In literary history, there may be no topic better covered than William Shakespeare. Harvard’s libraries hold well over 10,000 books on the great dramatist and his influences. Could there still be something about his work that we’ve missed?
Yes, says English scholar Daniel Swift. In his book “Shakespeare’s Common Prayers,” Swift argues that Shakespeare’s writing shows a deep and unappreciated reliance on The Book of Common Prayer, an immensely popular worship guide that collected prayers, Bible passages, and church rites into a strange and powerful text.
The Church of England issued the first edition in 1549, a few years after it broke with Catholicism, and in it the clergy found authorized scripts for funerals, baptisms, and more. But the book also appealed to readers. Cheaper than the Bible, it eventually reached a million copies in circulation—and this in a country whose population was only 4 million.
The Book of Common Prayer had an enormous impact in Shakespeare’s own time, and survives today both in church pews and in our language. (One familiar example is its wedding vows: “for better for worse, for richer for poorer . . .”) Yet literary scholars have largely neglected it. Based on careful comparisons between the book’s content and Shakespeare’s plays, however, Swift demonstrates that it is the Bard’s “great forgotten source,” and that reading Shakespeare with the book in mind opens a new window onto his work.
He also explains how The Book of Common Prayer shaped England’s political and religious life in ways we haven’t fully accounted for. “Magna Carta, the United States Constitution, the Communist Manifesto,” Swift writes, “are literary works which imagine and upon which are built models of society”—and so too was The Book of Common Prayer.
‘What Shakespeare was doing was entirely illegal, so he had to build a constant deniability into the process.’
Swift, who teaches at Skidmore College, spoke to Ideas from England, where he is researching his next book, on Ezra Pound.
IDEAS: Can we understand Shakespeare’s world without understanding The Book of Common Prayer?
SWIFT: No, because it’s almost impossible to overemphasize the way in which 16th-century England was saturated in religion. And this was the book that explained to people the proper way of behaving in the eyes of God. It was a foundational document for human behavior. It was also a political document, since it’s anachronistic to think of any separation between church and state in Elizabethan England.
IDEAS: The Book of Common Prayer is having something of a moment right now—the current edition turns 350 this year, and recently in The New Yorker, James Woods described how it “endures in English literature and popular culture.” Is that the right way to think about it?
SWIFT: Woods is a wonderful literary critic, but he’s talking about the book in a very old fashioned way—he’s celebrating it for a kind of timelessness, where I would suggest that the interesting thing and the exciting things about The Book of Common Prayer are precisely the ways in which it is responding to very specific pressures of a very specific moment.
IDEAS: You say that the book was Shakespeare’s “great forgotten source.” Why do you think literary scholars forgot it in the first place?
SWIFT: When people look at Shakespeare, they see an image of Shakespeare as themselves—as they would like to be. It’s like a mirror, but a funhouse mirror. So when Stephen Greenblatt looks at Shakespeare, he sees a skeptical, intellectual, liberal-minded philosopher. I would suggest to you that what Greenblatt is seeing in those moments is Stephen Greenblatt. Similarly, most literary critics have wanted to find a Shakespeare who is subversive and on the margins of society. The Book of Common Prayer was an entirely conventional document, and it’s been in scholars’ interest to separate Shakespeare from what many people have thought is a boring document.
IDEAS: So what drew Shakespeare to this conventional document?
SWIFT: One thing was that The Book of Common Prayer looks very similar to a play—it has a cast of characters, people with speaking roles, and so forth. I think that’s one thing the ridiculous film “Four Weddings and a Funeral” gets exactly right—nothing is more dramatic than the actual service of a wedding or a funeral. The possibility of parodying or quoting from The Book of Common Prayer was so alluring that there were very strict laws against it. What Shakespeare was doing was entirely illegal, so he had to build a constant deniability into the process.
IDEAS: What do we gain by reading Shakespeare alongside The Book of Common Prayer?
SWIFT: There’s a scene in Macbeth when Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are washing blood from their hands, and I would argue that they are citing and parodying The Book of Common Prayer’s baptism rite, which is a rite about washing away guilt. That’s one level of recognition. But as they’re doing this, someone starts knocking on the gate of the castle. Literary scholars have turned themselves inside out trying to figure out what this knocking is doing. But in The Book of Common Prayer the prayer about hand washing is followed by a prayer about knocking, and in that prayer, knocking becomes an emblem of praying to God. Once we see all this stuff, we see something extra in Macbeth—we get to have a slightly anxious laugh as we see how far the characters are from the thing they’re supposed to be doing. It’s not just the matter of a footnote. Shakespeare’s artistry depends on that shock of recognition.
IDEAS: So to appreciate Shakespeare’s artistry we need to move beyond the idea of him as an isolated genius and to understand the ways in which he relied on his contemporary culture?
SWIFT: Right. It’s a more complicated and ambiguous picture than the sentimental one of William Shakespeare, wearing a ruff, sitting alone in a room with a quill. But to see these plays correctly we need to see them in their historical and social contexts. You know, we talked about people having their own images of Shakespeare in their heads. My own image of Shakespeare is that this was a man very hard at work. And that in a sense is the most impressive thing about him.
Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books. E-mail