Christian Shakespeare: Question Mark

A Collection of Essays on Shakespeare in his Christian Context

Michael Scott, Michael J. Collins (Eds.)

by Michael Scott (Blackfriars Hall, Oxford), Paul Edmondson (The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust), Paul S. Fiddes (University of Oxford), Beatrice Groves (Trinity College, Oxford), Michael J. Collins (Georgetown University), Molly Clark , Clare Asquith , Andrew Moran (University of Dallas), Gerard Kilroy (Jesuit University Ignatianum, Krakow , Poland), Rowan Williams (Magdalene College, Cambridge), Yvette K. Khoury (Blackfriars Hall, Oxford), Elizabeth Schafer (Royal Holloway College, University of London), John Drakakis (University of Stirling)

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“Christian Shakespeare: Question Mark” is an extraordinarily perceptive and courageous book, perceptive for the thoughtful and wide variety of responses it offers to a question both perennial and neglected, courageous for having addressed that question itself, the nature and extent of Shakespeare's religious commitments.In six sections, the authors consider not only Shakespeare's religious indebtedness to Catholic and Protestant teachings and traditions, but also how these traditions informed his attitudes towards issues like death and politics, earlier Christian drama and private prayer, and also how they may have informed his own thinking and even his own spirituality, as they found expression, both directly and indirectly, throughout his canon. The authors are responsive to Shakespeare's language—particularly to his allusions to the Psalms, the book in the Bible to which he most often refers—and to the religious resonances revealed and encoded in specific works. Throughout, the book remains inquiring, thoughtful, and, as needs to be skeptical.

John C. Hirsh
Professor of English
Georgetown University

“Christian Shakespeare: Question Mark”, aptly titled, presents an engaging variety of essays that capture the predominately open-ended, enigmatic nature of Shakespeare’s works. In the Preface, Michael Scott and Michael Collins reveal their own open-mindedness regarding the topic: “The question was put to each of the contributors” who “received no further guidance about how they were to understand the question nor how they were to shape their responses” (p. 5). Such freedom for expression and exploration in current scholarly conversation is enviable. For example, Michael Scott does not view Shakespeare as a Christian polemicist, but authors who might are represented in this volume. As a result, this collection of fourteen essays presents refreshingly diverse perspectives on the impact that the Christian faith (Catholic and Protestant) and the religious controversies of the era had on the poems and plays of Shakespeare. In a succinctly lucid Preface, the authors provide a road map for the organization of this volume and its contents. Michael Scott’s Introduction responds admirably to four significant questions about Shakespeare’s Christianity and the influence of such belief in the works. Especially helpful for the reader is Scott’s summary of the importance of medieval drama (morality plays and mystery cycles) for understanding the dramatic soil in which Shakespeare’s plays take root.
Shakespeare wrote plays, not sermons; he wrote poetic drama, not autobiography. Therefore, we cannot know for certain what Shakespeare the man definitively believed, and during this period of religious debate and division, individuals could change their views, as did Shakespeare’s friend and rival Ben Jonson. However, Shakespeare did write for an ostensibly Christian audience that represented every level of society from the lowest to the highest (only the Queen did not come to the public playhouse). Given the eclectic nature of that audience, Shakespeare could employ both Catholic and Protestant elements for his own specifically ‘dramatic’ purposes.
I applaud the authors’ use of the question mark because it aligns with Shakespeare’s own preference in his art for tantalizing his audiences with questions, conundrums, perplexities, and paradoxes. Indeed, in Hamlet’s advice to the players, he cautions the clowns not to speak more than is set down for them because, in the distraction of provoked laughter, the audience may miss “some necessary ‘question’ of the play to be then considered” (3.2.42-43; my italics). Scott and Collins reward the reader with wide-ranging essays that imaginatively interrogate how and why Shakespeare’s plays and poems work within a culture of Christianity at the crossroads in English history, illuminating his era as well as ours.

Dr. Joan M. Holmer
Professor of English Emerita
Georgetown University

This collection of essays comprehensively examines the dramatic tension and uncertainty of the Christian culture in which Shakespeare lived. It explores how these fascinating contradictions are reflected in his work. Diverse and often opposing arguments are vital to students of Shakespeare’s drama. In particular they support the multiplicity of interpretations for directors and actors to bring to the stage.

Emma Lucia Hands
Director of Drama Studio London

Christian Shakespeare? The question was put to each contributor to this collection of essays. They received no further guidance about how to understand the question nor how to shape their responses. No particular theoretical approach, no shared definition of the question was required or encouraged. Rather, they were free to join, in whatever way they thought useful, the extensive discourse about the impact that the Christian faith and the religious controversies of Shakespeare’s time had on his poems and plays. The range of responses points not only to openness of Shakespeare’s work to interpretation, but to the seriousness with which the writers reflected on the question and to their careful and sensitive reading of the poems and plays. The heterogeneity of Shakespeare’s world is reflected in the heterogeneity of the essays, each an individual response to the complex question they engage.

