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Was Shakespeare a Christian, and if so, what kind of Christian was he?

Shakespeare The Biography. By Peter Ackroyd. New York: Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday, 2005. ISBN: 1-8561-9726-3. Pp. xvi + 572. $32.50.

Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare. By Clare Asquith. New York: Public Affairs, 2005. ISBN: 1-5864-8387-0. Pp. xvii + 348. $26.95.

Shakespeare's Second Historical Tetralogy: Some Christian Features. Edited by Beatrice Batson. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill, 2004. ISBN: 0-9722-2894-2. Pp. xxix + 188. $42.00.

Spiritual Shakespeares. Edited by Ewan Fernie. London and New York: Routledge, 2005. ISBN: 0-4153-1967-6. Pp. xix + 249. $29.95.

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. By Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2004. ISBN: 0-3930-5057-2. Pp. 430. $14.95.

Shakespeare's Religious Language: A Dictionary. By R. Chris Hassel. London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2005. ISBN: 0-8264-5890-4. Pp. xxiv + 455. $300.

Shakespeare's Religious Allusiveness: Its Play and Tolerance. By Maurice Hunt. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2004. ISBN: 0-7546-3954-1. Pp. 164. $89.95.

Shakespeare the Papist. By Peter Milward, S. J. Ann Arbor: Sapientia Press, 2005. ISBN: 1-9325-8921-X. Pp. XV + 308. $27.95.

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare 1599. By James Shapiro. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. ISBN: 0-0600-8873-7. Pp. xix + 394. $27.95.

Secret Shakespeare: Studies in theatre, religion and resistance. By Richard Wilson. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2004. ISBN: 0-7190-7025-2. Pp. 320. $24.95.

In sixteenth-century England, one became a Christian when one was baptized, an event that custom had long determined should occur as soon after one's birth as possible, preferably on the next Sunday or holy day. As the sixteenth century opened, this ritual was one of seven sacraments effective for salvation, because children were born in sin, and baptism was necessary to prevent them from dying in sin as well. In other words, baptism was a ritual that formally expelled the devil from newborns and claimed them instead for Christ and the Christian community into which they had been born (Kelly). This is how Joan Shakespeare, the poet's elder sister was baptized on 15 September, 1558, by Roger Dyos, a priest who followed traditional faith and practice, as ordered by Queen Mary, then reigning (Schoenbaum, Documentary 20). (1) Two months later, Queen Mary died and was succeeded by her sister, Elizabeth, who reimposed many of the reforms that had been ordered earlier by her father, Henry VIII, and her brother, Edward VI. While reformers rejected the formal expulsion of the devil at baptism, they continued to interpret the ritual as a "christening" or a claiming of the child for the Christian community and therefore as a sacrament necessary for salvation (Kelly 257-58). The liturgy of the Elizabethan prayer book of 1559 thus continued to require the parents' traditional rejection of the three enemies of the soul--the world, the flesh, and the devil--at the time of the child's baptism. (2) Born in 1564 and baptized by a reformed priest, John Bretchgirdle, William Shakespeare thus became a Christian on 26 April (Schoenbaum, Documentary 20-24), by means of a liturgy that claimed him implicitly for the reformed community rather than the traditional Christian community that had claimed his sister six years earlier.

The difference between Joan's and Williams "Christianings" is symbolic of one question this essay addresses in an evaluation of opinions published especially in the past three years: Was Shakespeare a traditional or a reformed Christian? In the most simplistic terms, the question is answered by the way he was baptized, but it by no means ends there. This essay addresses another question as well, however, which is arguably more basic: Was Shakespeare a believing Christian, as well as a baptized one? Gary Taylor answers this question unhesitatingly in distinguishing Shakespeare from himself. For one thing, Taylor observes, the poet was an Englishman; "I am not. Second, Shakespeare was a Christian. I lost my faith in Christianity even before I lost my virginity, and I do not expect, or wish, to recover either" (288). When Taylor says "Shakespeare was a Christian," he means two things: first, Shakespeare was a believer, and second, he was a traditional believer (as Taylor's essay eventually makes clear). I think Taylor was right in the first claim, but the second is less certain, as the state of current debate indicates.

To be sure, most publications in the past three years that address this question assume Shakespeare was more sympathetic to traditional than reformed faith. Several recent biographies are in this category (Ackroyd, Greenblatt, Holden, Honan, Wood), and among the most recent biographers, Peter Ackroyd lays out clearly the three principal documentary claims on which arguments for Shakespeare's traditional faith rest. First in importance is the manuscript "Spiritual Testament" signed by John Shakespeare, Williams father, and found in the rafters of John's house on Henley Street in the eighteenth century (Ackroyd 25). Now unfortunately lost, the manuscript was seen and printed by Edmund Malone, the great eighteenth-century editor of Shakespeare, though subsequently Malone came to suspect it was a forgery (Schoenbaum, Documentary 41-43). Biographers of Shakespeare largely dismissed his father's testament until the discovery in 1923 that it was very similar to seventeenth-century printed Spanish editions of a generic testament authorized by St. Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, who died in 1585. In 1966 an early seventeenth-century printed English edition of Borromeo's testament was discovered, which Schoenbaum (Documentary 44-45) and many others accepted as a strong indication of authenticity for John Shakespeare's testament.

Second, Ackroyd interprets John Shakespeare's sudden absence from the Stratford Council, where he had been a regular and leading member up to 1577, to his recusancy, that is, his determination to absent himself from required church attendance out of conviction that the reformed liturgy was heretical (67-68). The record of John's business transactions at this time, Ackroyd argues, can be explained by his attempt to make his property safe in case he was found guilty of being a recusant--a crime punishable by heavy fines because the Elizabethan government suspected that religious disloyalty might be equivalent to political disloyalty (69-70). This suspicion arose originally from the northern rebellion of 1569 in the name of traditional faith and from the bull issued by Pope Pius V in 1570, declaring Elizabeth a heretic and releasing her subjects from obedience to her, but it was kept alive by the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of Protestants in France in 1572; by Pope Gregory XIII's 1580 absolution in advance of anyone who assassinated Elizabeth; by the presence in England of a Catholic successor to Elizabeth, Mary Stuart, around whom plots constantly swirled until Elizabeth executed her in 1588; by Philip II's 1588 naval attack on England; and by the assassination of King Henri III of France by a Dominican friar in 1589. If John Shakespeare was a man of such strong traditional faith that he would resist the pressure of the Elizabethan regime against recusants, his faith was likely to have had an impact on son William as well. (3)

