Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age, by Daniel Swift

November 21, 2012

While this is a brilliant book, it’s not quite the one its subtitle leads the reader to expect. “The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age” seems to suggest a history of the making and reception of the English Prayer Book, starting with its creation by Thomas Cranmer in 1549, and going up to, say, its temporary suppression in the mid-17th century by Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentarians. In fact, 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.

The result is a distinctly scholarly work, but one written with impressive stylishness. Perhaps it’s not by accident that Swift’s biographical note also describes him as a literary journalist. If you have any interest at all in Shakespeare, especially “Macbeth,” or in the beautiful Anglican liturgy, you’re in for a dazzling, if sometimes demanding, intellectual adventure.

First off, Swift reminds us that “The Book of Common Prayer” was never a static work. Though first published as a compendium of the Anglican rituals of morning prayer, baptism, marriage, Communion and the burial of the dead, it constantly underwent alteration. It was “the devotional centerpiece of an age that was passionately religious, and its fluidity is the sign of its cultural centrality.” In 1603, for instance, the Hampton Court Conference, held under the aegis of the new King James, reconsidered remnants of Catholic ritual still embedded in the text. The more austere Puritans objected to anything hinting at a sacrament other than baptism and Communion. As Swift writes, the Prayer Book embraces “a history of passionately contested revision and of manic sensitivity to a verb or a turn of phrase.”

It is also, as everyone should know, a treasury of memorable prose-poetry, especially in its earlier iterations. “Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live. . . . Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways, like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”

However, the Prayer Book is also a kind of theatrical work, detailing the interactions of minister, congregation and God during moments of high drama. In fact, as Swift says, “The prayer book struggled, throughout this period, with its twin and rival, the commercial theater. Plays were the other great common work of the age, both written collaboratively and performed before crowds. It was against the theater that the Book of Common Prayer sought to define itself.”


HANDOUT IMAGE: "Shakespeare's Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age" by Daniel Swift (Oxford Univ.) (contact: Coleen Hatrick,

From here, Swift argues that Renaissance drama was “troublingly liturgical,” even though playwrights were prohibited from reproducing precisely the language of the Prayer Book, lest there be any hint of mockery. But a genius like Shakespeare might still imbue his works with repeated words or situations that would call to mind their sacerdotal origins. Swift dissects, for example, the use of the word “walk” in “Macbeth,” rich with multiple scriptural echoes of walking in the ways of the Lord.

In the course of his analyses, Swift passes along many of those odd bits and anecdotes that make cultural history so much fun to read. A bishop named Edmund Bonner referred to married sex as “carnal multiplication.” One-
quarter of the men of Queen Elizabeth’s time were named William. Providentialism, we are reminded, leads logically to a refusal to mourn the dead, who are presumably blessedly happy in God’s bosom.

Swift also stresses — nothing new here — that Shakespeare’s plays are obsessed with marriage, though not just the comedies. “Romeo and Juliet” concerns “a civilly disobedient couple who perform a liturgically correct marriage.” Among many other things, “Hamlet” is “a meditation upon marital propriety.” In the so-called problem plays — such as “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “Measure for Measure” — Shakespeare focuses on various obstructions to the usual smooth narrative of consent, vow and consummation in the marriage ceremony. “Othello” depicts “what it might take to divide a married couple; it tests the weak points in the structure asserted by the rite.”

In his reading of the gruesome “Titus Andronicus,” Swift points to a breakdown in liturgical propriety: The characters “know not quite what to do in the occasions of grief and mourning.” When the ghost in “Hamlet” intones “Remember me,” Swift illuminates the phrase’s significance by probing churchly injunctions concerning remembrance of the dead. He notes, too, as others have before him, the echoes of Communion, the Lord’s Supper, that ring throughout the play: Polonius, says Hamlet after having accidentally killed him, is “at supper,” but “not where he eats but where he is eaten.”

In the last part of “Shakespeare’s Common Prayers,” Swift parses the language and action of “Macbeth” with the kind of detail that recalls William Empson in “The Structure of Complex Words.” As he says, “Macbeth even more than Hamlet is the great drama of uncertain presence. Is it a dagger or not? A ghost or not?” For instance, he shows how that key phrase “man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery” finds echoes throughout this most ritualistic of plays, notably in the witches’ prophecy that no man of woman born can harm Macbeth.

Swift stresses that the tragedy is drenched in the imagery of baptism, and not only in the Macbeth couple’s obsession with washing the blood from their hands. Speaking of the famous knocking at the gate that follows King Duncan’s murder, Swift reminds us that during baptism the minister says, “Knock, and it shall be opened unto you” and “Open the gate unto us that knock; that these infants may enjoy the everlasting benediction of thy heavenly washing.” When Lady Macbeth wails, “Out, damned spot,” Swift directs us again to baptism, which speaks of cleansing every “spot or wrinkle,” and to a passage in the Communion for the Sick, which reads: “Whensoever his soul shall depart from the body, it may be without spot presented unto thee.”

Swift ends his book with “Macbeth” because, he maintains, Shakespeare’s later works retreat from the rich poetry and web of associations offered by the Prayer Book. Afterward, the playwright turns to “the drama and consequences of fading marriages, not their union, and to growing old.” In his last plays, he breaks with “elaborate formality,” and when he writes of grief, it will “slip from set expression.” Perhaps, but this seems more assertion than proof.

As I said at the beginning, Swift’s excellent book demands but also rewards close attention. At the very least, it deepens our appreciation of how some of the greatest works of Renaissance theater are suffused with imagery and patterns drawn from the era’s liturgical masterpiece, The Book of Common Prayer.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.

shakespeare’s common prayers

The Book of Common Prayer in the Elizabethan Age

By Daniel Swift

Oxford Univ.

289 pp. $27.95

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