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Christliche Kunst und Literatur


Jackson, Ken, and Arthur F. Marotti [Eds.]


Shakespeare and Religion. Early Modern and Postmodern Perspectives.


Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press 2011. VI, 306 S. Kart.US$ 38,00. ISBN 978-0-268-03270-8.


Douglas Hedley

There is a sense in which speculating about Shakespeare’s beliefs is a fruitless as contemplating Plato’s. It is however, just as inescapable. This a collection of essay that draws on philosophical and re-ligious work on the secular and the problematizing of the secular and sacred in much recent reflection, especially in continental philosophy. English literature as a subject has been deeply influenced by continental thought in the last few decades. We have seen the tendency of Post-structuralism to regard all reality as constructed being replaced with the tendency New Historicism has to evis-cerate the poetry with history (e. g. explanations of Corialanus in terms of the midland corn riots at the time of the composition of the play). The volume also reflects the interest in religion in the later work of Derrida, as well developments in political theology emerging from Schmidt or Benjamin.
Shakespeare and religion is a contentious topic. For Carlyle On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) Shakespeare constituted on the »strongest of rallying-signs« of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism throughout the world. The extreme view of the religion of the Bard has been opposed by the rise of the Catholic Shakespeare, especially with revisionist views of the later medieval ca-tholic England from historians like Eamon Duffy. Now one finds often the depiction of more liminal Shakespeare, where even his fairies are supposed to reveal closet Catholicism. Then there is the pagan Shakespeare, a man drawing upon skeptical trends emerging in the Renaissance. The purported atheism of King Lear is an example of this.
The evidence for the Catholic Shakespeare is intriguing rather than compelling. Shakespeare refers to many Catholic practices but so do the resolutely Protestant Spenser and Milton. He has strong Catholic family connections and friends but his daughter marries a resolute Protestant. He is born, married and buried as a Protestant and a monument was placed in the local »Anglican« Church after his death. Since Elizabeth had ›no desire to make windows into men’s souls‹, and her settlement was a compromise, it is hard to make a convincing case either way. Many Englishmen must have been caught between a loyalty towards – and fear of – the Virgin Queen while harboring doubts about the legitimacy of the Reformation or even having nostalgia for the old faith. Indeed, one could argue that it was the very precariousness of the Elizabethan Settlement and its legacy in the Jacobean period that triggered a brutal civil war. Gary Kuchar explores vividly the violence of Titus An-dronicus and the horror of human sacrifice as the disruption of ceremony and decorum. Does the Rome of Titus mirror the persecution and cruelty of Elizabethan state?
While we know what Milton thought of the great events of his age, we do have the same access to Shakespeare’s mind. In the ›The Patience of Lear‹ Hannibal Hamlin draws very learned comparisons with the biblical story of Job and argues persuasively for the influence of Calvinistic reading of the Job story. Sarah Beckwith argues powerfully for a strongly sacramental dimension to Cymbeline. This collection of essays shows the influence of a ›turn to religion‹ and all the authors are concerned to show a religious dimension to Shakespeare’s thought. There is reference to great men of letters like Samuel Johnson, Coleridge or Empson. Richard McCoy in his ›Miracles and Mysteries in The Comedy of Errors‹ employs Cole-ridge in particular to great effect.
Bloom praises Shakespeare above all others for his creation of a world populated by such realistic characters that he »seems to have usurped reality […] sustaining the illusion that his men and women walk among us«. Yet the 18th century view of Shakespeare was very different. Popular images of Shakespeare were often forged by John Boydell who set up a Gallery in London as part of a project to make an illustrated edition of the plays of Shakespeare. The prints and paintings from Boydell’s gallery reveal a very different Shakespeare. Then emphasis was laid upon the uncanny and supernatural in Shakespeare, the bard as a visionary of the spirit world and the transcendent. The role of Shakespeare is as a poet of the imagina-tion of the unseen world ›summoning spirits from the vasty deep‹ Mark Akenside’s seminal work The Pleasures of Imagination of 1744 is one of the key works on the Imagination in the 18th century. The climax of Akenside’s three-book poem is a paean to the contemplative vision of the great bard of Stratford- to Shakespeare:
By degrees the mind
Feels her young nerves dilate: the plastic pow’rs
Labour for action: blind emotions heave
His bosom; and with loveliest frenzy caught,
From earth to heav’n he rolls his daring eye,
From heav’n to earth.
[III, 380–7]
Akenside is paraphrasing the famous speech of Theseus in Shake-speare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream about the artist’s trans-cen-dent and prophetic imagination: »The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,/ Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven« (MND 5.1.12–13), lines that were frequently cited in the 18th century.
However problematic for the contemporary secular mind, religion is a crucial element in any genuine understanding of Shakespeare’s thought. This volume constitutes a welcome addition to the literature. We may be no further in understanding the exact nature of Shakespeare’s own religion. But this volume highlights why it is jejune to overlook the importance of the topic for the bard of Stratford.