Third, Ackroyd accepts the interpretation of "William Shakeshafte" of Lancashire as William Shakespeare of Warwickshire (78-82). This suggestion was first offered by Oliver Baker in 1937 and eventually endorsed by the peerless archival researcher, E. K. Chambers, in 1946. Several circumstantial details support it. No record exists of William in Warwickshire between his marriage, together with the baptisms of his three children in 1582-85, and the first references to him in London in 1592. A bequest to William Shakeshafte in the will of Sir Alexander Hoghton in 1581 refers to Shakeshafte as a "player" and gives rise to the following possible scenario. Alarmed by intensifying political pressure on Warwickshire recusants following the arrest and execution of the Jesuit missionary, Edmund Campion, in 1581, John Shakespeare could have sent seventeen-year-old William to Lancashire for safekeeping as private tutor to the Hoghtons, a noble Catholic family. (Campion had visited in Warwickshire before Elizabeth's authorities caught up with him, staying with Sir William Catesby in Lapworth, only a few miles from Stratford, and eventually making his way to Lancashire himself, where he may have stayed with Richard Hoghton, a close relative to Alexander [Honigmann, Lost 11,146].) In Lancashire, the talented southern youngster might have come quickly to the attention of his noble patron, who therefore included him in his will. "Shakeshafte" was a common Lancashire name, and William might either have adopted it to aid his disguise, or the clerk who penned the will might have used it in place of the less familiar southern name. After returning to Warwickshire, marrying Ann, and fathering three children, Shakespeare could have journeyed again to Lancashire, in order to work as a player and eventually to join Strange's Men, whose patron was Lord Strange, Ferdinando Stanley, son of the 4th Earl of Derby, a family well known to the Hoghtons. With Strange's Men, Shakespeare could eventually have made his way to London, where the historical record identifies him first with that company (Honigmann, Lost 59-76). The Shakeshafte theory was strongly challenged by Douglas Hamer in 1970 but equally strongly answered by a E. A. J. Honigmann in 1985, whose arguments convinced Schoenbaum (Lives 536n.).

The three legs of this documentary tripod have helped to persuade nearly all recent biographers of Shakespeare's probable sympathy to traditional faith as a young man, and they cite various versions of it. Stephen Greenblatt finds the first and third legs to be sturdy, but he rejects the second in favor of a rival theory: that John Shakespeare's business records indicate genuine financial difficulties after 1577, with a modest recovery in the 1590s, perhaps assisted by the growing wealth of son William as an actor and playwright in London (Will 54-86). Richard Wilson's argument rests on the whole tripod, and he dismisses Greenblatt's alternative out of hand: "for four hundred years John Shakespere's financial alibi was swallowed by most scholars," who, Wilson maintains, misread the evidence (49). Father Peter Milward also cites the complete tripod in Shakespeare the Papist (7-9), as he had in his earlier book, where he offers the same explanation for the second leg that Ackroyd later repeated: that recusants had recourse to various financial subterfuges as means of securing their wealth against the possibility of heavy fines (Background 20).

These documentary arguments have not functioned by themselves, however, to create the growing weight of current opinion in favor of a Shakespeare formed by recusant conviction. Some of the arguments have been known for some time. That recusants concealed their true property value with various financial recourses was first pointed out, for example, by Richard Simpson in the mid-nineteenth century (Wilson 114). What has made the evidence for a "Catholic" Shakespeare recently credible is the growing recognition on the part of English historians that traditional faith was more vital than they had allowed, that popular opinion in favor of the Reformation shifted more slowly than had been thought, and that the English Counter Reformation was more extensive and influential than the prevailing historical narrative (the so-called Whig liberal version of English history) had led everyone to believe. No one can fail to be impressed by the powerful portraits of late pre-Reformation faith that Eamon Duffy has meticulously drawn, based on surviving evidence from English parishes (Stripping, Voices). Christopher Haigh has been particularly forceful in arguing that the stuttering reformations under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth produced change gradually and at an uneven pace from one part of England to the next, and Peter Lake, Michael Questier, Ethan Shagan, and Alison Shell have all contributed recently to a richer sense of the survival of traditional faith and the impact of Counter Reformation faith in late Tudor and early Stuart England.

A perceptible shift in credulity regarding the documentary evidence, then, probably owes more to the recognition of Whig liberal prejudice in the narrative of English history than to careful assessment of the evidence on the part of everyone who writes about Shakespeare's life. As Gary Taylor points out: "Shakespeare dominates the literary curriculum most dictatorially in the countries of the English-speaking world and in Germany, and all those countries remain overwhelmingly Protestant" (296). The response to Peter Milward is a good example of this prejudice in action. His first book now seems mainstream, taken in conjunction with many others who repeat positions he ventured to take at a time when he was ignored and even vilified. Even those who agreed with Milward failed to acknowledge his pioneering work or curled their lip at it. Honigmann did more than anyone else to turn the balance of opinion in favor of the Shakeshafte hypothesis, but what he claims as the lynchpin of his argument had already been argued by Peter Milward. Honigmann said that in going over the documentary record, he "was startled to learn" that John Cottom, one of the tutors at the Stratford grammar school when Shakespeare likely studied there, "was a native of Lancashire who returned c. 1582 to Tarnacre [not far from Alexander Hoghton's estate], where his family owned property, and lived there until his death in 1616" (Lost 5). Cottom, in other words, could have been a link for the young Shakespeare/Shakeshafte between Warwickshire and Lancashire, and Cottom's brother, Thomas, was a Jesuit priest who was arrested, tried, and executed along with Edmund Campion (Honigmann Lost, 40-41). But this evidence had been cited by Milward (Background 42, based on an article by H. A. Shield in 1961) twelve years before Honigmann published his book, though Honigmann acknowledges neither Milward nor Shield. (4) One of the most influential non-Catholic defenders of the "Catholic" Shakespeare, Gary Taylor, summarizes the documentary tripod that Milward had offered (290-92) but declines, as he puts it, to "regurgitate 'the bits and greasy relics" of evidence from the plays that Milward had put forward (293). (5) Small wonder that Peter Milward, Jesuit missionary, is inclined to interpret the suffering of the outcast Edgar in King Lear as an image of suffering Jesuit missionaries in England in the 1580s (Background 54; Papist 217-18).

Given the weight of current opinion and the recognition of Whig liberal prejudice, is it reasonable to conclude that Shakespeare was a traditional believer, as Taylor argued in 19947 Several factors suggest that the case is far from closed. (Taylor himself acknowledged that "I cannot prove that Shakespeare was a Catholic" [298]). For one thing, Robert Bearman, archivist of the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon and author of several books on Warwickshire history, has recently raised new questions concerning all three legs of the documentary tripod. Each article discusses a separate issue in detail, and in each case Bearman concludes that the evidence against it is stronger than the evidence for it. Bearman reads John Shakespeare's business record the same way Greenblatt does, for example, and he takes the same evidence that Taylor (291) and Wilson (49) cite in favor of John's business success to show that the opposite is more likely to have been the case (Bearman, "John Shakespeare"). In the first careful examination of all the early documentary evidence regarding John Shakespeare's Spiritual Testament, Bearman concludes that the likelihood of its being a forgery is greater than the likelihood of its being genuine ("Spiritual Testament"). Stephen Greenblatt anticipated Bearman in rejecting the interpretation of John's business dealings as evidence of recusancy, but he maintained the argument for the Spiritual Testament in spite of Bearman's evidence against it, which first appeared when Will in the World was nearly finished. (6) Bearman's argument regarding William Shakeshafte was answered briefly by E. A. J. Honigmann ("Question"), and the outcome may be regarded as a draw. (7) It is probably too early at this point to determine the long-range effect of Bearman's articles. At the very least, however, they are sufficient to challenge the claim that the documentary evidence makes the case "beyond reasonable doubt" as both Milward (Background 20) and Wilson (49) assert.

