12.02.25, Jackson/Marotti, eds., Shakespeare and Religion

Main Article Content

Douglas Bruster

The Medieval Review 12.02.25

Jackson, Ken and Arthur F. Marotti. Shakespeare and Religion: Early Modern and Postmodern Perspectives. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011. Pp. 312. ISBN: 978-0-268-03270-8.

Reviewed by:
Douglas Bruster
University of Texas, Austin

In focusing on Shakespeare's spiritual contexts, this anthology bookends a two-decade span during which it seemed as though religion might emerge, in early modern studies, as the next big thing. In the wake of New Historicism, religion--the early modern era's own, and indisputable, big thing--seemed ideally positioned to reveal the voluntary and inner as these unfolded in some tension with control (the New Historicism's recurrent concern). During the past few years, however, religion's momentum in the field has slowed a bit, leaving us to reflect on what we have learned, and still need to learn, about the spiritual dimensions and artifacts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Shakespeare and Religion gathers ten chapters on Shakespeare's religious contexts. In their Introduction the collection's editors, Ken Jackson and Arthur Marotti, give us a version of where we are when they describe Shakespeare as "a religious skeptic who was critical of his own religiously conflicted society and also both intellectually and emotionally attached to some of the features of the 'old religion' as he sought ways to translate some of them into psychologically and ethically powerful theater" (5). This portrait, rather than that of a religiously partisan Shakespeare, serves as a starting point for most of the essays. Still, the pieces' methodologies differ enough that Jackson and Marotti divide the book into two parts, roughly approximating, in terms of chronology and method alike, the historical and the postmodern. Interestingly, two essays on Shakespeare and the Book of Job (each excellent) face each other across this structural divide. This review will treat the anthology's essays in order before concluding with some general observations and a suggestion for a way forward.

The partisan nature of the collection's first essay makes it the least rewarding of the group. Robert Miola's "Two Jesuit Shadows in Shakespeare: William Weston and Henry Garnet" looks at the lives of two Jesuit priests, the first associated with the exorcism pamphlet quoted in King Lear, the second with the "equivocation" theme in the Porter's speech in Macbeth. Miola works strenuously to rehabilitate these figures' reputations, concluding with a brief for "Patient, clear-eyed research in the historical and cultural records" that will leave us "free from the special pleading that inflects the arguments of both sides" (41). Unfortunately, Miola's own essay seems special pleading for a Catholic position; that his last footnote shares gossip from the Vatican strikes one as dubious way to imply the clear or impartial.

Faced with existing readings that champion, respectively, a Catholic Titus and a Protestant Titus, Gary Kuchar's "Decorum and the Politics of Ceremony in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus" trims for a sociological, almost academic tragedy. Titus, in Kuchar's long reading, is Shakespeare's portrait of the broken politics of his time, an argument the drama makes by staging broken ceremonies. Building on Nicholas Moschovakis's foundational reading of paganism in the play, Kuchar suggests that these broken ceremonies demonstrated to the Elizabethans how "self- destructively other to themselves" their culture had become (47). Words and phrases like "self-difference" and "other from/to itself" get repeated so often here that we start to wonder whether Titus is not like most tragedies in offering division and interruption as the norm rather than the exception. If that is the case, Kuchar's conclusions about the ends to which "indecorum" works in this tragedy depend on an exaggeration of its exceptionality.

We have long known that The Comedy of Errors plays with the elements of religion; from its Ephesian setting to its decidedly unclassical abbess, this farce has always seemed to know more than it needed to about Christianity. In "Miracles and Mysteries in The Comedy of Errors," Richard McCoy explains this surplus knowledge by offering that Shakespeare christianized his Plautine original in order to draw on the air of mystery still attendant upon transubstantiation. Coleridge and Keats make an appearance for their relation to the aesthetics of wonder and ambiguity, but one wonders if the Romances (particularly The Winter's Tale) might have been as useful as the Romantics for McCoy's purpose: demonstrating that "the poetic faith sustained by Shakespeare's theatricality sustains a communion that partakes of religious faith" (92).

