Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Reformation: Literary Negotiation of Religious Difference explores how Shakespeare’s plays dramatize key issues of the Elizabethan Reformation, the conflict between the sacred, the critical, and the disenchanted; alternatively, the Catholic, the Protestant, and the secular. Each play imagines their reconciliation or the failure of reconcilation. The Catholic sacred is shadowed by its degeneration into superstition, Protestant critique by its unintended (fissaparous) consequences, the secular ordinary by stark disenchantment. Shakespeare shows how all three perspectives are needed if society is to face its intractable problems, thus providing a powerful model for our own ecumenical dialogues. Shakespeare begins with history plays contrasting the saintly but impractical King Henry VI, whose assassination is the ”primal crime,” with the pragmatic and secular Henry IV, until imagining in the later 1590’s how Hal can reconnect with sacred sources. At the same time in his comedies, Shakespeare imagines cooperative ways of resolving the national ”comedy of errors,” of sorting out erotic and marital and contemplative confusions by applying his triple lens. His late Elizabethan comedies achieve a polished balance of wit and devotion, ordinary and the sacred, old and new orders. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s ultimate Elizabethan consideration of these issues, its so-called lack of objective correlation a response to the unsorted trauma of the Reformation.
Dennis Taylor is professor emeritus of English and former chair of the English Department at Boston College.
Part I: First Explorations in History and Comedy; Henry VI to Love’s Labour’s Lost
Chapter One: The Chronicle Plays: An Overview
Chapter Two: The First Tetralogy (1590-96)
Chapter Three: Shakespeare’s Early Comedies
Chapter Four: Shakespeare’s Narrative Poems
Interlude: Shakespeare and Dialogue
Part II: Mid-Elizabethan Accomplishments: King John to Henry V
Chapter Five: Shakespeare and the Mid-Elizabethan Nineties
Chapter Six: The Second Tetralogy (1595-1599)
Part III: Climax of the Elizabethan Decade: Much Ado About Nothing to Hamlet
Chapter Seven: The High Comedies of the Late 1590’s
Chapter Eight: Hamlet (late 1588, 1575-89, revised 1602-3, 1599-1604)
About the Author
Taylor shows how religious contention operates in Shakespeare’s career up to Hamlet. He does not engage in scholarly gymnastics but opens the discussion up to curious learners. Taylor writes from a Roman Catholic perspective but is not dogmatic or insistent—indeed, he is quite restrained when comparing Shakespeare to Robert Southwell. The true achievement of this book is its percipience about particulars, especially comparisons. Taylor’s reading of Hamlet sees the end of the Catholic order as the trauma behind the play’s sense of loss yet recognizes that, in the world of Elsinore's court, Catholicism is “discarded and out of date” (p. 384). Accessible, expansive, and scrupulous, this book is a major achievement. Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers.
A magisterial study of Shakespeare's plays, adept and inclusive, in their navigation through the various currents, Catholic, Protestant, and secular of the English Reformation. A rich and indispensable landmark.
Dennis Taylor has written a large and intricate work of exploration, synthesis, redefinition, and reinterpretation that is essential reading for anyone interested in Shakespeare's relation to the religious, a-religious, and irreligious currents of his time--and beyond his time. Written in a lively and engaging style, the book is learned but unpretentious. It is often acute but never precious, has ambitions but acknowledges limitations, offers close readings as well as speculations about large "historical forces." It will be controversial, but certainly a challenge to complacent thinking about issues that deserve the best that scholarship can do for them.
Dennis Taylor is that rare gem among scholars, a first-rate historicist whose work illuminates Shakespeare’s greatness as a literary artist. At the same time, Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Reformation: Literary Negotiation of Religious Difference is a paragon of scholarly dialogue. Not everyone will agree with Taylor’s meticulous placement of Shakespeare’s Catholic and Protestant accents, but no honest scholar will come away empty-handed.