Moreover, even absolutely certain documentary evidence concerning William Shakespeare's formation in traditional faith would not amount to evidence either that the adult playwright retained that faith or that the plays and poems he wrote are influenced by it. Conceding that Shakespeare was never officially cited for recusancy (unlike his daughter, Susannah), Taylor argues that he may have retained his commitment to traditional faith nonetheless, since his dual residence in Stratford and London might have enabled him to avoid obligatory church attendance in both places (296-97). But the fact that Shakespeare was not cited for recusancy could also be evidence that he attended the Church of England as required, and even if he indeed maintained dual residency to avoid church attendance, it could also be because he was a man of no faith rather than of traditional faith.

With inconclusive documentary evidence on which to rely, we are left, then, with the record of the plays and poems themselves. Here each reader must be his or her own judge, and opinions vary widely, but those that have been published can be generally grouped into four categories that would seem to cover all possibilities: what Shakespeare wrote reveals (1) traditional faith, (2) reformed faith, (3) indeterminate faith (i.e., faith not perceptibly aligned with any contemporary religious position), or (4) no faith. The first, third, and fourth of these positions are evident in works from the past three years that address the issue of Shakespeare and religion, with the first position gaining in frequency of published expression at the expense of the second, as might be expected, given the current wave of interest in Shakespeare as a traditional believer. (8) Let us consider first, then, what might well be described as the emergent position: Shakespeare's writing is evidence of traditional faith. (9)

Here an important development is the assumption that Shakespeare wrote in code, as can be seen most strikingly in comparing Peter Milward's first and latest books on Shakespeare. Shakespeare's Religious Background surveys the field, including chapters on the Bible, the liturgy of the English Church, the reformed theologians Henry Smith and Richard Hooker, and even Elizabethan atheism. Milward's emphasis in that book is always on the importance of traditional faith in Shakespeare's writing, but he takes other possible influences into account. In considering the evidence for Shakespeare's faith formation, Milward even summarizes published arguments that John Shakespeare was a Puritan, though he rejects them (20). In Shakespeare the Papist, however, as the title implies, Milward reads the plays with the influence of traditional faith alone in mind, and he attributes the difficulty of this reading to deliberate concealment of it on Shakespeare's part: "If he had learnt anything from his recusant father in Stratford, or his recusant patrons in Lancashire or Jesuit priests such as Campion, it was the lesson (he puts into the mouth of Iago) of not wearing 'my heart upon my sleeve / for days to peck at' (Othello I i.64)" (15). Milward's way of reading the plays is therefore to decode them. In Titus Andronicus, for example, the Romans "are somehow on the Catholic side," while "Tamora stands for Queen Elizabeth," and her lover, Aaron the Moor, stands for "'the black earl' of Leicester, Elizabeth's notorious favourite" (25). (10)

The assumption that Shakespeare wrote in code is not new. It was made in the nineteenth century by Richard Simpson, who also originated one of the standard arguments for Shakespeare's formation in traditional faith, as we have seen; and decoding remained a favorite critical method in the early twentieth century. Though criticized for its circularity, question-begging, inconsistency, selecting of evidence, and reductiveness, interpretation as decoding would seem to have returned to favor recently as a result of Gary Taylor's argument regarding Shakespeare's need to conceal his true identity. (11) Shakespeare was not a disinterested artist of the sort James Joyce claimed to be, Taylor argued; rather, his apparent disinterestedness--his "negative capability;' as Keats called it--"is an act. Which is to say: it is a motivated action, and it is a performance," and its motive was self-protection because "the desire to protect yourself from those who would 'pluck the heart of [your] mystery' is perhaps understandable in adherents of a religion which was defined by law as treason" (314). (12) The parallel between Taylor's description of Shakespeare and Milward's is close: one quotes Iago, and the other quotes Hamlet, but their quotations have the same effect.

Whoever (or whatever) legitimized decoding, it has certainly caught on. (13) Richard Wilson's title Secret Shakespeare indicates a commitment to Taylor's idea of Shakespeare's hiddenness in principle, and Wilson develops an image that Taylor originated: Shakespeare as a vacuum (Taylor, 313). Wilson sees the "vacuous" Shakespeare as formed not only by the need to avoid religious persecution, however, but also by the practice of frequent auricular confession, introduced by Cardinal Borromeo along with the kind of spiritual testament that John Shakespeare may have signed and that Wilson asserts William knew as well: "Thus, when he arrived from Milan, Campion did not only bring the Shakespeares, father and son, Borromeo's Testament; he brought them news of an invention to generate exactly the 'disinterest effect' which critics now attribute to the omniscient dramatist: a machine for manufacturing a human vacuum" (18), that is, regular confession. (14) As this analysis suggests, Wilson takes a dim view of the Jesuits' influence on Shakespeare, so he and Milward reach diametric conclusions from a similar starting point. Milward asserts that "one may find in the plays of Shakespeare as a whole, and even in Macbeth, an attitude that is generally favourable to the Jesuits" (Background 67), whereas Wilson asserts the opposite: "it must be telling that in play after play by Shakespeare there is an anti-Jesuit subtext" (4). (15) Still, their interpretive method is the same. Thus crows, for Wilson, are a code for Jesuits in Shakespeare's works--and indeed, out of them as well, for he mentions Robert Greene's early rejection of Shakespeare as "a crow beautified with our feathers" in this context (11) and links it with the crow that "Makes wing to th' rooky wood" in Macbeth, as an allusion to the Jesuit Henry Garnet, and with the crows who "are fatted with the murrain flock" in Midsummer Night's Dream, as "a sour pun on Jesuit infiltration of the church for which More had died" (12-13). One strategy in decoding is to find unexpected puns (More/murrain, i.e., "carrion") where innocent readers suspect none. (16)