In the end, what the plays and poems reveal about Shakespeare’s Christianity remains unclear, and that lack of clarity has also contributed to the variety of responses in the collection. All the essays recognize, to some degree or another, that the tension in Shakespeare’s world between old and new, medieval and early modern, Catholic and Protestant, brought uncertainty (and in some cases anxiety) to the minds and hearts of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. But what Shakespeare himself believed, how he responded in his work to the religious turmoil of his time remains uncertain. For some of the contributors Shakespeare’s plays are inescapably indeterminate (even evasive) and open to a multiplicity of possible readings. For others, Shakespeare takes a stand and, through the careful patterning of his plays, speaks more or less unambiguously to the religious and political issues of his time. Together the essays reflect the varied ways in which the question of Shakespeare’s Christianity might be answered.


Michael Scott
Blackfriars Hall, Oxford
Michael J. Collins
Georgetown University

Christian Shakespeare: Question Mark
Michael Scott
Blackfriars Hall, Oxford

Part I. Shakespeare’s Spirituality

Chapter 1 Shakespeare and Spirituality
Paul Edmondson
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Chapter 2 I would as lief be a Brownist…” Puritanism and Spirituality in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
Paul S. Fiddes
University of Oxford

Part II. Shakespeare and the Bible

Chapter 3 Questioning the Psalms in Shakespeare
Beatrice Groves
Trinity College

Chapter 4 The Circulation of Textual Energy: Shakespeare’s Comedies and the Parables of the Christian Bible
Michael J. Collins
Georgetown University

Part III. Shakespeare and the [Christian] Allegorical Tradition

Chapter 5 Shakespeare and the Morality Plays: A Formal Heritage
Molly Clark
Independent Scholar

Chapter 6 Shakespeare, Toleration, and the Oath of Supremacy
Clare Asquith
Independent Scholar

Chapter 7 Natural and Supernatural Happiness in The Taming of the Shrew
Andrew Moran
University of Dallas

Chapter 8 Romeo and Juliet: Pilgrims and Paradise in the Hortus Conclusus
Gerard Kilroy
Jesuit University Ignatianum

Part IV. Shakespeare and Christian Theology

Chapter 9 “Antonio bound”: Theological Parody in The Merchant of Venice
Rowan Williams
Magdalene College

Chapter 10 Nuns and Friars in Shakespeare
Yvette K. Khoury
Blackfriars Hall, Oxford

Chapter 11 “Who will believe thee, Isabel?”: Measure for Measure, #Me Too and Performing Christianity Today
Elizabeth Schafer
Royal Holloway, University of London

Part V. Shakespeare and Christian Hegemony

Chapter 12 Putting Religion to the Question: Some Reflections on Shakespeare’s Second Tetralogy and his Venetian Plays
John Drakakis
University of Stirling



Michael Scott is Fellow and Senior Dean at Blackfriars Hall Oxford. He is the author of books on Shakespeare, Elizabethan / Jacobean and Twentieth Century Theatre, including ‘John’s Marston’s Plays: Theme, Structure and Performance’; ‘Renaissance Drama and a Modern Audience’; ‘Shakespeare and the Modern Dramatist’; ‘Shakespeare’s Tragedies: All that Matters’; ‘Shakespeare’s Comedies: All that Matters’; ‘Shakespeare: A Complete Introduction’. He was founding and general editor of ‘The Text and Performance’ series and of ‘The Critics Debate’ series. He is also co-editor of the ‘Casebook on Harold Pinter: The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming’. With Deborah Cartmell, he co-edited ‘Talking Shakespeare: Shakespeare into the Millennium’. He was on the editorial board, which relaunched ‘Critical Survey’ for O.U.P. He has lectured on Shakespeare in many countries around the world including India, China, U.S.A. as well as in the U.K., where he has given public lectures for the R.S.C. and the National Theatre. He also writes fiction under the name of Michael Kerr Scott.

Michael J. Collins is Teaching Professor of English and Dean Emeritus at Georgetown University. He is editor of ‘Reading What’s There: Essays on Shakespeare in Honor of Stephen Booth’ (2014); ‘Shakespeare’s Sweet Thunder: Essays on the Early Comedies’ (1997); and, with Francis J Ambrosio, ‘Text and Teaching: The Search for Human Excellence’ (1991). He has published essays on teaching Shakespeare and Shakespeare in performance in ‘Shakespeare Quarterly’, ‘Shakespeare Yearbook’, and ‘Critical Survey’ among other publications. He regularly reviews productions of Shakespeare for ‘Shakespeare Bulletin’. He has been a member of the faculty on courses for secondary school teachers at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington and Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Reformation / Christian History / Shakespeare / Theatre and Performance / Allegory /Skepticism
Was Shakespeare a Catholic? Was Shakespeare a Protestant? Was Shakespeare a Christian?

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Bibliographic Information

Book Title

Christian Shakespeare: Question Mark

Book Subtitle

A Collection of Essays on Shakespeare in his Christian Context





Number of pages


Physical size

236mm x 160mm

Publication date

August 2022