on April 16, 2011
I will keep this review brief for your convenience and offer some key criticisms. This is a good introduction to the religious context of Shakespeare's time (the author defines what is meant by "religion" on page 58), but not without its weaknesses. The later chapters especially suffer from brevity and lack of in-depth analysis. The author gives only a very brief overview of Shakespeare's works in chapter 3 and again an extremely condensed overview of scholarly approaches to Shakespeare's works in chapter 5; the final paragraph of chapter five seemed an abrupt ending to the book, a random "let's finish the book" type of summary that left me scratching my head. By the time you get to the end of the book you will get the (and I assume correct) impression that the author knows more about the history of Christianity than he does about Shakespeare. In the end, the book is a great read for beginners, but it is not recommended for the specialist of either Christianity or Shakespeare.
Chapters 1 and 2 are the most solid sections of the book since they provide an excellent summary of the history of Christianity from its beginnings and through the Middle Ages right into Shakespeare's day (covering the Lollards, the early reformers, Henry's reformation, the Puritans, and Elizabethan reform among other key topics). Chapter 3 looks at "religion" in Shakespeare's works, covering the histories, comedies, tragedies, and romances, usually providing only one or two concise paragraphs per play.
Chapter 4 is a much appreciated overview of a few Shakespearean films discussing how various screenwriters have tried to adapt Shakespearean plays (Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet) onto the big screen. I enjoyed the uniqueness and freshness provided by this chapter (Shakespeare in text vs. Shakespeare on film), but judging by scholarly standards it reads more like a sophisticated book report than something written by a Shakespearean scholar. Then we come to the weakest chapter in the book, chapter 5, which briefly glances over nearly 400 years of scholarly approaches to Shakespeare. While we cannot really know Shakespeare's personal views on religion, we do know the massive impact religion (Catholicism, Protestantism, etc) had on his works. The book ends with a brief overview of 20th century approaches to religion in the plays as doctrine, spirituality, or simple ideology, but the author does not really go in-depth in his analysis of the secondary sources; the author usually only takes few quotes from the books of other critics every now and then, followed by quick summaries of their significance (the brevity might explain why the actual body of the text is only 150 pages long). The rest of the book offers a selection of a few good primary sources from Shakespeare's day (e.g. the poems of Robert Southwell and John Donne), but the author should have also added works by Shakespeare to this list.
Finally, there are some problems with factual accuracy. The final paragraph takes the often misquoted passage from the poet and playwright Ben Jonson and assumes that he was actually serious when attributing the phrase "he was not for an age but for all time" to Shakespeare. Anyone who knows anything about Jonson will know that he was actually talking about himself as the poet "for all time," not really about Shakespeare. The average reader will take Jonson's 1623 preface to Shakespeare's works at face value, but if you read Jonson's many other poems you'll see he did these kind of subtle things all the time--praising other poets when he was really praising himself. Not that Jonson's praise of Shakespeare is insincere, but that the poem is really an account of an ideal poet more resembling Jonson than Shakespeare. In sum, besides these few criticisms the book is a must read for those with little knowledge about Christianity and Shakespeare. The book is a clear and well-written introduction to the central religious controversies in Shakespeare's day and the impact of religion on Shakespeare's works. However, I give it 4 out of 5 since "Religion in the Age of Shakespeare" doesn't really offer anything new.