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Book Review: Shakespeare’s Common Prayers

Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age

by Daniel Swift

Oxford University Press, 2012

Penguin Classics recently published a very pretty “Deluxe Edition” of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer with a wonderful Introduction by James Wood in which he points out the tremendous debt English-speaking readers owe to the phrases and cadences of the book. The decision to create a “Deluxe Edition” of a Penguin Classic would have confounded the imprint’s originators, but perhaps even more perplexing to them would have been the idea that the Book of Common Prayer could be read for pleasure on a weekday, as opposed to being absorbed with sublime appreciation on worship days. But it was only comparatively recently that Penguin published a big fat Classic of the Domesday Book, so there is obviously a strictly documentary, nationalistic vote in its cloisters.

This is not a bad thing, and a pretty new edition of the Book of Common Prayer will doubtless attract and keep more casual readers than the interminable deed-counting of the Domesday Book. And there’s a vast amount of truth to the claim of debt, as Wood makes clear and as readers are told repeatedly in Shakespeare’s Common Prayers, the new book by enterprising young scholar Daniel Swift (whose debut, Bomber County, is one of those books that’s quickly finished and then impossible to forget). Swift attempts to trace that debt through the echo-chamber of Shakespeare’s plays, sifting everything for an echo here, a purloined catechism there. “Perhaps the only final proof of all that I have written here,” he tells us, somewhat unnecessarily, “would be if we were to discover Shakespeare’s own annotated copy of the Book of Common Prayer.” He lacks this, of course, but he extends an argument for it nonetheless based on a kind of textual universality:

Magna Carta, the United States Constitution, the Communist Manifesto: these are literary works which imagine and upon which are built models of society. Human history is illegible without reference to certain founding documents, and this is the status of the Book of Common Prayer. It mattered more deeply than any other written text of its age precisely because it was where and how the age defined itself. And something more than this: the prayer book is not only a political document for its claims are not only of this world. Rather, this is a work that traffics in the salvation of the soul, and so each fine revision is not stylistic nicety. For the population of Elizabethan and Jacobean England every edit and change of phrase looked toward eternity.

That point about the illegibility of human history is overstated but well-taken, and Swift’s sharp ear for liturgical echoes in the Shakespearean canon finds echoes and connections that are intriguing (his discussion of Hamlet particularly so). He’s right to call the common liturgical services the “twin and rival” of the burgeoning commercial theater, although as he sharply points out, strict law throughout Elizabeth I’s reign – from 1549 (the debut date of the original version of the Book) – forbade the performance of any part of the liturgy on stage, or any parody or hint of a parody, on pain of severe fines at the very least. And yet, Swift wouldn’t have a book if such strictures had been obeyed; he gives us a Shakespeare almost obsessively fascinated with sacred rites:

In the Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare found a body of contested speech: a pattern and a music of mourning, what Wallace Stevens called in a different context “a literate despair.” The rites are at times contradictory, at odds with their own theology, but he borrowed all this roughness and put it here on stage.

About the borrowing Swift is both thorough and thought-provoking (he adds another remarkable book to his catalogue – the likely-suspect plays, Hamlet, Othello, All’s Well That Ends Well, Romeo and Juliet, are read again in the context of liturgical echoes, and it’s a profitable exercise. That Shakespeare’s borrowings betray some deeper purpose, a connected significance – indeed, that he borrowed for any more serious reason than simple convenience (21st Century rappers quote from Scripture too, after all, without ever being suspected of actually thinking about it) – remains a fancy just beyond Swift’s grasp. But watching his strong mind at work on the plays throughout Shakespeare’s Common Prayers is plenty satisfying even without that heavily-annotated copy of Shakespeare’s own Book as final confirmation. And as good as the Shakespeare commentary is, the Prayer Book commentary is even better – almost good enough to make the reader wish Swift had dispensed with his Shakespearean conceit and simply given us 300 pages on the new common liturgy of Elizabethan England … a liturgy that was sometimes not all that common, as Swift points out:

The history of the Book of Common Prayer is no history of perfect form, and nor is it even most meaningfully a history of uniform worship; but it is the history of ideas about and appropriations of these, and above all it is a history of response. As the Bishop of Winchester wrote in the early 1990s, in a collection of essays discussing the future of liturgical revision: “there never was as much common prayer in the past as we sometimes now imagine.” The prayer book was only ever completed in the variation of individual use.

“What scholarly work that has been done on reading in the Elizabethan Age has tended to consider only the educated gentry, those who possessed large libraries and who were therefore less constrained in their choices,” Swift tells us, ardently though arguably adding, “It has left out the common readers.” Some of the written prose most familiar to those common readers – at least after 1549 – came from the Book of Common Prayer. That those same common readers could also quote a bit of Shakespeare is a neat and interesting confluence, though perhaps not a significant one. That Shakespeare himself could quote the liturgy to serve his purposes is yet more interesting still, and readers of Shakespeare’s Common Prayers will find that case laid out in admirable detail.