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Shakespeare’s ritual notes

20 September 2013

Richard Chartres would like to be convinced by a BCP hypothesis

Shakespeare's Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age
Daniel Swift
OUP £18.99
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I FIND myself frequently giving thanks that we are heirs, not of Racine, but of Shakespeare. In the former, there is good order and delusive clarity; but in Shakespeare, there is a luxuriance of language and a wealth of possibilities that resist univocal interpretations. Such openness to multiple interpretations has been a characteristic of our Church of England. Partisans of many kinds, in consequence, have been able to find a kindred spirit in the Bard, who remains personally elusive.

Swift has written a lively book about Shakespeare's debt to the Book of Common Prayer in its Elizabethan dress. He claims that the BCP is Shakespeare's "great forgotten source". "We can be sure", he says, "that the playwright knew perfectly the book that was the most controversial and adored of his lifetime. If we place Shakespeare and the Book of Common Prayer back in close relation, some spark from the rub between these two may throw a light that will permit us to see both anew."

The seriousness with which Swift explores the significance of the debates surrounding the rites of birth, marriage, and death in Elizabethan England is a welcome corrective to the work of so many modern scholars who find it difficult to inhabit the God-fearer's mind. Centuries-old patterns of devotion were disrupted in the 16th century, and, in particular, the rites that bound together the living and the departed. When Ophelia prays for her murdered father, using the traditional formula - "God 'a' mercy on his soul. And of all Christian souls, I pray God" - she is uttering a prayer that had been banished from reformed burial rites.

Swift believes that "Shakespeare's imagination was provoked by the revision of church rites." He points also to the Puritan complaints that the Book of Common Prayer had not entirely abandoned prayer for the dead and had failed to guard against some reminiscence of older practices.

Swift's Prayer Book is not the cultural icon and doctrinal standard of later generations, but the contested book of rites which was a simplification of what had gone before but not a final farewell to ancient resonances. Within the limits imposed by the 1559 Royal Injunctions, which forbade any songs or ditties "in derision of any godly order now set forth and established", Swift pictures Shakespeare drawing directly upon the Prayer Book throughout his career.

It may be that some passages are illuminated by this approach. It is certainly true that As You Like It follows the BCP in postponing Touchstone's marriage to Audrey until it could be solemnised in church. It is, indeed, extra- ordinary that neither the Bible nor the Prayer Book is mentioned as a source in the eight volumes of Geoffrey Bullough's Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (1957-75).

In a ceremonious age in which memories of the rites of the unfragmented Western Church were still available, together with the liturgical and theological disputes that divided the English nation during Shakespeare's lifetime, the thesis that Shakespeare was directly and consciously provoked by the middle way of the Prayer Book has to depend on what Swift describes "as a more active understanding of literary influence". "We need", he says, "a messier and more engaged definition of a source."

I am the Ecclesiastical Patron of the Prayer Book Society, and I would like this thesis to be true, but I am not convinced that the case has been proved. Swift, does, however invite us to consider the Prayer Book in its own right as a drama. This is an insight whose implications all bishops and clergy would do well to ponder.

The Rt Revd Richard Chartres is the Bishop of London.

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