William Shakespeare’s plays have abundant evidence of the influences on the man behind the words. Shakespeare obviously was familiar with the world and especially human nature. I’ve read that he did not get some geographic facts correct, but in general, he seems to have been pretty well rounded. Just read a play and you can see it! I’ve often read commentary on how various concepts appear in his plays. But I never before considered the impact of The Book of Common Prayer on his plays.
Shakespeare’s Common Prayers by Daniel Swift (Oxford University Press, 2012) is a deep examination of how The Book of Common Prayer impacts the phrases and themes in Shakespeare’s plays. Mr Swift takes a few of Shakespeare’s plays almost line by line in examining the impact that the liturgy of the Church of England may have had on the playwright. Reading his examination made me think, “Wow! Why didn’t we notice this before?”
I know what I didn’t notice: I’ve never heard of The Book of Common Prayer before. I am a part of a religion in the Protestant tradition1 so I had not encountered the liturgy of the Church of England in its Elizabethan form. It is amazing to realize that this staple of Elizabethan life is something that is so foreign to the modern reader. Mr Swift’s examination, then, is all the more important for those interested in Shakespeare’s plays.
The first concept that fascinated me is that it was against the law to put liturgy on stage. Yet, the christening, marriage, and death rites were the frequent facts of life that people were intricately familiar with. Whenever Shakespeare borrows language from one of the rites, whenever his words and actor’s actions hinted toward the familiar liturgy, it was close to crossing a line that could have gotten him in to trouble with the law.
I was also fascinated in the ways Mr Swift noticed the familiar in the midst of the plays. As I mentioned, I had never even heard of the liturgy. Mr Swift is obviously a student of The Book of Common Prayer because he recognized hints of it in what I would have thought was obscure Shakespeare text. Taken as a whole, then, Shakespeare’s Common Prayers was impressive in scope and original in concept. I found it fascinating.
That said, Shakespeare’s Common Prayers is not a light read. It apparently began as a dissertation and it still has a heavy dose of “academic” in its writing style. It is rather dry to read. It is fascinating and thorough, but it certainly is not “pop” commentary as so many of the other books I’ve read about the Bard have been. One should know, before they begin, that this book is a serious study of one work that strongly influenced Shakespeare: it is not a light book about the author.
All that said, however, I am glad that I finally was able to read this book. Shakespeare’s Common Prayers reminded me once again of the import of understanding the context in which a classic work was written in order to best understand the work itself. I will not look at Shakespeare’s plays again in the same way!
Note: I received a digital review copy of this book from the publisher (via netgalley.com) for review consideration.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormon Church ↩