Shakespeare’s Religious Language

Shakespeare’s Religious Language May 7, 2015

R. Chris Hassel has compiled a dictionary of every religion-related work he could find in Shakespeare’s plays and poems. The entries in Shakespeare’s Religious Language are usually divided into three parts – a definition, a compilation of Shakespeare’s uses of the term, and references to contemporary or near-contemporary writers (Donne and Lancelot Andrewes come up a good deal) who use the same term. Shakespeare’s biblical allusions have been covered before, so Hassel focuses on theological and ecclesial terminology, or on words that in some cases take on religious connotations.

In a scholarly world that has awakened to Shakespeare’s theological interests, it’s a valuable reference work, especially for its defintions of terms that are no longer current (“compt” or “sacring” or “shrift”) and terms whose religious connotations might not be obvious (“enemy” as a reference to Satan, for instance, or the pelican as an icon of Christ).

Much of the book, though, seems an extensive exercise in defining the obvious. What readers of Shakespeare couldn’t recognize an allusion to Sinai when the plays talk about “Commandments”? Who needs a dictionary to tell us that “prodigal” refers to one of Jesus’ parables? Or to be told who Solomon was? Does anyone really need a dictionary to tell them the various religious senses of the word “cross”? For whom are these entries revealing?

For scholars who didn’t grow up in Sunday School or catechism class, that’s who. And, come to think of it, that probably describes the majority of today’s Shakespeare scholars. Useful as it is, Hassel’s dictionary is as much a monument to scholarly ignorance as a scholarly tool. I can hardly peruse it without regretful astonishment at our cultural amnesia.

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