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Unsettled Toleration: Religious Difference on the Shakespearean Stage.

Unsettled Toleration: Religious Difference on the Shakespearean Stage, by Brian Walsh. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. vii + 221. Hardcover. $99.00

This is a stimulating, well-written, if somewhat uneven book. Brian Walsh starts by acknowledging that in early modern England, "religious monoculture was held as an ideal" (3). Both Elizabeth I and James VI and I tried to limit the scope and influence of Puritans and Roman Catholics alike, both of whom posed a threat to the unity of the English Church. Drawing on the work of historians like Chris Marsh, Keith Wrightson, and Alexandra Walsham, Walsh argues that this ecclesiastical "unity" was in fact a more fragile, contingent thing, subject to challenge and modification. It is all too easy for scholars, it seems, to overstate "confessional differences" (25) in this period. Walsh stresses instead that "stable co-existence" (24) or simply just getting along are as much a part of the story as polemical division. Following the "turn to religion," this more "ecumenical" understanding of religious difference in this period has proved fruitful for a number of scholars, and Walsh develops this line of thinking with skill and sensitivity. He agrees with Walsham that tolerance and intolerance operate dialectically (24) and is good on the fact that early modern meanings of tolerance are often negatively defined: to tolerate is to endure, to restrain one's anger towards that which is odious to the polity (22-23).

After some helpful scholarly scene setting, chapter 1 offers a consideration of Christopher Marlowe's A Massacre at Paris. Some readers may be surprised to find that a play so often dismissed as "a crudely anti-Catholic propaganda piece" (28) in fact calls for its audience to "examine their own capacity for toleration of others, whether it be of homegrown religious minorities, or of stranger Protestants in England and abroad" (37). Yet Walsh's careful attention to slippery religious labels (a strong feature of this book) and his ability to tease out competing cultural valences within those terms pays dividends here: this is a thought-provoking counter reading of the play. Chapter 2 is, in my view, the most consistently illuminating, offering as it does a revisionist account of the stage Puritan in city comedy. Taking in a wide range of plays like Chapman's An Humorous Day's Mirth, Middleton's The Puritan Widow, and Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, Walsh persuasively shows that the theatrical Puritan is a multifaceted figure exhibiting a range of behaviours and so able to evoke "a spectrum of responses" from audiences. This is fine-grained, careful scholarship and anyone interested in the stage Puritan will need to take account of this important chapter.

Chapter 3 turns to Shakespeare's best-known "Puritans," Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Angelo in Measure for Measure. While neither play is sympathetic to Puritanism, to call these plays anti-Puritan is limiting in two ways for Walsh (87). In the case of Malvolio, it masks a central ambivalence about the presence of Puritanism that, the author suggests, the play does not answer. Can aggressive non-conformity be accommodated by those who do not share its assumptions? In Angelo's case, "Shakespeare imagines a richly troubled scenario where a Puritan is exposed as morally bankrupt, and pardoned without being explicitly reformed" (125). Both of these arguments are well made and they enable Walsh to suggest that Shakespeare presents his audiences with moral dilemmas about the possibility of religious accommodation that are at base intractable, befuddling. Invariably this case rests on Shakespeare's ability to stand somewhat aloof from the religious passions that animate his contemporaries. There are some rich local readings here: whether or not they sustain Walsh's broader thesis about Shakespeare's political stance is open to debate.

Chapter 4 on Samuel Rowley's When You See Me You Know Me reads the playwright's adaptation of Foxean history against the more localised use of the term "Lutheran" throughout the play. The general argument that the play "is an ideological bricolage that represents as elusive the ongoing search for consensus about the meaning or origins of religious change" (155) is well made, even if the claim that the play was likely performed at court remains admittedly speculative (143-44). The final chapter on Roman Catholic memory in Shakespeare's Pericles offers a balanced summation of recent work in this area and some good local readings, although it also contains some decidedly speculative, albeit intriguing, claims about Shakespeare and Wilkins' familiarity with Gower's tomb (165).

In exploring the spectrum of religious identities that we find on the early modern stage, Walsh returns repeatedly to the term "nuance" (e.g., 25, 87, 155,167). Nuance can be illuminating. But it is not a very dialectical term. In the search for greater nuance, the tolerationist side of the argument invariably predominates throughout this book and the forces of intolerance get shorter shrift. While there is some recognition that early modern anti-Catholicism is a multifaceted discourse (150-56), this line of argument deserves more sustained consideration that it receives here. Walsh circles somewhat nervously around plays like Thomas Dekker's The Whore of Babylon. Barnabe Barnes' The Devil's Charter, and Thomas Middleton's A Game at Chess, calling them nakedly anti-Catholic (161-62). They are, but that is not the whole story, nor is their political approach as unusual as it is claimed. A Game at Chess, for example, is not simply a critique of Roman Catholicism; Middleton often departs pointedly from the godly, Puritan agenda found in a number of his source texts. Rather than dismissing the tradition to which such plays belong (a tradition that continues throughout the seventeenth century) and assuming that anti-Catholicism is largely a discourse of crisis (163), this book would have benefitted from engaging more fully with plays that are less apologetic about their intolerance. Walsh concludes by arguing for "the capacity of art to provide an airway through the suffocating cloud of fundamentalism" (197). It is hard to disagree with the sentiment. And yet I am not convinced that argument advanced here fully sustains this claim. Arguing about fundamentalism is not the same thing as arguing for it. Despite some excellent work, then, this book offers us an incomplete account of the religious divisions that inform this period.

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Author:Streete, Adrian
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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