The Reformation in Shakespeare

Brian Cummings explores the radical religious reforms enacted in Shakespeare's lifetime, and the traces of religion that exist in his plays from Measure to Measure to Hamlet.

In January 1564, three months before the birth of his son William, John Shakespeare noted in his accounts as chamberlain of the town of Stratford-upon-Avon that two shillings had been ‘paid for defacing images in the Chapel of the Holy Cross’. It may seem strange for us now living in the 21st century for someone to be paid by the town council to damage a church. However, the Protestant Reformation, like similar movements within Judaism and Islam at different periods, banned the use of religious imagery, often violently. In 1559, the new government of Queen Elizabeth I passed a Royal Injunction demanding the removal of ‘all signs of superstition and idolatry’ from places of worship, ‘so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glasses, windows or elsewhere within their churches and houses’.

Elizabeth I’s 1559 speech on her marriage, in Annales, 1625

Elizabeth I’s 1559 speech on her marriage, in Annales, 1625

Portrait of Elizabeth I in an English translation of William Camden’s account of her reign.

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The Reformation in England had begun in 1534 with the Act of Supremacy, making the monarch the Supreme Head of the Church, a situation which remains in place today. While Henry VIII was no Protestant, the Pope had refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry could see the usefulness of independence from the Pope’s laws to legalise his divorce from Catherine and his marriage to Anne Boleyn and ensure their heir, the infant Princess Elizabeth, would (for the moment) succeed to the throne.

More enthusiastically, Protestants in Henry’s entourage such as Thomas Cromwell (he of Wolf Hall) and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, promoted religious reform to accompany political enforcement. An English Bible (the ‘Great Bible’) was placed in churches in 1538. After Edward VI succeeded his father in 1547, a second and more radical Reformation replaced the Catholic Latin Mass and other rituals with an English Book of Common Prayer in 1549. These services, written for the first time in English rather than Latin, transformed the Mass, eliminated the cult of the saints, and removed prayers on behalf of the dead, which had been central to the whole practice of religion for hundreds of years.

The Great Bible, probably Henry VIII's own copy

The Great Bible, probably Henry VIII's own copy

An English Bible was placed in all churches in 1538.

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However, when Edward died young in 1553, his sister Mary I reversed the revolution in religion. The Mass was revived and laws forbidding religious dissent or heresy were restored, leading to a counter-Reformation in which 300 Protestants were executed in three years, including Cranmer himself. Yet in 1558 Mary also died suddenly. 30 years of religious strife continued as policy once again turned everything upside down again. Elizabeth revived the Book of Common Prayer in 1559. Throughout her reign and that of her successor James I (1603–25), religion remained a dominant issue. Catholics were increasingly persecuted, along with more radical Protestants known as Puritans, who wished for the Bishops to be abolished and society to be organised around a ‘godly elect’ – the select group of people who could be considered godly in their beliefs and behaviour.


In Stratford itself, at the level of town government, conformity was naturally the rule. Because of this, it reflected the way that the monarch and Parliament in London kept reversing religious policy, so that what was orthodox one year became illegal the next. Thus in 1553, the town corporation was granted ownership of the Holy Cross Chapel and became responsible for caring for the almshouse poor, and for paying and housing the vicar and his assistant chaplain, as well as the schoolmaster. But not all Reformation proclamations were carried out to the letter. The images in the church were merely whitewashed over in 1564, allowing them to be recovered later, and the rood loft (the ornate partition between the nave and the choir of the church) was only taken down four years late. The ‘Dance of Death’ on the north wall was allowed to remain. While Stratford after 1558 was outwardly Protestant, many townsmen and women remained Catholic at heart. Some of them would become what are known as ‘recusants’: those who refused to go to the established Church out of commitment to another faith; others, known as ‘Church papists’, hid their religion behind conformity. After the Jesuit Mission of 1580–81 to reconvert England to Rome, there is evidence of Warwickshire being a prominent centre of recusancy, including militant recusancy, from the Throckmorton Plot of 1584 to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Gunpowder Plot medal

Gunpowder Plot medal

Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators planned to blow up parliament in protest against the persecution of Catholics. This silver medal celebrates the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.

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Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum

The Reformation and its consequences dominated British life (including Wales, Scotland and Ireland in very different ways) from the 1530s to the Civil Wars of the 1640s and beyond. What was Shakespeare’s personal part in this astonishing story of good and bad faith, of conversion, spiritual yearning, violence, religious zeal and betrayal? Evidence exists that his father John was a recusant, and his mother’s family, the Ardens, had visibly Catholic relatives. On the other hand, Shakespeare was not only baptised himself in Holy Trinity Church, he later had his own children baptised there. His son-in-law, John Hall, was a prominent figure among the ‘godly’ Protestants of the town. Most Warwickshire families remained at some level of memory or emotion partly Catholic throughout the 16th century; just as all of them were touched by the need for conformity in a political context, which punished non-conformity severely. In London, where Shakespeare had moved by 1592, active Protestantism was more visible and more vocal than in the countryside. The theatres were just across the river from St Paul’s, where public outdoor sermons at Paul’s Cross regularly attracted much bigger audiences than the Globe or the Rose. Yet in London, too, there was plenty of underground resistance to Protestantism.