Sarah Beckwith, in "Acknowledgment and Confession in Cymbeline," churns her topic self-consciously and at great length with only a hasty glance at Cymbeline. Finishing the essay, in fact, one feels that not only the play but indeed the history of Shakespeare criticism has received short shrift. Has no one else ever written on Cymbeline? If other critics have, why doesn't Beckwith read them and mention their ideas? Augustine, Wittgenstein, and Cavell are fine, but after dozens of pages on the philosophy of confession Beckwith needed to provide those interested in Shakespeare with more.

The next two essays, both concerning the Book of Job, anchor the collection by treating the influence of this biblical text in different ways. Some years ago G. Blakemore Evans pointed out that Shakespeare was probably drawing upon Job as early as Much Ado. [1] Both Hannibal Hamlin, in "The Patience of Lear," and Julia Reinhard Lupton, in "The Wizards of Uz: Shakespeare and the Book of Job," confirm the relevance of that observation by demonstrating the formative influence of Job upon King Lear and other plays. Hamlin methodically examines Lear against Job and a host of Job commentaries, concluding uncontroversially that "Shakespeare was a more skeptical reader of Job than was Calvin" (154). Harder to credit, perhaps, is Hamlin's notion that Bullough's Narrative and Dramatic Sources needs to be augmented by the addition of "the Epistle of James, Golding's translation of Calvin's Sermons on Job, and Bunny's edition of Parson's Booke of Christian Exercise" (146). Because these works offer the kind of creative exegesis that Shakespeare routinely did on his own, it seems unnecessary to add them to an already gargantuan reading list for our playwright. Lupton's Job application, in contrast, deals less with the forensics of intertextuality than with the effects of this biblical text upon Shakespeare's imagination. What Shakespeare learned from Job, Lupton observes, is "not a positive religious program" but rather the scene of "a singular tear in the social fabric" (181). Modeled on a similar rift in Job, Lupton argues, this tear violently divides the human communities of King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Timon of Athens. Together, these two essays convincingly situate the Book of Job near the center of Shakespeare's tragic imagination.

Lisa Myobun Freinkel's essay, "Empson's Dog: Emptiness and Divinity in Timon of Athens," is unconventional but ultimately successful. Her subject is less Timon of Athens than the intellectual problem of dualism, especially as it characterizes the divide between Eastern and Western spiritual paradigms. Timon comes in for its dog, or rather dogs: Freinkel contextualizes William Empson's interest in the multiple but oddly impoverished senses of "dog" in Timon of Athens by examining that critic's long romance with Eastern religion and thought. A detour into Milton prefigures a return to the late Elizabethan era at essay's end; there an episode of cultural encounter narrated in Hakluyt's Principal Navigations helps Freinkel connect the two gods of Timon (one who gives money freely; and money, which has its way with one) with problems of language, logic, and belief.

In "The Passing of Falstaff: Rethinking History, Refiguring the Sacred," Joan Pong Linton explores what the death of Falstaff-- narrated but not shown in Henry V--has to tell us about the value of pain and the quotidian in the histories. Falstaff has become newly relevant to those interested in Shakespeare and religion since Kristen Poole's landmark essay of 1995, and Linton builds on Poole's argument as well as Julia Lupton's "Creature Caliban" to suggest that Falstaff is a kind of everyday hero. [2] His narrated passing, Linton concludes, possesses a resonant logic: "Even as the story changes with the context of each telling, the different reminiscences confirm the sacrificial logic of the sovereign politics and the miraculous power of creature sympathy to redeem the past" (223).

The moment prior to sacrifice concerns Ken Jackson in "Richard II, Abraham, and the Abrahamic," where he argues for Genesis 22 (the story of Abraham and Isaac) as the typological ancestor of and mythological basis for Shakespeare's dramatic chronicle. In a strong reading, Jackson italicizes various lines in the history and asks us to consider their possible links to Abraham's dilemma. Power's arbitrary and sudden nature in the play makes it intriguing to consider that Shakespeare may be "mapping out an Abrahamic kingship in response to Richard's divine right theory" (242), but in the end Jackson's reading seems overly comprehensive: Richard II diverges from the Abrahamic story too often, and has too much else in it, to accept the biblical precursor as a master narrative.

