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  • Shakespeare and Early Modern Religion by David Loewenstein and Michael Witmore
  • Peter Holbrook (bio)
Shakespeare and Early Modern Religion. Edited by David Loewenstein and Michael Witmore. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Illus. Pp. xii + 318. $102.00 cloth.

Participants in debates over Shakespeare's religious (or lack of religious) leanings have sometimes displayed a fervor that would not have been out of place among the confessional combatants of Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe. The "hot ardent zeal" to claim Shakespeare for Catholicism, or to destroy that claim, has not infrequently been of the kind that Shakespeare said "set[s] whole realms on fire" (Timon of Athens, 3.3.35-36). The essays in this volume take a decidedly cooler approach to Shakespeare's engagement with religious belief. The editors assume that religion is important for Shakespeare's writing, but they are open to the unpredictable, often elusive, ways in which belief figures in the plays. The overall effect of the essays is studiously nondoctrinaire. The volume makes no claims about Shakespeare's personal religious convictions but focuses instead on the ways religious phenomena are depicted in the plays, and how faith—and unbelief—function as shaping influences.

One theme that does come through the collection is familiar: the (relatively) nonsectarian spirit of Shakespeare's drama, at least for a period in which murderous confessional hatred was par for the course. David Bevington notes that Shakespeare "treats some Catholic clergymen with respect and even affection" (37) and that his depiction of Jews is (by comparison with Marlowe's, for example) characterized by "a marked degree of tolerance and accommodation" (39). He does, however, accept that "Puritanism in Shakespeare is invariably the subject of a jest" (27), but this probably had less to do with theology than with godly hostility to the theater. The lack of zealotry is all the more remarkable—and commendable—because, as Peter Marshall points out in his essay, confessional divisions in England had hardened by the time Shakespeare reached adulthood. In this context, Felicity Heal's observation that "Shakespeare refused to stage those forms of Protestant propaganda to which his fellow Londoners were routinely exposed" (76) makes the dramatist notably less clannish than many of his peers. But Marshall also stresses the surprising amount of "day-to-day practical toleration" (47) that went on in Elizabethan England: his comment that "the impulse to discussion and debate was … at the heart of the religious culture of Shakespeare's age" (52) suggests that the dialogism and multiperspectivalism of Shakespearean drama may have had social, not just personal, roots. Shakespeare's lack of religious militancy is also brought out in Matthew Dimmock's chapter on the depiction of non-Christians: unlike many writers of the day, Shakespeare's interest in such characters is largely undoctrinal—the Prince of Morocco is less a Muslim than a romanticized ethnic outsider, and Shylock's religious language makes use of New Testament motifs as much as themes from the Hebrew scriptures. "Nowhere," Dimmock remarks, "does [Shakespeare] deliberately articulate a Muslim identity" (295): it is an exotic and vague "not-Christianness" (299) that Shakespeare finds [End Page 395] enchanting in such figures, not a specific (let alone feared or detested) religious commitment.

Religion clearly entered into Shakespearean drama; does it help to think about poetry and theater when considering the period's religious experience? A few contributors suspect it does. Paul Stevens observes how much ceremony of the Elizabethan church was indebted to a performative mentality, and his focus on liturgy leads to a respectful account of Henry VIII, which he deploys as a counterweight to critical overinvestment in that Ur-text of modern culture, Hamlet. For Stevens, "the spirit of the liturgy … animates" (252) that late and highly ceremonious play, and, where Hamlet can seem to inaugurate individualism, Henry VIII is an origin for a conception of life not founded on the "endless idealization of human agency" (257). I can't see the play toppling Hamlet off its pedestal any time soon, but the point is well made. Similarly, in his essay on poetic faith in Shakespeare, Richard McCoy emphasizes the Elizabethan Settlement's figurative understanding of ritual...


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pp. 395-396
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