Engraved view of London by C.J. Visscher showing the Globe

Engraved view of London by C.J. Visscher showing the Globe

The Globe theatre just across the river from St Pauls; a detail from Claes Visscher’s panorama of London, 1616.

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Traces of religion in Shakespeare’s plays

While efforts have been made to draw a direct line of connection between the beliefs of Shakespeare’s parents and the interpretation of his plays, leading to the recent concept of ‘Catholic Shakespeare’, it is good to remember that people do not always follow the religion of their parents, and artists do not necessarily directly register their own beliefs in their works. What is beyond doubt is that religion left its traces, in complex ways as well as with confessional intensity, on every aspect of culture in the early modern era. In the 20th century, influenced by the secular bias of emerging schools of literary criticism and theory, Shakespeare was felt to be largely immune to religion. His plays, both tragedies and comedies, rely on classical and other literary sources. One famous scholar wrote that Shakespeare ‘writes as if the Reformation hasn’t even happened’.[1] He meant in part that Shakespeare’s plays do not have outwardly religious plots, that none of them are based on (say) biblical stories.

In fact, early modern English plays in general avoided examples from scripture almost entirely, in complete contrast to plays written in other parts of Europe. But this was because religious language was so volatile and so dangerous in England. Biblical drama was subject to censorship both direct and indirect, just as English history was. Shakespeare was able in the 1590s to write plays such as King John, Richard II and the two-part Henry IV about political and religious conflict before the Reformation. But in 1599 English history was banned by the bishops from the English stage, meaning that Shakespeare avoided the subject until his last play, Henry VIII. However, elsewhere in early modern European theatre, there was no distinctly ‘secular’ trend.

In looking for traces of the Reformation in Shakespeare it is better to search in more oblique directions, rather than in the beliefs of the author. In part, this is a matter of gaining sensitivity to a period in which declaring affiliation was actively dangerous. Changes of religion were so frequent that they must have caused confusion: while some people became more strongly fixed to one confession, others had mixed feelings and reactions. In Shakespeare’s most famous play, Hamlet, Claudius refers to his nephew ‘going back to school in Wittenberg’ (1.2.117). All Europe knew Wittenberg was the university of that prince of German Protestants, Martin Luther, who posted his 95 Theses to the door of the university church there on 31 October 1517. That action began the Reformation, which tore apart not only Germany and England but also most of Europe for the next 150 years. What did Shakespeare mean by this? Did he want us to think of Hamlet as a Protestant?

Views of Wittenberg and Elsinore in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

Views of Wittenberg and Elsinore in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

Hand-coloured view of Wittenberg in an opulent atlas of the world’s cities, c. 1600–1623.

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Descriptions of Wittenberg and Padua, 1600

Description of Protestant city of Wittenberg, 1600

In his guide to universities of his day, Samuel Lewkenor says that Wittenberg is famous for the ‘disputations of religion’ provoked by Martin Luther.

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By contrast, Hamlet’s father belongs to the world of pre-Reformation Catholic Europe. The Ghost announces that he comes from Purgatory:

I am thy father's spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away (1.5.9–13)

Painting of Purgatory, 1454

Painting of Purgatory, 1454

Painting of souls tormented in the flames of Purgatory, 1454.

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Copyright: © DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/ Getty Images

The play is possessed by different ways of remembering the recent past, thus resonating deeply with the divided experience of 16th-century England. Claudius, too, struggles with this, as he tries (and fails) to find penitence through prayer: ‘Pray can I not’ (3.3.42). As Hamlet himself comes nearer and nearer to his own death, his words are transfixed by what it means to talk about ‘a divinity that shapes our ends’ (5.2.11). The question is at the same time about where to locate religion in the new world of divided consciences, and also about who Hamlet imagines he is in this context.

Photograph of Mark Rylance in Hamlet, 2000

Photograph of Mark Rylance in Hamlet, 2000

Hamlet, played by Mark Rylance, in the famous graveyard scene of the play performed at Shakespeare’s Globe, London in 2000.

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In the case of Measure for Measure, the confessional meaning of the text was hard enough to decipher for an early reader in the English Catholic seminary in Valladolid, central Spain, for him to cut out the whole play from a copy of the Second Folio of 1632. While it is impossible to know the exact meaning of this act of censorship, it would have troubled any Jesuit novice to see the Duke disguising himself in the habit of a friar, and impersonating a priest. No intervention by the Duke as friar is more extreme than when he takes on the role of Claudio’s confessor, the night before his execution. Claudio meditates in prison on his own death:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod (3.1.117–20)

What is fascinating here is that Claudio freely merges the Christian language of mortality with a brief foray into the theories of the Roman poet Lucretius. The De rerum natura of Lucretius, which was rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in Italy in the 15th century, argued that the soul is not immortal. Such a view was almost unsayable in any Christian context until the late 17th century.

Broadside on mortality

Broadside on mortality

The skull, a stark reminder that ‘all men must die’, appears alongside Christian ideas of heavenly ‘eternitie’ in The Map of Mortalitie, 1604.

