Character: Author and Work

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The subject of religion in Shakespeare's plays, as well as the question of his own religion, has been one of the most studied and debated aspects in the analysis of his work. Shakespeare and Religious Change is a collection of essays on the former topic, edited by Kenneth J.E. Graham and Philip D. Collington. The writers each look at different plays, performances, or performance spaces and the interplay with religious ideas each must have had. The essays are categorized into four parts: Shakespeare and Social History: Religion and the Secular, Dramatic Continuities and Religious Change, Religious Identities, and Shakespeare and the Changing Theater: Religion or the Secular. Each essay even within these headings is independent from the others, arguing its own thesis from analysis of completely different subject material. Each must be criticized separately due to this, and the overall quality does vary widely.
The first essay is “Sanctifying the Bourgeois: The Cultural Work of The Comedy of Errors,” by Richard Strier. He argues that the actions within the play show a cultural shift from “Catholic” ideas of the sanctity of particular places to a supposed Protestant view of “inner-worldly holiness.” The last scene particularly shows this according to him, in that the abbey is sanctified by restoration of spouses that occurs within it. He says that “spousal rights trumped Catholic ones” (Strier, 33), a statement that makes little sense if the full view of Catholic ideas on marriage and sanctity is taken. Spousal rights are not opposed to Catholic ones. His basic claim is that the play shows a shift in the view of the sanctity in everyday, bourgeois, life. The play may show this sanctity, but perhaps a better understanding of the actu...

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...particular personal instance is intriguing. The final essay in the book, written by Anthony B. Dawson, looks at another possibility for many of the religious elements in the plays: They are there to serve the purpose of the play, not necessarily to support one position or another. This view assumes a more non-religious Shakespeare, who did not have a particular sectarian opinion that would have influenced his plays. Though refreshing after the rest of the essays, his argument is just another possibility that makes a different assumption about the character of Shakespeare. the best of the essays in these books make no similar assumptions about Shakespeare, but start with what is in the plays themselves. As a resource for looking at the character of Shakespeare himself the essays are not ideal, but they contain many interesting and well supported thoughts on his works.
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