metaphor for political, psychological, and romantic concepts, Hassel relies on his expertise to detect and discern connotations and figures of speech. “Some of Shakespeare’s most informed and imaginative religious usage is figurative” (xxiii), Hassel explains, admitting to the authorial license necessary for indexing Shakespeare’s religious language, both overt and implied. [End Page 183]
Hassel is attentive to Shakespeare’s religious legacy, often referring to the medieval liturgical calendar and citing Augustine and Aquinas. He also draws upon normative representations of early English Protestantism, frequently referring to the Book of Common Prayer (1559) and the works of Donne, Andrewes, and Hooker. Also included are notable Protestant and recusant writers of Shakespeare’s day. Excluded are polemical religious materials, and this doubtless because Hassel tries to avoid “the outrageously insulting language of religious controversy so characteristic of this period” (xxii). Also excluded, for the most part, are terms outside the Christian tradition; Hassel considers the scholarship on moral and pagan language in Shakespeare to be more or less complete (xxii).
The result of such exclusions is a study intended mostly for literary scholars and religious historians. Hassel’s already extensive and informative book might benefit from the added consideration of polemical antitheatricalist texts and Elizabethan performance conventions, which lend further context to Shakespeare’s religious language. Terms such as “paint” and “popish” take on added meaning when understood in light of early modern tracts, poems, and homilies that target stage plays as hotbeds for antireligious or Catholic sentiments. Had Hassel consulted antitheatricalist texts such as Alison Shell cites in Shakespeare and Religion, he might infer connections between the playwright’s use of language and his response to occasional Protestant conflations of the profligate stage with the Catholic Church.
Shakespeare’s Religious Language is accessible, enlightening, and useful as a guide for students at the undergraduate level and beyond. The book is especially helpful for making connections between Shakespeare’s drama and poetry. For example, “The Index of Shakespeare’s Works” lists relevant dictionary entries for each item in the corpus. The index is a tool that allows the reader to compare themes between Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, giving a sense of the scope and sort of religious matter recurring within each piece and across the corpus as a whole. For many of the terms in his dictionary, Hassel provides contexts to explain early modern idioms that may be quizzical to today’s reader, such as Falstaff’s reference to Goliath’s loom pole and shuttle (322).
In a similarly meticulous...