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Copyright: © The Huntington Library

A reference to the aftermath of the Reformation perhaps closer to Shakespeare’s own memories from his childhood in Stratford comes in comic form in The Tempest. Caliban is made to swear his loyalty to his new masters on the island, the drunken Trinculo and Stephano. He does so in what is a travesty of a religious ritual. In pre-Reformation England, at the beginning of the most sacred part of the Mass, the priest first kissed the Bible and then raised it above his head. John Bretchgirdle, who baptised Shakespeare, was a sound Protestant, but would have remembered this part of the Mass from his own training as a priest in 1545. ‘Kiss the book’, cries Stephano, at which Trinculo, good as his word, and loyal as ever to liquor alone, kisses the bottle. ‘Hast thou not dropped from heaven’, Caliban avows. He is made to prove his religious conversion with a new ritual ceremony

CALIBAN I have seen thee in her, and I do adore thee!
My mistress showed me thee, and thy dog and thy bush.

STEPHANO Come, swear to that. Kiss the book. I will furnish it anon with new contents. Swear! [Caliban drinks.] (2.2.137–40)

It is easy enough to characterise this ritual as a kind of disenchantment, by which it is emptied out of religious seriousness. But this perhaps misses the element of bodily performance in the play which is utterly serious even at comic or burlesque moments. However we read the scene, it is saturated with a conflict over different interpretations of the sacred and secular.

If we learn to put aside Shakespeare’s own confessional identity in favour of this more hybrid sense of the post-Reformation world, we can notice things even in plays which self-consciously banish outward reference to the Christian. For A C Bradley early in the 20th century, in his classic book, Shakespearean Tragedy, ‘Elizabethan drama was almost wholly secular’. A prime case for him was the pre-Christian setting of King Lear. Towards the end of the play, Lear and his daughter Cordelia are re-united but as prisoners of war. Lear says to her:

No, no, no, no. Come, let's away to prison;
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too –
Who loses and who wins, who's in, who's out –
And take upon's the mystery of things
As if we were God's spies. (5.3.8–17)

An audience now hears God in the singular, although neither the quarto nor the Folio text of the play uses an apostrophe. Indeed, the text of the play is rigorous in referring to divinity in pagan terms, usually in the plural. Gloucester in conversation with his son Edgar comments:

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,
They kill us for their sport. (4.1.37–38)

Lear often swears by Apollo and Jupiter; and Kent, as a bitter joke, swears by Jupiter’s wife Juno.

But it would be a mistake to see this as the simple absence of a Christian theology. The absence, to an audience of around 1606 when the play was first performed, is a felt presence in reverse. This is a play where God is banished rather than simply dead. King Lear at the beginning of the play, like the King James who was the nominal patron of the play, attempts to rule by divine right. His authority, however, is called into question. With it, the power of his language to take charge in the world disappears. On the heath, with the Fool, he confronts his bare humanity. At the end of the play, as he rediscovers the beloved daughter, whom he rejected in the play’s opening scene, it seems for a moment as if they might find redemption together.

The True Law of Free Monarchies by King James VI and I

The True Law of Free Monarchies by King James VI and I

King James argues for the divine right of kings – the idea that the monarch’s authority comes directly from God.

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To any church-going person of the 16th century (by which we mean virtually anyone) Lear’s promise to ‘kneel down’ (5.3.10) and ask Cordelia’s forgiveness speaks of an absolutely familiar religious activity. Nobody, whether Catholic, conformist Protestant, or Puritan, ever forgot how to kneel in forgiveness. Yet it is an act charged with a cultural memory of the arguments about ritual through the preceding two generations. Lear has faith for a brief interval in ‘the mystery of things’ (5.3.16), a phrase which comes straight out of St Paul in the New Testament. Yet in the final scene of the play, Lear carries his daughter back on stage, hanged:

That heaven's vault should crack: she's gone for ever.
I know when one is dead and when one lives;
She's dead as earth. (5.3.257–59)

The audience is confronted by a world without God. When Lear himself is carried off from the stage a little later, the ‘dead march’ (or music suitable for a funeral) which accompanies him reminds the theatre of the rituals of the Christian religion, and at the same time fails to confirm them. For anyone who had lived through the Reformation and its aftermath, the dramatic irony could not be more palpable.

Photographs of John Gielgud as Lear, 1955

Photographs of John Gielgud as Lear, 1955

John Gielgud as Lear cradling Cordelia, played by Mary Watson, in a touring production of King Lear in 1955.

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Copyright: © Photos by Angus McBean © RSC


[1] A D Nuttall, Shakespeare the Thinker (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 20.

© Brian Cummings

  • Brian Cummings
  • Brian Cummings is Anniversary Professor at the University of York in the Department of English & Related Literature. His books include The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace (OUP, 2007); and Mortal Thoughts: Religion, Secularity & Identity in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture (OUP, 2013), which won the Elizabeth Dietz Memorial Award at the Modern Language Association of America in 2015. In 2012 he gave the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford; and in 2014 the Shakespeare Birthday Lecture at the Folger Library, Washington D.C..

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