Among recent defenders of Shakespeare's adherence to traditional faith, the most thoroughgoing decoder is Clare Asquith, whose title clearly describes her project: Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare. Asquith identifies the key to the code she has found in an appended "Glossary of Coded Terms" (289-300), and her way of reading is to explicate the code in a chronological discussion of Shakespeare's plays and poems. Her preferred method is to identify historical persons or movements that dramatic characters stand for: Joan of Arc in 1 Henry VI is Martin Luther; Richard III is Robert Cecil; Richard II is both the excesses of old Catholicism and Elizabeth I; the abbess in The Comedy of Errors and Paulina in The Winter's Tale are both Viscountess Magdalen Montague, the leading patron, in Asquith's view, of the English Counter Reformation in the late sixteenth century; Luciana in The Comedy of Errors "is the patient, passively resistant new Catholicism of Shakespeare's own day"; while her sister, the scorned Adriana, "represents old Catholicism, whose slackness drove the country into the arms of the reformers" (59). Asquith and Wilson both read As You Like It as an allegory of Counter Reformation England, but they see the retreat to the forest of Arden differently. For both, it is an image of Catholic flight from Protestant persecution, but for Asquith, Arden stands simply for the "Ardennes, the region of northern France that was the centre for English exiles" (139), while for Wilson, Arden stands in a dense web of allusions not only for the Ardennes as a Catholic refuge (114) but also for Arden forest near Stratford-upon-Avon and for Edward Arden, possibly a distant relative of Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden (105-22). Arden was arrested and executed in 1583 along with his son-in-law, John Somerville, after Somerville tried to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, and Arden is memorialized, Wilson suggests, in As You Like It. As an account of either As You Like It or the Somerville affair, neither Asquith's allegory nor Wilson's is very satisfactory. (17)

Despite the current fashion for coded reading among those who argue in various ways for a "Catholic" Shakespeare, the argument does not necessarily require the method. In at least one important recent case, a critic who is sympathetic to the argument sees the plays and poems as "decisively secular" (Greenblatt, Will 36) and interprets them accordingly; this is an instance, in other words, of a critic who sees Shakespeare the playwright as a man of no faith. Convinced of Shakespeare's recusant formation, Stephen Greenblatt believes that the playwright "would have lived a life of secrets" in Lancashire (Will 105), and Greenblatt imagines Shakespeare meeting Edmund Campion there, possibly even kneeling down before him (Will 108-09)--presumably to confess, as Wilson imagines. Moreover, Greenblatt agrees with Wilson that Shakespeare turned away from Jesuit radicalism, if he ever encountered it (Will 109-113), but Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare came to believe in the theater, rather than in religion of any sort, and that Shakespeare "deftly turned the dream of the sacred into popular entertainment" (36).

This is an argument that Greenblatt has made before, in Shakespearean Negotiations and Hamlet in Purgatory. His essay on Hamlet in Will in the World is called "Speaking with the Dead," echoing the much-admired first line of Greenblatt's essay, "The Circulation of Social Energy" years before: "I began with the desire to speak with the dead." The desire was not literal, one soon discovered; it was literary: "literature professors are salaried, middle-class shamans" ("Circulation" 1). Greenblatt was making a point about the difficulty of understanding historical writing (which all writing inevitably becomes). But the statement deliberately evokes necromancy while emptying out the evocation at the same time, so Greenblatt's own prose was an instance of what he elsewhere ascribes to Shakespeare in a famous essay on exorcism: "King Lear is haunted by a sense of rituals and beliefs that are no longer efficacious, that have been emptied out" ("Exorcists" 119, emphasis in original). (18)

Greenblatt is the most thought-provoking of Shakespeare's most recent biographers, but his argument that Shakespeare was a lapsed Catholic--based on his reading of the plays as a secularization or "emptying out" of traditional faith--is problematic in at least three ways. First, Greenblatt's analysis of faith is what Sarah Beckwith calls "functionalist," that is, he interprets manifestations of faith as functions of social relationships and of state power, or in other words, as means of social and political control (Beckwith 269-70). That the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries produced intense religious rivalry that took political, violent, and often vicious form is beyond question, but to see the difference as merely social or political is to reduce faith to a social or political function. (19) As a way of interpreting Shakespeare, this assumption results in a different kind of reductive reading from that of decoding, but it is reductive nonetheless.

Second, the argument that Shakespeare was a lapsed Catholic exaggerates for rhetorical purposes the difference between traditional faith and the reformed faith that the English Church attempted to promote through various means, including state coercion and violence for those who resisted royal supremacy in religion. Baptism, where this essay started, is a good example of continuity, as well as difference. As John and Mary Shakespeare stood with infant William before John Bretchgirdle on 26 April 1564, it is not easy to say how much difference they experienced from what they had experienced with Joan six years earlier. They could not have failed to notice that liturgical Latin had been replaced by English, but did they know that this rite was not a literal expulsion of the devil from their child, whereas the traditional rite was, and if so, did they know what the difference meant? When they solemnly undertook to renounce the devil and all his works, did they experience their affirmation as an emptying out of the traditional rite? It was a time-honored ritual, practiced at the same time in the child's life as it always had been; the priest wore simpler vestments, but they were vestments, not the black gown and white neckerchief of the Genevan reformers (much to the indignation of those who believed the Genevan liturgical garb was truer to the gospel); and the rite was still explained as a sacrament necessary to salvation. When Bretchgirdle made "a cross" on young Williams forehead (Book of Common Prayer, 275) did John and Mary know that it was merely a symbol of his reception "into the congregation of Christ's flock" and no longer a literal means of banishing the devil, as it had been? (20) If Bretchgirdle had undertaken to explain the difference, did they understand it? Did they recognize the difference between claiming a child for the reformed Christian community rather than the traditional Christian community, when the village social structures, the annual rhythms of country life, and the seasons of the ecclesiastical year remained largely the same? (21) Reformed baptism took place amid a round of retained rituals (though certainly pared down) that included the annual Rogation procession, originally a three-day ceremony marking a given parish's boundaries in order to drive evil spirits out of it--one of the most dramatic of pre-Reformation sacred processions (Duffy, Stripping 136). Though the English Church banned most such processions (aiming principally at the Corpus Christi procession), it supported the Rogation ritual, which was warmly commended in the 1630s by George Herbert, ordained priest in the English Church (Duffy, Stripping 136-37), and which persisted in many parishes, including even London parishes, until well into the twentieth century (Drake-Carnell, 32). (22)

To be sure, some striking differences were apparent in the religious life of Stratford. Iconoclasm made an impact there, as it did in many parts of England. We have long known that John Shakespeare was a member of the Stratford town council in 1564, the same year as William's birth, when the council ordered the images of saints in the guild chapel to be covered with whitewash. On 1 May 1571, when William was just seven years old, the council hired a glazier to replace the stained glass windows of the guild chapel with plain glass, a story Shapiro tells particularly well in A Year in the Life (145-49). He and Wilson both use the whitewashed chapel wall as an image of Elizabethan faith: an apparently plain exterior covering a dense memory of supportive ritual, companionable saints, and striking visual aids to worship (Shapiro 148, Wilson 151). But if their understanding of the image is correct, then the argument that William Shakespeare was exceptional in his memory of traditional faith is weakened, as Shapiro points out: "To argue that the Shakespeares were secretly Catholic or, alternatively, mainstream Protestants misses the point that except for a small minority at one doctrinal extreme or other, those labels failed to capture the layered nature of what Elizabethans, from the queen on down, actually believed" (148). (23)

