Thursday, 21 March 2013

Shakespeare and the Catholic Question

There has been renewed interest in Shakespeare and Catholicism in recent years. Particularly honourable mention ought to go to Dr Alison Shell of University College, London, Manchester University Press, which has brought out a number of interesting books, and Dr Thomas Rist

However, despite this surge of interest in the academy, there is still a sense in which the debate is only just beginning to get going, which is why this new book, due out in June, looks so interesting. Here's the publisher's blurb:

"Why does Catholicism have such an imaginative hold on Shakespearean drama, even though the on-going Reformation outlawed its practice? Shakespeare's Unreformed Fictions contends that the answers to this question are theatrical rather than strictly theological. Avoiding biographical speculation, this book concentrates on dramatic impact, and thoroughly integrates new literary analysis with fresh historical research. In exploring the dramaturgical variety of the 'Catholic' content of Shakespeare's plays, Gillian Woods argues that habits, idioms, images, and ideas lose their denominational clarity when translated into dramatic fiction: they are awkwardly 'unreformed' rather than doctrinally Catholic. Providing nuanced readings of generically diverse plays, this book emphasises the creative function of such unreformed material, which Shakespeare uses to pose questions about the relationship between self and other. A wealth of contextual evidence is studied, including catechisms, homilies, religious polemics, news quartos, and non-Shakespearean drama, to highlight how early modern Catholicism variously provoked nostalgia, faith, conversion, humour, fear, and hatred. This book argues that Shakespeare exploits these contradictory attitudes to frame ethical problems, creating fictional plays that consciously engage audiences in the difficult leaps of faith required by both theatre and theology. By recognizing the playfulness of Shakespeare's unreformed fictions, this book offers a different perspective on the interactions between post-Reformation religion and the theatre, and an alternative angle on Shakespeare's interrogation of the scope of dramatic fiction."

It's difficult to tell before seeing the book of course, but that sounds to me like a very interesting thesis.


  1. What doe the author of the comment above intend by 'unreformed'? The English language in its ambiguity, lends itself to a multitude of interpretations..such as 'nuances'...Would you explain please

  2. Dear Suzy

    The simple answer is that I don't know. We'll have to wait until the book comes out. However, I suspect that there will be a nuanced explanation: Shakespeare's plays aren't doctrinally Catholic or doctrinally Protestant (Reformed) in any simple sense so the big question becomes how Catholic and Protestant thought is translated into dramatic form in his work. It's a debate which still has some way to run.

  3. What opinion have you on the state of English curriculums in our catholic high schools? I am a parent seeking help.

    1. Dear Susan

      I'm in the UK and so am not really qualified to talk about the situation in the USA. However, there is currently a lively debate underway about the curriculum in this country. We'll see what happens in the medium term.

  4. Fr Peter Milward, a British Jesuit based in Japan, has also written extensively about Shakespeare and Catholicism.