Friday, September 27, 2013

Shakespeare and Catholicism, Redux

A forthcoming book, published by Penn State University Press:

For years scholars and others have been trying to out Shakespeare as an ardent Calvinist, a crypto-Catholic, a Puritan-baiter, a secularist, or a devotee of some hybrid faith. In Religion Around Shakespeare, Peter Kaufman sets aside such speculation in favor of considering the historic and religious context surrounding his work. Employing extensive archival research, he aims to assist literary historians who probe the religious discourses, characters, and events that seem to have found places in Shakespeare’s plays and to aid general readers or playgoers developing an interest in the plays’ and playwright’s religious contexts: Catholic, conformist, and reformist. Kaufman argues that sermons preached around Shakespeare and conflicts that left their marks on literature, law, municipal chronicles, and vestry minutes enlivened the world in which (and with which) he worked and can enrich our understanding of the playwright and his plays.

You may read a sample chapter, the Introduction, at the Penn State University Press webpage for Religion Around Shakespeare:

I am not a literary historian, and what follows is not another interpretation of several of Shakespeare’s plays. For decades I have been studying the religious cultures of late Tudor and early Jacobean England, particularly what Alison Shell now calls the “fierce internal debate” that “beset” the established church, which was having problems as well “see[ing] off challenges from outside.” What I do in this book is give everyone interested in reading, watching, interpreting, or performing the plays a good look at the religion around Shakespeare. Circumstance is my subject.

Historians have long been at work on the religion of Shakespeare, and a few have gotten around to the religion around him. Several relatively recent and much publicized efforts suggest that late Elizabethan and early Stuart theatergoers justifiably saw Shakespeare’s plays as coded endorsements of expatriate Catholic missionaries’ efforts to restore the realm’s old faith, which Shell characterizes as “challenges from [the] outside.” Those presentations of the playwright’s Catholicism claim to have cracked the code that concealed his religiously unreformed opinions from religiously reformed government censors while it cued Catholics in his first audiences to his abiding allegiance to what they remembered as traditional Christianity. What twenty-first-century playgoers may see and hear simply as Hamlet’s brooding over the skull of poor Yorick is, after some code cracking, an “encrypted tribute” to the Englishman Edmund Campion, who left the realm rather than subscribe to his queen’s religion, returned to reinforce the faith of the resident Catholics, and died a martyr. . . .

Where did Shakespeare fit? Literary historians looking to out him as a Calvinist or a Catholic or a devotee of some “hybrid faith” should find something of interest here, although what follows will fall short of a definitive answer to their questions. I am not mining for that metal. Unquestionably, the playwright borrowed from the religion around him, and what he deposited in his drama “infused” performances, as Leah Marcus says, “with a vitality born of circumstance.” The plays profit from Shakespeare’s “sublimation into high drama of what is casually there at hand.” Nonetheless, to proceed from what was “at hand” and what is now staged so often to a singular scribe’s secrets—to his religious convictions—requires a razzle-dazzle that I am inadequately equipped to attempt.

Circumstance—the religion around the playwright, not his faith or the plays’ proper interpretations—is my subject. I leave Shakespeare’s outlook to others. My challenge is to see how well we can see what he saw when he looked out.

Reading this brief introduction, it's clear that Professor Kaufman will not say that Shakespeare was a Catholic, even if a Church Papist. Since he refers to the encoded Catholicism of Shakespeare's plays in the Introduction, I wonder if he will directly engage the arguments of Clare Asquith's Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare. For those who follow this theme of Shakespeare's religious identity, Religion Around Shakespeare seems to be an intriguing addition to the bibliography. And if you like to read about the religious background and milieu of other authors, this is the first book in a series "Religion Around":

Books in this series examine the religious forces surrounding cultural icons from all facets of world history and contemporary culture. By bringing religious background into the foreground, these studies will help give readers a more complex understanding and greater appreciation for individual subjects, their work, and their lasting influence. Forthcoming volumes will explore the religion around Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Langston Hughes, among others.

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