Sean Henry on Peter Iver Kaufman’s Religion Around Shakespeare
On 24th August, 1572, the feast of St. Bartholomew, the people of Paris rose up and slaughtered thousands of their countrymen from all ranks of society. Within a week of a royal wedding between the Protestant Henri, king of Navarre, and the Catholic Margaret of Valois, sister to the king of France, intended to heal the religious divisions that had torn France apart for a decade, Catholic troops and organized mobs killed thousands of Huguenot Protestants in Paris and across France. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, as these killings came to be known, heralded a profound shift in relations between Catholic and Reformist Christians across Renaissance Europe. Although people had died before because of religious belief, the scale of the massacre shocked observers and hardened ideological positions, with profound implications for the religious and political life of the entire continent. English women and men in France witnessed the slaughter (including the English ambassador, Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster and principal secretary, who reported directly back to the English queen and her council), and many Huguenot survivors sought refuge in England. Reports of savagery and perfidy provided ample material across the Channel for anti-French and anti-Catholic diatribes for decades to come.
The slaughter made it to the English stage, too. Thomas Kyd, George Chapman, and Christopher Marlowe all incorporate the events in France in their works. Marlowe in particular based an entire play on these bloody events: The Massacre at Paris, performed during the early 1590s, the same years as Shakespeare’s earliest plays (such as Richard III and the Henry VI trilogy). Yet, in contrast to other playwrights, Shakespeare himself appears silent on what his contemporaries recognized as one of the pivotal moments of the late sixteenth century. Indeed, as endless numbers of biographical studies demonstrate, Shakespeare remains frustratingly elusive on questions of religion. What were his religious allegiances? We cannot tell; the evidence of his life says little, and his plays say less. Although he tackles large philosophical and religious questions of identity, existence, ethics, and the afterlife, he never weighs into specific doctrinal debates of his lifetime. That high-browed, lightly-moustachioed face, familiar from the title page of the First Folio, remains inscrutable to us.
But how we yearn to know! The cult of the Bard guarantees that anything about Shakespeare will catch twenty-first century attention. By its title alone, Peter Iver Kaufman’s Religion Around Shakespeare would appear to respond to that need to know. The book is the first volume in a new series examining the religious cultures surrounding different literary figures. Kaufman quickly asserts that he is not a literary historian: he is an historian of Tudor and Stuart Christianity, and in this book, he seeks to describe the religious culture out of which Shakespeare’s plays emerged, rather than offer any claims for Shakespeare’s own religion — or anything about religion in Shakespeare’s plays, one might add. For, although Kaufman deploys his considerable learning to chart the unfolding religious controversies of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, supported by a wealth of manuscript evidence derived from sermon notes, diaries, memoranda, pamphlets, and other relatively neglected sources, he barely mentions Shakespeare or his works. Shakespeare seems so peripheral to the project that one could excise Shakespeare from the book, hardly disrupting the text, and be left with a fine narrative of the struggles between Conformist, Reformist, and Catholic Christians in early modern England.
After sketching the Henrician origins of the Reformation in England, Kaufman describes the controversies of the reigns of Elizabeth and James, using Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616) as the boundaries of his analysis. Three groups competed for control over Christianity in England: the Conformists, who sought to defend the extent of reform within the church in England while maintaining more “Catholic” elements such a common liturgy, some vestments, and the three-fold ministry of deacon, priest, and bishop; the Reformists, of a variety of doctrinal leanings, united by their conviction that the Reformation had not gone far enough to rid English Christianity from popery and error; and the Catholics, themselves loosely divisible into the native recusants (who might or might not value their Englishness before their Catholicism), and those influenced by the Jesuit mission to reconvert England. Kaufman focuses principally on the struggles between Conformists and Reformists over Christian practice.
What emerges from this analysis is a sense of how temporary all the expediencies for peace proved to be. With the rise or fall of a powerful patron like the Earl of Essex, one religious party might gain ascendency over the other, alternately shouting down in print or from London pulpits the need for bishops or their diabolical corruption. Much recent history of the Reformation in England has sought to demolish the myth of the “Elizabethan settlement” between competing factions within the English church; the book’s narrative ably shows how fractured early modern English Christianity was within a generation of the Reformation. Later in the seventeenth-century, these fractures would violently break during the Civil War, within the lifetime of those witnessing some of the controversies Kaufman describes.
What also emerges is an odd sense of how much each party worked along similar lines to solve the same problems. Reformist emphasis on self-analysis and “clearing” as a remedy for sin seem surprisingly similar to Catholic practices of confession and penance. Rhetorical excess, politics, and basic prejudice made peaceable cooperation impossible, but a retrospective gaze sees the bittersweet similarities in these Christians’ desire to live godly lives, according to their lights.
Kaufman repeatedly admits that Shakespeare never comments directly on any of the religious controversies occurring during the playwright’s lifetime. Contemporary politics and religion were not absent from the early modern English stage, however, as allusions to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre demonstrate. But sometimes authors got into trouble over how they tackled the events of the day. The government kept a wary eye on the subject matter of public entertainment. Philip Massinger, for one, was obliged to rewrite Believe As You List (1631), resetting it in the ancient world, because the Master of the Revels objected to the play’s hawkish protest against the peace recently concluded with Spain after half a century of cold (and not so cold) war.
Shakespeare does not ignore contemporary events in his plays; but when he engages with them, he only does so in an oblique or general way. He appears to comment on Henri IV in Love’s Labours Lost, for example, where a king of Navarre marries a French princess and is drawn from the pursuit of wisdom to love, but without a blood-soaked massacre; he flatters James I in both Henry VIII and Macbeth, but in a heavy-handed, general way through prophecies of a golden age and an endless familial line stretching out to the crack of doom. So, in contrast with other Elizabethan and Jacobean authors, Shakespeare remains detached from contemporary events, to judge by his plays. Kaufman’s analysis of Shakespeare’s relationship with religion and religious controversy would benefit from contrasting it with those of other playwrights. Shakespeare’s silence seems distinctively Shakespearean.
This silence is the book’s chief oversight. Shakespeare is the “absent presence” in Kaufman’s study — Banquo’s ghost, upsetting an interesting feast of religious history. Perhaps because I am a literary historian, I cannot help feeling frustration over all the questions about the effects of the religion around Shakespeare on his art that go unasked and unanswered in Kaufman’s book. Maybe I needed to look more closely at the book’s title, and remember that it is Religion Around Shakespeare, where Shakespeare’s lifetime serves as an arbitrary period for Kaufman’s analysis, rather than Religion in Shakespeare. Yet Kaufman tries to have it both ways. He gestures towards Shakespeare’s life and works and when he does so, he relies heavily on a few recent works of literary criticism and makes some misguided claims. “Malvolio … and blustery Falstaff play their puritanisms for laughs” — Falstaff a puritan? And surely what’s comic about Malvolio is the seriousness of his convictions. Kaufman gives us a readable, thoroughly well-documented history of religious controversy in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, but gives us little on Shakespeare, whose silence on the controversies Kaufman describes remains as elusive at the end of the book as it was at the beginning.
Also Recommended from MRB:
- Directions in the Study of Religion: Peter Iver Kaufman
- Incarnational Poetics and the New Theological Literary Studies – By Ryan McDermott
- An Interview with Albrecht Classen on marriage, family, and sexuality in the Middle Ages