To take a particular example, Peter Milward notes that "it is interesting to remark the many occasions on which the adjective 'holy' is applied [in Shakespeare's writing] to material objects in the sacramental sense used by Catholics and often ridiculed by Protestants" and he cites examples, including "holy water" (Background 24). But Milward exaggerates the difference for rhetorical effect, as Greenblatt does. In Book I of Spenser's Faerie Queene, the "Legend of Holiness" one of the most effective defenders of the Elizabethan church settlement uses "holy" as an adjective some nineteen times, seven of which are more or less mocking (referring to the "false" holiness of traditional faith), but twelve are definitely not, including "holy water," which appears twice. (24) If Spenser is emptying out traditional ritual when he seems to be mocking it, as Greenblatt claims for Harsnett and Shakespeare, how are we to understand Spenser's other uses of "holy," and more important, how did contemporary believers understand them? In Spenser's account of salvation, the Bible functions centrally, but it functions centrally in both pre-Reformation and Counter Reformation soteriology as well, and it does not function exclusively in Spenser's narrative, so to say that reformers reduced faith to nothing but the Word is an overstatement for Spenser, one of the most esthetically rich and influential representatives of the new religious order, especially for poets. The Redcrosse Knight, who represents holiness, is honored as a saint (a category redefined by the Elizabethan Church, but not rejected); he encounters and is saved from the Seven Deadly Sins; and in the House of Holiness he is restored by the Seven Works of Mercy. (25) These are all points of continuity with traditional and Counter Reformation belief.

This is not to say that Shakespeare wrote like Spenser, despite the importance of Spenser in the 1590s, the decade during which Shakespeare established himself as the foremost playwright in England. (The Faerie Queene was published in two installments, the first in 1590; the second in 1596.) Spenser made a deliberate and successful bid for crown patronage, whereas Shakespeare did not write for a patron unless he had to, as Greenblatt emphasizes (Will, 256); he chose to write for the paying public. Nor did Shakespeare write allegory (except for those who think he wrote in code), yet he often adapted the allegorical traditions of native English drama, as many critics have shown, and his adaptations are not easily described as simply emptying out the original. Iago is one of the most disturbingly evil characters any writer has imagined, and Shakespeare clearly modeled him on the allegorical Vice of the morality play, but it is not clear that Iago's repeated evocations of hell and the devil are mere figures of speech or could have been understood as mere figures of speech in the early seventeenth century. In other words, it is not clear that Iago represents an emptying out of belief concerning devils and vices (who were often imagined in religious drama as devils). To be sure, Othello says of Iago, "I look down towards his feet; but that's a fable" (5.2.294), presumably referring to customary affirmation that the devil had cloven hoofs, a presumption strengthened by Othello's next line: "If that thou be'st a devil, I cannot kill thee." Why does Shakespeare raise the issue at this fraught moment in Othello that the devil's cloven feet are a "fable"? Is he emptying out the tradition? If so, is it because he is an unbeliever, or because he is a skeptical believer, like Harsnett and many other members of the English Church's clergy? (26) How can one possibly tell? And does the allusion to cloven hoofs as a fable necessarily reduce the demonic impact of Iago in Othello? Is a human being who acts like a demon necessarily less a product of Christian belief, in other words, than a literal devil in human form? The interrogative would seem to be a more appropriate mode for such moments in Shakespeare than Greenblatt's indicative certainty that the playwright was a lapsed traditional believer.

With regard to exorcism in particular, Greenblatt follows William Elton's argument regarding the gods in King Lear as evidence that Shakespeare empties out exorcism in that play, because the emptying out of the rite implies the non-existence or irrelevance of gods or devils in the first place: "The characters appeal again and again to the pagan gods, but the gods remain utterly silent" ("Exorcists" 119), and Greenblatt makes the point even more emphatically in an accompanying note: "Words, signs, gestures that claim to be in touch with super-reality, with absolute goodness and absolute evil, are exposed as vacant--illusions manipulated by the clever and imposed on the gullible" (Negotiations, 190n. 43). Elton's view of prayer in King Lear, however, is not definitive. (27) Consider, for example, Cordelia's heartfelt prayer for her father:
 All blest secrets,
 All you unpublished virtues of the earth,
 Spring with my tears! Be aidant and remediate
 In the good man's distress! (4.4.15-18)

This prayer is arguably answered unequivocally when Lear and Cordelia are reconciled in one of Shakespeare's most remarkable and powerful comedies of forgiveness. (28) The reason Cordelia's prayer is overlooked, of course, is that Lear dies in such terrible agony that it appears to make a mockery of any prayer, for nothing aids and remediates his distress at the play's end. But this is not the only way to understand the end of King Lear. The depth of his final suffering is qualitatively different from the suffering he had endured earlier, simply because his ultimate agony comes in the wake of his reconciliation with Cordelia, who is cruelly, senselessly, and inexplicably killed, almost as soon as he is reunited with her. Does such suffering necessarily render meaningless the goodness that precedes it, or does that very goodness constitute the mystery (not necessarily the "redemption" as Bradley claimed [285], but simply the unfathomable enigma) of Lear's dying pain? Can we be certain that Lear instructs its auditors in despair and disbelief, or does it imagine for them the unanswerable secrecy of grace and human suffering--the age-old problem of goodness and agony in evident diurnal coexistence? In short, did Shakespeare write tragedies of despair, or do his tragedies imagine the immediately unanswerable problem of inexplicable suffering with unusual power and directness?

One way to respond to such questions is to acknowledge that charity and grace function imaginatively in Shakespearean drama, rather than dogmatically, and here Greenblatt is instructive without perhaps intending to be. One of the most compelling chapters in Will in the World is "Laughter at the Scaffold," dealing with Marlowe's Jew of Malta and Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice in the context of the sham trial and vicious execution of Roderigo Lopez, a Christian Jewish Portugese physician, in February 1594 on charges that he attempted to poison Queen Elizabeth. Greenblatt imagines Shakespeare at the execution, and he draws a brilliant comparison between the crowd's jeeringly cruel misconstruction of Lopez's last words, that "he loved the Queen as he loved Jesus Christ," and the murderously crafty equivocation of Marlowe's Barabas (Will 277-78). But the point of Greenblatt's comparison is that when such cruelty appears in The Merchant of Venice, it is in the mouths of characters who are "embarrassing, coarse, and unpleasant" (280), like Salanio and Salerio, while the Jew himself in Shakespeare's play has unexpected depths of anguish that are impossible to laugh off and are markedly less evident in Marlowe's play (281-84). "Whatever sprang up in place of Marlovian irony" Greenblatt writes, "was not tolerance--the play, after all, stages a forced conversion as the price of a pardon--but rather shoots of a strange, irrepressible imaginative generosity" (286). The last phrase is not a bad definition of grace, to which the play explicitly appeals in Portia's famous speech on mercy (4.1.182-200). This is not to say (though many have) that Portia is herself an allegory of what she defends; rather, she is a way of imagining how difficult it is to practice in fact, because those who profess to live by it so easily deceive themselves about its operation in their lives. "Nothing is good, I see, without respect" remarks Portia in the play's final scene (5.1.99), and her point is that the "greater glory" dims "the less" (5.1.93), or in other words, that human goodness as practiced is relative to the standards it acknowledges. "It is a good divine that follows his own instructions" she had remarked earlier, in the midst of a conversation with Nerissa in which she mocked her suitors behind their backs while acknowledging that "I know it is a sin to be a mocker" (1.2.14-15, 55). Since the mockery in question involves ethnic stereotyping of her suitors, her recognition of slippage between profession and action is surely relevant to the way Christians treat Jews in this play. That mercy is preferable to vengeance seems unmistakable in The Merchant of Venice, but that those who advocate mercy fail to practice what they preach is a sorry fact that the comedy wryly acknowledges, even as it acknowledges the pain they cause to those who supposedly deserve it the most. "Deserve" is precisely what grace sets aside in its irrepressible generosity.

