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New Scholarship on Religion and Literature, 2000-2012 (November 2013): Shakespeare

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein


A number of scholars have responded to the recent plethora of “Was Shakespeare really Catholic?” books by suggesting that this is not the best way to think about the topic.  One of the seminal books in this vein is Beatrice Groves’s Texts and Traditions: Religion in Shakespeare 1592-1604, which suggests that Shakespeare joined considerable Biblical literacy with a sympathy for the Mystery Plays; as a result, Groves argues, it may well have been the case that Shakespeare felt “nostalgia” for Catholicism even as he worked in a Protestant mode.  She argues that Shakespearean drama can be seen as negotiating the religious tensions of the period, rather than simply taking one side or another.  Similarly, Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory, without asking if Shakespeare is Protestant or Catholic, reconstructs what he calls the “poetics of purgatory” that Shakespeare inherited by exploring English and Continental treatises, dream narratives, romances, visual media, and secular texts.  Most accessible for undergraduates, Alison Shell’s Shakespeare and Religion adopts an approach similar to Groves’s: she emphasizes Shakespeare-the-dramatist over Shakespeare-the-theologian, investigating the mixture of Catholic and Protestant strands in his theatrical practice, and warns modern readers not to falsely overidentify their own skepticism about faith commitments with that of Shakespeare or his contemporaries.

Works Cited