The Unheard Prayer: Religious Toleration in Shakespeare’s Drama

February 27, 2012

Joseph Sterrett (who completed his PhD at Cardiff University) has a monograph forthcoming with BRILL publishers (June, 2012).

Joseph Sterrett is now Assistant Professor at Aarhus University.


The Unheard Prayer: Religious Toleration in Shakespeare’s Drama

By the time Shakespeare had become a professional playwright, England had negotiated, broadly, four tumultuous shifts in religious orientation within living memory: Henry VIII’s initial break with the Roman Church, an intensification of Protestant doctrine under Edward VI, an arguably more intense reactionary restoration of the Roman faith under Mary, and the re-establishment of Protestant religion under Elizabeth I. Among the various practical manifestations of each of these shifts was an inevitable change in the regulation of the manner and method of prayer. Quite apart from the question of whether one’s prayers were efficacious or not, prayer was a performance that announced to one’s neighbours where one’s religious sympathies lay, if not one’s religious identity. In many ways prayer itself became a text that was read, scrutinized, and interpreted as an indication of one’s loyalty to the state, which is to say, the very person of the monarch. It offered one more parallel, should one be needed, between the God to whom one appealed in prayer, and the monarch who rhetorically assumed a similar position as head of the English church. And it became the underlying challenge that derived from a commonplace irony, where those who were accused of practicing unsound religion protested the compatibility of their beliefs with their loyalty to the crown, a point which in effect argued for the separation of religious policy from the polity of state.

We know that Shakespeare grew up in an environment where old and new religious beliefs were held in tension under the surface, like the whitewashed walls of the guild church in his hometown that covered over the pictorial teachings of the old faith. Either within his own family, or certainly within his extended relations, Shakespeare would have experienced the stresses and contradictions that came with the political and religious climate of the moment he lived. It is out of that certainty, and the astounding absence of firm evidence about what he personally believed, that we might identify his recurring use of the unheard prayer in his plays as a kind of response to the religious conflict of his day. For it is that scene, repeatedly presented to his audiences, that reconfigures and translates a very similar religious tension to the religious and political situation of that day: one prays, and waits, in defiance of the overwhelming possibility that the prayer will not be heard. Indeed, intentionally or not, the prayer itself is often a message to others nearby. Aware of the likelihood that the god they address is either unable or unwilling to respond—or even of the possibility that a god may not be there at all—the characters who adopt this dramatic stance nonetheless utter their appeal, or wish they could do so, and articulate their need for a more just and reciprocally forgiving god and society.

This study examines some ten plays in relation to the religious controversies of their immediate historical context, eventually positioning Shakespeare’s later plays alongside James I’s desire for religious union. Drawing on ideas from Lévinas and Derrida, I argue that prayer is a central scenario in Shakespeare’s work, where characters such as Claudius struggle to be heard only to find they are ‘more engaged’ by the silence that confronts their appeals. From Titus to Lear this pattern of unheard prayer represents a broader plea for social justice and reconciliation which, similar to the appeals of those who found themselves outside official religious policy, could often fall on deaf ears or be met with a brutally violent response. King Lear is the logical end of such a gesture where the very words of prayer prove so futile in the face of such an unjust society that they are unable to be uttered or ‘crack’ the vault of heaven (Lear 5.3.233). From that point, perhaps in tandem with a growing sense of pragmatic optimism with James VI and I’s policy seeking the restoration of religious union in Christendom, Shakespeare begins in his late plays to imagine what such a moment of social and religious reconciliation would be. The theophanies in Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale offer the clearest examples where social reconciliation on stage is keyed to the union of religious sects and practices in the world beyond.

Attention to Shakespeare’s representation of the unheard prayer offers a focus for the ongoing project of situating his plays in their religious climate. It marks a somewhat early poetic response in a developing irenical discourse that will eventually include Sir Thomas Browne, the circle at Great Tew, and even those, like Henry Vaughan who will back away from the religious violence they have seen, preferring instead a more individual, indeterminate, and therefore inclusive spiritual expression. It was this growing ariculation of an irenical position that prepared the way for what eventually became the Church of England as we know it today, an articulation that Shakespeare’s drama embraced and in which it played a part.


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