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.