Shakespeare’s Common PrayersThe Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age
By Daniel Swift
Published by Oxford University Press, 2012
Religious controversy dogged the whole of Shakespeare’s lifespan. He lived during the reigns of two monarchs, namely Elizabeth I and James I, both of whom found they still had to give careful attention to religious feeling and beliefs in the country although the main tenets of the English Reformation were in theory settled fairly early on in Elizabeth’s reign.
The Protestants still wished for even more stringent religious reforms, there was still a strong recusant Catholic presence in England and the Book of Common Prayer was legally required to be used in all places and acts of public worship. The Book of Common Prayer therefore attempted to follow a via media; in many ways it was successful, and Daniel Swift has set out to show just how much influence the doctrine as well as the mellifluent prayers and phraseology it contains had upon Shakespeare when he was writing his plays. There is a phenomenal amount of religious doctrine and language in the plays, which can easily be overlooked by a casual reader of theatre-goer. Swift has examined three major sacramental themes from the Book of Common Prayer: The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony, The Order for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion and The Ministration of Baptism to be Used in the Church, and examined these in the light of the plays.
For anyone fascinated by Shakespeare, the England in which he lived, religious beliefs and literature, this book is a delight. It does presuppose a basic background knowledge of Roman Catholic and Reformation-driven doctrinal beliefs, as well as reasonably good knowledge of at least the story outlines of the Shakespearean plays, but it is extremely thorough and very well-written, providing massive amounts of information in a relatively condensed form. The digital proof I received was 286 pages long, but managed to convey far more than its relatively slim dimensions would have suggested.
This is an amazing book, but not really one for the faint hearted or with little prior knowledge of Shakespeare’s works. I’ve always prided myself on being reasonably au fait with much of the Shakespearean canon, but this book showed me how little I really know, and how much I have still to learn. It has inspired me to re-acquaint myself with Shakespeare, and I will certainly never look at the Book of Common Prayer in quite the same light again.