Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age Daniel Swift

OUP, pp.289, £18.99, ISBN: 9780199838561

Can there possibly be anything new to say about the old subject of Shakespeare’s sources? As early as the 18th century, scholars realised that he made up very few of his own plots. Whether he was bringing to life Plutarch’s biographies of the noble Romans or rescripting a hoary old drama from the existing repertoire or turning a saucy Elizabethan novel into a stage comedy, Shakespeare was always a literary magpie or, as Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale describes himself, ‘a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’. The shelves of the Shakespearean library groan with volumes on his uses of classical poets such as Ovid, of the Bible, of Montaigne’s essays.

Astonishingly, though, no one until Daniel Swift has thought to consider in detail the impact on his plays of the book that was more deeply ingrained in the Elizabethan consciousness than any other: Thomas Cranmer’s Anglican Book of Common Prayer (the BCP, as it is known to aficionados). It was cheaper and more widely distributed than the Bible. It shaped the practice of worship in an age when churchgoing was compulsory under the law. It was the most reprinted book of the era, and bore an intimate relationship to the other two most reprinted books, the Cathechism and the metrical Psalms of Sternhold and Hopkins (about which Swift should have said more). Cranmer’s cadences and phraseology echoed in the minds of every articulate Elizabethan. So in what specific ways did they shape the imagination of Shakespeare?

Swift sets out to answer this question by triangulating three distinct forms of study: contextual, textual and theatrical. Contextual first. Even if you have no interest in Shakespeare, this book is worth reading for its account of the importance of the BCP in early modern England, and the fierce debates around the revision of its liturgical imperatives in successive editions. Judicious use is made of the work of ecclesiastical historians such as the scholar-priest Judith Maltby, who writes that ‘there was probably no other single aspect of the Reformation in England which touched more directly and fundamentally the religious consciousness, or lack of it, of ordinary clergy and laity, than did the reform of rituals and liturgy.’

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Swift begins his account with a crucial historical moment when Shakespeare and the BCP came into close proximity: at Hampton Court Palace immediately after Christmas 1603. Shakespeare’s acting company was there to play before the new king during the seasonal festivities. And the collected bishops of the Church of England were in residence for the Hampton Court Conference. To a far greater extent than his predecessor Elizabeth, King James relished theological debate and took a deep interest in the manner in which the Anglican liturgy could assist in stemming the tide of Puritanism. He took as much pleasure in the argumentation of the bishops and theologians as he did in the dramatised debates about sovereignty and conscience, fidelity and scepticism, sacred and profane, that were played before him by Shakespeare and the King’s Men.

Birth and copulation and death. That’s all the facts, when it comes to brass tacks, says T.S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes. Baptism and marriage and burial: whatever beliefs you held in your heart — whether you clung to the old faith of Rome or leaned towards the new rigours of Geneva or harboured treasonable glimmers of atheism like Christopher Marlowe, or for that matter even if you didn’t really care — the one thing that was certain in Shakespeare’s England was that you would be baptised and buried. As Swift points out, we do not know Shakespeare’s birth or death dates for sure, but we know when he was baptised and when he was buried. As for copulation, we know when he married Anne Hathaway and when his children were baptised, though we can only guess whether or not it was a happy marriage.

Swift carefully examines the liturgy of baptism, matrimony and burial, mapping the words and accompanying actions on to the plays. In so doing, he finds fresh things to say about the rites of love in Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It, the controversy over Ophelia’s burial in Hamlet, and much more.

Textually precise as Swift is, his argument goes well beyond the mere tracing of sources. His theatrical astuteness leads him to see how the rituals of theatre in some sense replaced those of the liturgy when what was perceived as Papist excess in the performance of holy rites was toned down in deference to the more austere forms of religious practice favoured by the Puritan tendency. The sacrament of Holy Communion was at the heart of this debate, and it is in this context that Swift offers an exceptionally rich account of the communal banquet in Macbeth (a play that we know was performed at the Jacobean court), in which the invocation of body and blood is central. His fine ear for Cranmer’s turns of phrase leads him to improvise an ingenious riff on how Macbeth’s echoing footsteps are the very opposite of a ‘walk in the way of the Lord’.

You can never say everything about a Shakespearean topic. There are some curious omissions, such as the great scene in which Richard III appears between two bishops with ‘a book of prayer in his hand,/ True ornaments to know a holy man.’ And some of the more startling propositions might need to be checked — were a quarter of all males in Shakespeare’s England really called William?

But these are quibbles. Compellingly original, beautifully written, judiciously argued, completely in command of both literary and historical sources, this is one of the best books on Shakespeare in recent years.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated