I have always been puzzled by the way some of my Catholic colleagues in the academy strive to prove that William Shakespeare was a secret Catholic. All sorts of coded messages in his sonnets and plays are adduced; all manner of shadowy associates and networks offered by way of proof. I’m no Shakespeare scholar, but to me the evidence seems pretty shallow. Not that I think Shakespeare was a committed Protestant–and let me add, I have no particular church in this fight. It’s just that all these secret messages and clandestine networks can’t overcome, for me, the indifference about religion that I see in his plays. Shakespeare seems detached about pretty much everything, including religion. (I know, I know, that’s just how a secret Catholic would present himself in Elizabethan and Jacobean England). Shakespeare seems to understand Christianity in broad, cultural terms and to take from it only one thing: the virtue of forgiveness. More than that, it seems to me, it isn’t really possible to say.
These matters are perhaps discussed in a new collection from Cambridge, Shakespeare and Early Modern Religion. The editors are David Lowenstein (University of Wisconsin, Madison) and Michael Whitmore (Folger Shakespeare Library). The publisher’s description follows:
Written by an international team of literary scholars and historians, this collaborative volume illuminates the diversity of early modern religious beliefs and practices in Shakespeare’s England, and considers how religious culture is imaginatively reanimated in Shakespeare’s plays. Fourteen new essays explore the creative ways Shakespeare engaged with the multifaceted dimensions of Protestantism, Catholicism, non-Christian religions including Judaism and Islam, and secular perspectives, considering plays such as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King John, King Lear, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Winter’s Tale. The collection is of great interest to readers of Shakespeare studies, early modern literature, religious studies, and early modern history.
- Offers interdisciplinary perspectives on Shakespeare and early modern religion from both literary scholars and historians, appealing to a broad range of readers.
- Illuminates the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays represent a wide variety of religious beliefs and practices, also revealing a dynamic interaction between religious and secular issues in the plays
- Connects religious issues in Shakespeare’s plays with political and national ones, illuminating religious belief, politics and national identity in early modern England.