‘Influencing the Hearts and Lives of All’: Shakespeare, the Church and the Victorians
thesisposted on 20.06.2012, 12:25 by Anjna Chouhan
The relationship between the Church in England and 'Victorian Shakespeare' has been outlined by Richard Foulkes and, more recently, Charles LaPorte in his parallel study of biblical and Shakespearean criticism. These works have traced the Victorian conceptualisation of what Gail Marshall has termed the metonymical Shakespeare: that is, the establishment and interaction with Shakespeare the product rather than, strictly speaking, the fundamental interpretations of his drama. This thesis extends Foulkes' work on the official Church sanction of Shakespeare, and asks how it was that the 'Church' in Victorian England influenced critical readings and performances of the plays Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Measure for Measure, King John and Henry VIII. Split into two parts: critical readings and performances, this thesis explores to what extent religious events such as the Oxford Movement, the so-called papal aggression and Public Worship Regulations Act affected interpretations of the plays and their Catholic characters both on the page and stage. Each of these plays invited discussions about sinfulness, disillusionment and redemption: three key themes that recurred in debates about religion throughout the period. More importantly, this study argues that each play was interpreted within an anti-Catholic climate, where nunneries and confessionals were feared; idolatry was considered dangerous, and where Roman Catholic rituals and gestures were outlawed in the Church of England. By re-assessing Victorian Shakespeare discourse as part of a tradition where the languages of Christianity and, specifically, anti-Catholicism were endemic, this thesis proposes that religion was a critical framework within which Shakespeare's drama was interpreted; it was also a subject actively introduced and explored in the visual and spoken world of the stage. Therefore this work is part of the expanding historicist study of Victorian Shakespeare reception, because it rationalises the celebratory interpretations of the plays from the period and, crucially, proposes that religious discourse facilitated a revolution in Shakespeare criticism.