In his reading of Measure for Measure, James A. Knapp invests himself in a less empirical argument by probing the amorphous if deeply mysterious subject of time. "Penitential Ethics in Measure for Measure" begins by returning to Freinkel's exploration of time and chiasmus in Reading Shakespeare's Will (2002). From that perspective, Knapp treats Measure for Measure as a meditation on the necessary deferral of the ethical in time: "Rather than parrot Christian views on repentance, ethics, justice, and mercy, Shakespeare reserves judgment on every system that would proscribe, or prescribe, a particular course of action" (271). Indeed "For Shakespeare in this play," Knapp holds, "reversal opens the possibility for the penitential orientation we find in St. Paul, in the Psalms, in Jesus's words on the mount" (280).

What does this anthology tell us about where religion stands in Shakespeare studies? The scholars here engage many issues using various approaches, so it is difficult to articulate a central theme or tendency as an answer. Perhaps it goes without saying that their critical divergences call into question any plea for a homogenous "turn to religion"; critical approaches to religion-and- literature are as numerous, and divergent, as were religious positions in the era itself (not to mention the literary texts they affect). As the pieces here recognize and reveal, turning to religion takes us down a variety of avenues. Whether one finds these opening up vistas or circling back to familiar cul-de-sacs is a function more of the critic than the topic.

In some ways, religion has always been more of a problem than an opportunity for those interested largely in the secular literature of this era. Indeed, as we seek to explore historical religious materials and activities, we are left with a dwindling audience for our labors. Religious authors are less interesting to students than we might wish, with the perennial exception of C.S. Lewis. (Having found their own paths, those of a spiritual bent in our classrooms are often strangely impatient with others' religious narratives.) Then there is the question of theology itself, including its bureaucratic byways and improbable social dramas. Explaining double predestination, solafidianism, or prevenient grace is difficult enough without detailing the passages, books, controversies, sects, and battles that defined religious life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For a few scholars, these things are the bread and butter of research and teaching. Yet in an era when students know less and less about religion or history every year, and in which customer satisfaction all but defines the university classroom, teaching early modern religion can test even the zealous.

It is probably time, therefore, to give over our worries concerning the unmistakable aesthetics of religion. With a few exceptions, the pieces here--as Shakespeare studies generally--are too reluctant to explore what the experience of art and religion have in common. The reasons for this reluctance are obvious and shared by the field: we do not wish to grapple openly with the fact that spirituality has a somatic dimension, and that art has a spiritual one. To do so is to risk being accused of misunderstanding and/or devaluing religion, or, conversely, of romanticizing cultural objects. But surely to pass over the aesthetic dimension of works from the past is to miss an important aspect of their original attractiveness.

A brief illustration of the problem: some years ago, we were told to take playbooks less seriously than we do because they were outsold by sermons in their time. [3] Yet the scholar who scolded us this way did not bother to detail why sermons might have sold so well--did not bother, for instance, to dwell on or even quote the moving and sometimes gorgeous language of early modern preachers. Sermons were simply evidence of cultural and historical difference, and a sign that our priorities are misplaced. Sermons were assumed to be, at base, different from playbooks--even their polar opposites. But surely sermons and playbooks had something important in common in capturing the strong eloquence of identifiable living speakers on the page. Their words were often described with the same loving praise we hear given to secular poets. Yet how many of us have taught, or even read closely, the best sermons by figures like Henry Smith, Thomas Adams, John Donne, or Lancelot Andrews? For that matter, how many of us have taught, or even read, the best lyrics from Sternhold and Hopkins' Book of Psalms? If we think works like these are not beautiful, we have very different taste from many early modern readers and listeners. That difference--more than "religion" itself--may be the greatest hurdle to understanding the role and textures of the spiritual life as it affected the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.



1. See G. Blakemore Evans, "Dogberry and Job." Notes and Queries 37 (1990): 183.

2. See Kristen Poole, "Saints Alive! Falstaff, Martin Marprelate, and the Staging of Puritanism," Shakespeare Quarterly 46 (1995), pp. 47-75 (this essay was revised for Poole's Radical Religion from Shakespeare to Milton: Figures of Nonconformity in Early Modern England [Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000]); and Julia Reinhard Lupton, "Creature Caliban," Shakespeare Quarterly 51 (2000), pp. 1-23.

3. Peter Blayney, "The Publication of Playbooks," in A New History of Early English Drama, ed. John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), pp. 383-422.

Article Details

Author Biography

Douglas Bruster

University of Texas, Austin