The third problem with Stephen Greenblatt's reading of Shakespeare as a lapsed recusant follows from the second. If the differences between traditional and reformed faith were not as clear to most people as they were to those on the extreme ends of the continuum from recusant to puritan, then the argument for Shakespeare's abandonment of traditional faith involves two unnecessary hypotheses: first, that he was a traditional believer to begin with, and second, that he abandoned what belief he had when he matured. It is simpler, in other words, to assume that the writing in the plays and poems is consistent with the layered faith that was characteristic of the mainstream of Elizabethan religious life than to assume that the playwright was formed by one extreme, which he then gave up. Gary Taylor convincingly contrasts Shakespeare with Middleton the mainstream Calvinist member of the English Church (304-12), and Stephen Greenblatt convincingly contrasts Shakespeare with Marlowe the sly and caustic subversive, but neither contrast necessarily makes Shakespeare a Catholic or a lapsed Catholic; they more likely make him somewhere in the middle of the English Church, with a distinctive rural background and a lack of patronage ties through the universities or inns of court. To point out that Shakespeare was not a Calvinist like Middleton is not to establish that he was a Catholic, and to point out that he was sometimes skeptical of traditional or Counter Reformation faith is not to establish that he had abandoned faith altogether. "For young Charbon the puritan and old Poysam the papist," remarks the Clown in All's Well That Ends Well, "howsome'er their hearts are severed in religion, their heads are both one--they may jowl horns together like any deer i'th' herd" (1.3.51-55). He is making a cuckold joke, based on what he thinks he knows about the nature of women, which is why the Countess calls him "a foulmouthed and calumnious knave" accurately identifying his reductive misogyny and supplying a positive counterpart to it both in herself and in her loving approbation of Helena's passion for the Countess's own son in the lines immediately following--arguably perhaps the play's greatest surprise and another instance of what Greenblatt calls "strange, irrepressible imaginative generosity." The Clown's calumny, in other words, is not in caricaturing the two extremes in Elizabethan and Jacobean faith but in what he assumes about human sexual nature, which the play, in general, treats more charitably than the Clown does, though his perspective is never entirely discounted. (29)

What I am suggesting, then, is that recent arguments for Shakespeare as a traditional believer or a lapsed traditional believer (i.e., a man of no faith) are less credible in principle than arguments that he was a man whose precise faith commitment is impossible to determine, though it is likely to be somewhere in the English Church. Several examples of the latter argument have appeared recently, and with them this essay will conclude. More accurately, these are arguments that Shakespeare's written record suggests indeterminate faith, without necessarily claiming anything about the man himself. Shakespeare was indeed famously reticent, leaving no letters, journals, critical treatises, recorded conversations, or independent opinions of any kind--in contrast to Jonson, say, whose critical prologues, learned glosses to his tragedies and masques, and conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden leave no doubt about where he stood on many critical issues. What Shakespeare thought or believed can only be inferred from the plays and poems, but it does not necessarily follow, as Honigmann, Greenblatt, Taylor, and Wilson argue, that he was reticent in order to protect himself as a recusant. (30) That is a possibility, of course, but it is no more likely than that he simply valued his privacy, as many people do, for reasons we will never know. True, he was an actor, and acting is an inherently public profession, but not all actors are alike. The performer and the person are not the same, any more than the writer and the person are. Even in a media-saturated and blog-infatuated culture like our own, some actors and some writers prefer to keep to themselves, no matter how anxious the public (and reporters, who sell information to the public) might be to find out or others might be to advertise themselves. We do indeed long to pluck the heart out of Shakespeare's mystery, but his reasons for making it unusually difficult to do so are his own.

Among books in this category, Beatrice Batson's collection of essays is the third she has published from conferences she has organized at Wheaton College on the general topic of Shakespeare and Christianity. The conferences have drawn some fine scholars, and the collections all have strong individual essays, but the transition from conference to essays is a challenge to focus and coherence. The latest collection seeks to overcome this problem by narrowing the range from Christianity-and-anything-by-Shakespeare to Christianity and the history plays from Richard II to Henry but without stated reasons for this choice, the collection remains unfocused. Clifford Davis discusses the influence of the mystery plays on Shakespeare's histories, for example, while Paul White discusses patronage controversy in the 1590s, involving Shakespeare's playing company and court factions that competed with each other by means of various religious positions. Both essays are informative and scholarly, but what ties them together is not clear. The fact that they both acknowledge Christianity in some way is not necessarily enough to give the collection an intellectual purpose. They could appear in any collection of essays on the second tetralogy; indeed, Whites essay is adapted from one he published in a collection of essays on theatrical patronage. Moreover, the collection is editorially out of touch with scholarship elsewhere. Batson's introduction to the latest one notes that "study of the Christian dimension of Shakespeare's dramas ... was completely in disfavor as recently as a decade ago" (ix), but a decade before the publication of this collection, Roy Battenhouse published his anthology of essays called Shakespeare's Christian Dimension (a title Batson seems to allude to), which includes edited digests of close to 100 studies published throughout the twentieth century. All the topics treated in Batson's book have long been in favor, from the influence of the mystery plays to studies of imagery--which were popular as early as the 1940s--and archival and interpretive work associated with patronage networks. The collection is commendably ecumenical and grinds no axes where Shakespeare's faith is concerned, but the book's purpose is not clear.

