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  • Unsettled Toleration: Religious Difference on the Shakespearean Stage by Brian Walsh
  • Lorenzo Zucca
Brian Walsh.
Unsettled Toleration: Religious Difference on the Shakespearean Stage.
Oxford UP, 2016. 221 Pp.

RELIGION IS ONE OF THE MAIN PROTAGONISTS of Shakespeare’s plays and those of his contemporaries. Religious conflicts were widespread throughout Europe and featured prominently in England, whose society was in search of a religious identity that would settle arguments between different Protestant factions. Unsettled Toleration argues that English drama attempted to depict these conflicts as solvable, either by providing an ecumenical understanding of Protestant religious identity or by portraying the possibility of daily coexistence between people of different beliefs.

The main religious conflict in the book is within the Protestant family, rather than between Protestants and other confessions. The intra-Protestant conflict is represented by two opposing factions: Puritans and conformists. Whereas Puritans play the role of the intransigent faction, conformists are more attracted to moderate accommodation, even as they acknowledge its difficulty. Unsettled Toleration’s first chapter sets the scene of religious conflicts in Paris during the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. Marlowe dramatized this event in the Massacre of Paris, providing an ideological framework to religious violence. It would be too easy to read anti-Catholic bashing into this play, but Walsh resists that interpretation. While the first part of the play puts the spotlight on the Catholic purge of Huguenots, therefore lending itself to an easy display of Catholic intolerance, the remainder of the play focuses on the possibility of coexistence (even if this is not achieved, it is attempted through the orchestration of the marriage between the Huguenot King of Navarre and the Catholic Margaret). The first chapter concludes by pointing out that The Massacre of Paris epitomizes the road not taken by England and sets the stage for the preferred alternative, namely daily coexistence practiced by people on the ground.

Walsh takes his cue from the recent work of historians who focus on the distinction between the principle of tolerance (as understood by the elite and embedded in the much later Act of Toleration of 1688) and the [End Page 239] practice of tolerance on the ground, where local communities engage in a daily negotiation to make life together possible despite religious difference (see for example, the work of Benjamin J. Kaplan, Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe, Harvard UP, 2007). Indeed, Walsh’s book is an extended attempt to demonstrate that daily tolerance on the ground feeds the creative juices of Shakespearean dramatists, who produce in turn a highly complex picture of coexistence between Puritans and conformists. Chapter 2 seeks to challenge the conventional interpretation of Shakespearean-era plays as a parody of Puritans, who have unforgivable vices and an uncompromising stance. Instead, Walsh argues that most plays of the era tend to open the door to coexistence with Puritans, despite their zealotry and hypocrisy. Puritans are indeed satirized in most of these plays, but their comic undertones have a reconciling effect, and most end with an integrationist stance that makes room for Puritans of all stripes.

It is in this context that we have to locate Shakespeare’s effort in two of his most accomplished texts: Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure. Both texts can be interpreted as an attempt to address the place of Puritans in a pluralist society. Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s last comedy, and possibly his very best. In Twelfth Night, the character of Malvolio could be interpreted as a Puritan killjoy, but Walsh argues that the final judgment of his character is mixed and commands a certain amount of sympathy, since Malvolio behaves as a loyal servant to Olivia and is the victim of a terrible prank orchestrated by Maria. Disagreements over Malvolio’s character show that Puritans were not simply to be considered as aliens in a conformist society; rather, they were very much participants in a demanding exercise of living together. The comic quality of this play seems to rank it with other comedies of the same period and to suggest that the Puritan question was wide open.

However, Twelfth Night is bound to...


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