Shakespeare's Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age

Overview

Societies and entire nations draw their identities from certain founding documents, whether charters, declarations, or manifestos. The Book of Common Prayer figures as one of the most crucial in the history of the English-speaking peoples. First published in 1549 to make accessible the devotional language of the late Henry the VIII's new church, the prayer book was a work of monumental religious, political, and cultural importance. Within its rituals, prescriptions, proscriptions, and expressions were fought the ...

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Shakespeare's Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age

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Overview

Societies and entire nations draw their identities from certain founding documents, whether charters, declarations, or manifestos. The Book of Common Prayer figures as one of the most crucial in the history of the English-speaking peoples. First published in 1549 to make accessible the devotional language of the late Henry the VIII's new church, the prayer book was a work of monumental religious, political, and cultural importance. Within its rituals, prescriptions, proscriptions, and expressions were fought the religious wars of the age of Shakespeare. This diminutive book—continuously reformed and revised—was how that age defined itself.

In Shakespeare's Common Prayers, Daniel Swift makes dazzling and original use of this foundational text, employing it as an entry-point into the works of England's most celebrated writer. Though commonly neglected as a source for Shakespeare's work, Swift persuasively and conclusively argues that the Book of Common Prayer was absolutely essential to the playwright. It was in the Book's ambiguities and its fierce contestations that Shakespeare found the ready elements of drama: dispute over words and their practical consequences, hope for sanctification tempered by fear of simple meaninglessness, and the demand for improvised performance as compensation for the failure of language to fulfill its promises. What emerges is nothing less than a portrait of Shakespeare at work: absorbing, manipulating, reforming, and struggling with the explosive chemistry of word and action that comprised early modern liturgy. Swift argues that the Book of Common Prayer mediates between the secular and the devotional, producing a tension that makes Shakespeare's plays so powerful and exceptional. Tracing the prayer book's lines and motions through As You Like It, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Othello, and particularly Macbeth, Swift reveals how the greatest writer of the age—of perhaps any age—was influenced and guided by its most important book.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Groundbreaking, historically informed, elegantly written, and invaluable for anyone interested in a deeper understanding of Shakespeare and religion in Elizabethan England." —James Shapiro, author of 1599 and Contested Will

"This is a brilliant book....If you have any interest at all in Shakespeare....you're in for a dazzling, if sometimes demanding, intellectual adventure." —Michael Dirda, ashington Post Book World

"This is a work of deep, thorough scholarship. The book is extremely interesting and well-written. It's a model of a modern scholarly book." —Bardfilm

"It made for perfect candlelight reading after lower Manhattan lost power." —Lorin Stein, Paris Review

"This is a highly imaginative, accessibly written take on Shakespeare's use of a source of considerable significance." —Library Journal

"Recommended." —Choice

Library Journal
The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) was first published in 1549 during the English Reformation and is the source of such well-known phrases as "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust," and "speak now; or forever hold your peace." Swift's (English, Skidmore Coll.) contention that the BCP is Shakespeare's "great forgotten source" may be a bit overblown—scholars have been documenting Shakespeare's references to the prayer book for at least 75 years—but this volume is novel in that it examines at length Shakespeare's use of this source in his plays during the period from the end of Elizabeth I's reign through the beginning of James I's. Swift's approach here, as he acknowledges, is heavily influenced by New Historicist criticism, particularly that of Stephen Greenblatt. Indeed, Swift's opening depiction of the recently crowned James I convening the Hampton Court Conference in winter 1604 deftly sets the scene for the rest of the book in New Historicist fashion. VERDICT This is a highly imaginative, accessibly written take on Shakespeare's use of a source of considerable significance. It should appeal to anyone with an interest in Shakespearean criticism as well as those looking for background on the early history of the Book of Common Prayer.—William D. Walsh, Georgia State Univ., Atlanta
The Washington Post
Daniel Swift, who teaches at Skidmore College, has produced a subtle and illuminating study of how Shakespeare's plays reflect and reconfigure the Prayer Book's language and theological tensions.
— Michael Dirda
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199838561
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 10/5/2012
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 590,354
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel Swift is a literary journalist and a professor of English at Skidmore College. He is the author of Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot's War, which was long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award and the Samuel Johnson Prize. His writings have appeared in Financial Times, The Nation, New York Times Book Review, and Times Literary Supplement.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: A Revel with the Puritans

Chapter 1: The only book in the world

Part 1: The form of solemnization of Matrimony

Chapter 2: For better, for worse

Chapter 3: Till death us depart

Part 2: The order for the administration of the Lord's Supper, or holy Communion

Chapter 4: The Quick and the Dead

Chapter 5: A gap in our great feast

Part 3: The ministration of Baptism to be used in the Church

Chapter 6: Graceless Sacraments

Chapter 7: Above all Humane Power

Epilogue: Five or Six Words

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