Ewan Fernie's collection of essays, Spiritual Shakespeares, also takes no stand on Shakespeare's faith, and in contrast to Batson's collection, it is very much aware of the contemporary critical scene, which Fernie accommodates under the broad term "spiritual" rather than "Christian" The risk in this breadth is the conflation of everything from the demonic to the divine, as Fernie's definition suggests: "spirituality is (or purports to be) the experience or knowledge of what is other and is ultimate, and the sense of identity and 'mission' that may arise from or be vested in that experience" (8). By this definition, Faustus' commitment to Mephistopheles is as spiritual as George Herbert's to Love, and spirituality might seem to have more to do with Romantic imagination than with Christian faith of any persuasion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Fernie addresses this issue by acknowledging arguments for "presentism" in his concluding essay (186-87), but presentism begs the question of whether and to what extent theory can or should be historicized by assuming that it cannot be. Kiernan Ryan thus follows David Kastan in explicating All's Well That Ends Well in Nietzschean terms: "the miracle play of All's Well cradles a revenge comedy fuelled by ressentiment" (Ryan 45). Like Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Helena is far from perfect, and her motives and actions are suspicious, as the Clown insists, so turning to Nietzschean suspicion can yield insights for this play, especially if one follows Nietzsche's influence through Marcel Mauss's The G/ft to Derrida's Given Time: Kastan argues that in Ali's Well "what should be freely given must be bought" (585). To read All's Well in light of what Iago calls "mere suspicion" (Othello, 2.1.390), however, is to eliminate any possibility of grace or graceful change, as Iago does, but All's Well arguably does not. Ryan is surely right that the truth affirmed in the play's proverbial title "is betrayed by deferral and exposed as a hypothesis, whose validity only the future beyond the play can verify" (48). But this is true of any Shakespearean comedy, not just All's Well, because all of them locate the action, however allusively, in the fallen world, which necessarily continues into an unknown and contingent future after the play ends. The future in All's Well is contingent on both Helena, who is at once bold, determined, cunning, sexually passionate, resourceful, charitable, and able to preserve Bertram's nobility in spite of himself, and on Bertram, who is capable of learning and of asking forgiveness. Their future is not guaranteed; no future is. But it is more of a future than either of them started with; it depends on both of them; and insofar as it is spiritual, it is specifically Christian (that is, it acknowledges grace, charity, patience, coming to the end of oneself, and forgiveness), without being partisan.

Maurice Hunt understands All's Well in non-partisan terms as well, in Shakespeare's Religious Allusiveness, a monograph that explores the "play and tolerance" of Shakespeare's religious language in five chapters over a range of plays, from Two Gentlemen of Verona to Othello. Hunt's method is to focus on doctrinal points that were in dispute for traditional believers and reformers, and he finds evidence for both sides' contentions in the plays he discusses, so he argues that the plays are tolerant of both sides, and that Shakespeare is inclined to make "play" of ideas rather than to assert them dogmatically. In All's Well, for example, the issue Hunt sees is "the problematical complication of merit occasioned by the Reformation Protestant revaluation of the term in its debate with Catholicism" (47). Hunt's emphasis on the allusive richness of Shakespeare's religious language is important, if only because that language is so pervasive. (31) Still, the status and function of allusions need to be kept in mind. Shakespeare was not a theologian but an entertainer--though an unusually bright, thoughtful, and well read entertainer. As Hassel points out, "the religious issues in the plays, like the religious words that convey them, are almost always exploited for dramatic fun or dramatic tension rather than explicated to make a theological point or take a theological stance" (Dictionary xxi). In Hunt's reading, this point is too often lost, and the game of Shakespeare's language is consequently sacrificed to the earnestness of learned commentary.

I regret that Jean-Christophe Mayer's book, with the projected title of Shakespeare's Hybrid Faith: History, Religion, and the Stage, is scheduled for publication too late to be included in this review. It is a good sign, however, that an author might use "Shakespeare" and "faith" in a book's title, and his book is a certain sign that the conversation summarized in this essay will continue. It is an important conversation and an important part of what Jackson and Marotti call "the turn to religion" in recent studies of early modern literature. As Battenhouse's book makes clear, Shakespeareans continued a vigorous conversation about religion throughout the heyday of materialist criticism, but it was perhaps quieter than it has been recently, as the rash of recent books considered here suggests. Besides, the conversation has now profited from materialist and other postructuralist insights, as Fernie's collection makes clear, so we should hope that it will not only be more audible than before but richer and more nuanced as well.

Hope College


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I am grateful to the editors of Christianity and Literature for the invitation to write this essay, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, though I have benefited from the comments of several scholars who generously read and responded to an early draft of it: Fr. David Beauregard OMV, Sarah Beckwith, David Bevington, Ewan Fernie, Stephen Greenblatt, Donna Hamilton, David Scott Kastan, Susannah Brietz Monta, James Shapiro, Alison Shell, Debora Shuger, Dennis Taylor, and Gary Taylor.

(1) Throughout this essay, I follow the example of Eamon Duffy in using the phrase "traditional faith" to refer to pre-Reformation faith. Similarly, I use "reformed faith" or the "English Church," on one hand, and "Counter Reformation faith," "the Roman Church," or "recusant" (referring to believers) on the other, to describe differences after the Reformation, in order to avoid the anachronistic and ambiguous terms, "Catholic" and "Anglican."

(2) "Dost thou forsake the devil and all his works, the vain pomp, and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, the carnal desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them?" (Book of Common Prayer, 273).

(3) Despite his strong emphasis on Williams recusant heritage, Ackroyd denies the inference, asserting that the "very large Catholic constituency of which the Shakespeares were a part ... does not necessarily imply that Shakespeare himself professed that faith--assuming that he professed any--only that he found the company of Catholics familiar" (39).

(4) I have not seen the second edition of Honigmann's book, published in 1998, so my observations may apply only to the first edition, but they are nonetheless pertinent to the reception of Peter Milward's ideas.

(5) Taylor quotes from Troilus' disillusioned description of his disloyal love, Cressida: "the bits and greasy relics / Of her o'ereaten faith" (Troilus and Cressida, 5.2.163-64).

(6) In acknowledging Bearman's essay, Greenblatt asserts that "more recent scholarship has cautiously tended to confirm" the authenticity of John Shakespeare's testament (Will 397), but the only scholarship more recent than Bearman's article that Greenblatt might have known is Wilson's book, which Greenblatt read in typescript (397), and Wilson is anything but cautious; on the contrary, he builds an elaborate edifice of conjecture on the evidence and rejects any doubt about it.

(7) Wilson (60) also briefly criticizes Bearman's "Shakeshafte" and Bearman convincingly answers him in his later article on John Shakespeare's business record ("John Shakespeare" 412n. 2).

(8) The most recent defenses of Shakespeare's identification with the English Church are by Daniell, Knapp, and Shuger, Political. For a more broadly Protestant Shakespeare, see Freinkel.

(9) Michael Davies already saw this position as strongly emergent six years ago and published doubts about it, but it has gained strength since then, so perhaps "dominant" would be a more accurate way to describe it than "emergent."

(10) Milward makes a unique claim regarding the documentary evidence in this book, namely, that Fulke Gwillom (who is named as a legatee in Alexander Hoghton's will along with William Shakeshafte) was from Shottery, near Stratford (13). Milward does not document this information (like many recent writers on Shakespeare's biography, Milward prefers general bibliographical notes rather than standard documentation in Shakespeare the Papist), so the source cannot be checked, but if it is true it would considerably increase the credibility of the Shakeshafte argument. I have not, however, encountered it anywhere else, including Bearman, "Shakeshafte" where one would expect to find it, since Bearman is arguably the leading historian of Warwickshire.

(11) For a critical analysis of decoding (including Richard Simpon's) as a method of reading early drama, see Bevington, 1-26. For a critique of Taylor's argument, see Davies, 38-40. Taylor's essay neither practices nor endorses decoding, but its argument for Shakespeare's secrecy is often repeated by decoders.

(12) Honigmann had already made the argument in passing regarding Shakespeare's need to be secret in 1985 (Lost 125), but he had not made it as forcefully as Taylor would.

(13) Beyond the world of scholarly publishing, see the essay by Fr. Andreas Kramarz on the website of the National Catholic Register, especially the claim that "Shakespeare's genius is further reflected in his ability to so discreetly reflect on Catholic issues in public, that his true intentions are revealed only to the eye of the initiated."

(14) Regular auricular confession was a Counter Reformation innovation, in contrast to confession once a year in traditional religion (Duffy, Stripping 53-63).

(15) Wilsoffs book is ambiguous about this claim, sometimes supporting it and sometimes not. He mentions the "Jesuit martyr, William Hartley, whose execution Shakespeare would record in The Comedy of Errors" (57), for example. If there were indeed an execution in The Comedy of Errors (instead of only a threatened one), this would appear to be a positive commendation of a Jesuit martyr, rather than an anti-Jesuit reference--assuming, of course, that the unidentified non-executed man "stands for" William Hartley (if he stands for anyone at all) and not any other condemned man.

(16) In Wilson's case, sensitivity to wordplay is probably due to the influence of post-structuralism, especially deconstruction and the fondness for wordplay on the part of Jacques Derrida. Wordplay in the writing of a philosopher who argues that everything is ultimately words, however, is substantially different from the detection of wordplay on the part of a literary critic who attempts to establish something distinctive, both hermeneutically and historically, about a particular writer.

(17) Wilson asserts that the Somerville plot is "one of the most under-researched episodes of Shakespeare's lifetime" (105) and impugns editors for neglecting Shakespeare's character called Somerville in 3 Henry VI as an allusion to the historical John Somerville (120), but Wilson himself unaccountably neglected two essays on this very topic by Randall Martin, editor of the Oxford 3 Henry VI, one published four years before Wilson's book (Martin, "Rehabilitating") and the other in a collection of essays that Wilson actually helped to edit (Martin, "Catilines"). Asquith acknowledges the Somerville affair only in a note (316n. 12). For information about it, she refers to Wood, but she misidentifies Shakespeare's Somerville with 2 Henry VI rather than 3 Henry VI.

(18) Greenblatt is referring back to his own analysis of Samuel Harsnett's 1603 Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (long recognized as an influence on King Lear) as an attempt to defend the English Church by "emptying out" the rituals of traditional faith and reducing them to stage shows ("Exorcists" 113-14).

(19) Quoting Frederick Jameson, Jackson and Marotti in fact see "religion as the 'master code" of early modern culture for materialist criticism, of which Greenblatt's New Historicism is an influential example, because it approaches "religion and politics as religion as politics" (168). In similar terms, Dympna Callaghan notes that "in relation to religion, the Left's tendency toward economic reductionism is most in evidence" (4).

(20) On the apotropaic (devil-banishing) power of the cross in traditional belief, see Duffy, Stripping 273-83.

(21) On continuity in the rituals of life, see Cressy; on the influence of the English liturgical year on Renaissance drama (including Shakespeare), see Hassel, Renaissance.

(22) Herbert is a good example, among many, of a brilliant writer and thinker who combined the old and the new as an orthodox supporter of the reformed English Church. As Ramie Targoff argues, Herbert as a poet was strongly formed by the English Book of Common Prayer (85-117), in addition to vital remnants of traditional faith.

(23) On the other hand, Shakespeare does not much resemble a bona fide "church papist" (a traditional believer who conformed to the English Church) such as Anthony Munday, whose religious commitments have recently been explored convincingly by Donna Hamilton. Munday concealed his tracks so successfully that both Milward (Papist 15) and Wilson (62) fail to see his church papistry and dismiss him as a persecutor of recusants. The persuasiveness of Hamilton's case depends on the documentary richness surrounding Munday's life and writing, and here again the contrast with Shakespeare is striking: in contrast to Munday, Hamilton asserts, "Shakespeare's religion remains inaccessible" (xxivn. 3).

(24) The references are as follows (citing canto and stanza number alone from Book I): Proem. 2, 1.30, 1.34 (twice), 3.17 (twice), 4.18, 7.18, 8.32, 8.36, 10.36, 10.45, 10.46, 10.59, 10.67, 11.36, 12.26, 12.37 (twice).

(25) Spenser's debt to the English baptismal rite in Book I of the Faerie Queene is clear from the priest's words following his signing of the child with the cross: "We receive this child into the congregation of Christ's flock, and do sign him with the sign of the cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner against sin, the world, and the devil, to continue Christ's faithful soldier and servant unto his life's end" (Book of Common Prayer, 275).

(26) Debora Shuger argues for a skeptical strain in Richard Hooker's biblical hermeneutic (Habits 17-68), and Huston Diehl similarly sees Foxes narrative of martyrs sometimes "empowering the skeptic" (28-31). In short, the combination of skepticism and belief was not uncommon in English reformed thinking.

(27) George Walton Williams presents a very different and carefully considered view, though he omits Cordelia's prayer, quoted in this article, without comment-presumably because it is not clearly addressed to the gods. For correction of that assumption, see Elton 81.

(28) The term "comedy of forgiveness" is R. G. Hunter's. He does not include King Lear in Shakespeare's examples of the genre, though he easily could have. For an illuminating comparison between Lear's reconciliation with Cordelia and George Herbert's "Love (III)" see Strier (187-89).

(29) Milward reads the Countess's chiding of the Clown as a rejection of his use of "papist" (Papist, xiii-xiv). For more nuanced interpretations, see Hunt (56-57) and Ryan (40-43).

(30) One of the problems with coded reading is that recusants in Shakespeare's day seem not to have penetrated his code any more than the authorities did. As Milward points out, King Lear and Pericles were performed along with other plays in a recusant household, Gowthwaite Hall in Yorkshire, during the Christmas season, 1609-10 (Papist xii), but we have no record as to why, so the reasons are necessarily speculative. A copy of the 1632 Folio that was owned by a Jesuit seminary in Spain, the English College at Valladolid, shows a fascinating pattern of censorship by an English Jesuit, William Sankey (Frye 275-93), but it offers no indication that Sankey had discovered Shakespeare's code. If the secretly recusant playwright was not getting through to recusants, then what was the code for?

(31) Tools that enable better understanding of Shakespeare's religious language are also important, though too little acknowledged and used (Frye; Hassel, Dictionary; Shaheen).
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Title Annotation:Shakespeare the Biography; Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare; Shakespeare's Second Historical Tetralogy: Some Christian Features; Spiritual Shakespeares; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Shakespeare's Religious Language: A Dictionary; Shakespeare's Religious Allusiveness: Its Play and Tolerance; Shakespeare the Papist; A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare 1599; Secret Shakespeare: Studies in Theatre, Religion and Resistance
Author:Cox, John D.
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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