Shakespeare and the Religious Turn, Ten Years Later



In 2004, Ken Jackson and Arthur Marotti published their review essay, “The Turn to Religion in Early Modern English Studies” (Criticism). Although religion has always played a role in Renaissance studies, the twenty-first century wave was powered on the one side by the New Historicist interest in varieties of identity and dynamics of power, and on the other side with an interest in revitalizing theory in the face of historicism. After all, Derrida underwent his own religious turn, while thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, Erich Auerbach, Ernst Kantorowicz, Jacob Taubes, and Hannah Arendt along with that great greekjew Saul of Tarsus harbored complex relationships to Christianity and Judaism. Ten years after the publication of Jackson and Marotti’s essay, religion continues to drive innovative work in the field, with major books by David Kastan, Brian Cummings, Sarah Beckwith, and Hannibal Hamlin deepening our appreciation of Shakespeare’s wrestling with religious questions and his immersion in Biblical culture. Running through much of this most recent work on Shakespeare and religion is an interest in recovering in Shakespeare a religious outlook that finds common ground among or before sectarian positions, whether this orientation is called post-confessional, post-secular, messianic, phenomenological, or Abrahamic.

This panel explores these latest twists in the religious turn. In the opening paper, Julia Reinhard Lupton surveys recent work in order to establish the outlines of a post-sectarian Shakespeare, as well as the range of means – exegetical, phenomenological, theological, and poetic – used to establish his footprint. The second paper, by Ken Jackson, explores a number of unlikely “Abrahamic” moments, culminating in a reading of Shakespeare’s All Is True. The third paper, by Mary Jo Kietzman, establishes the stakes of covenantal ethics by reading the figure of Jacob in The Merchant of Venice. Arthur Marotti will provide a response. The goal of the panel is to test the extent to which Shakespearean drama discloses secular and post-secular expressions of the good life from within a range of religious formations. Shakespeare’s plays, we argue, are not explicitly or dogmatically religious; instead, they practice an abounding secularism unafraid to draw strength from the existential edges of religious literature and practice. The panel aims to track the flow of Shakespeare’s testaments among disparate epochs, including Biblical, classical, Renaissance, and modern eras, in order to identify connections among texts and viewpoints that are ethical and philosophical as well as hermeneutic and historical.

In “Shakespeare’s Beliefs / Believing in Shakespeare?”, Julia Reinhard Lupton reviews and evaluates recent studies of Shakespeare and religion. In new work by McCoy, Kastan, Cummings, Beckwith, and Hamlin, Shakespeare’s dramas yield both an inventory of the dramatic affordances of religious life and thought and an affirmation of secularism as a position wrested with great effort from punitive orthodoxies. Pushing back against the religious turn, work by Victoria Kahn, Richard McCoy, and Will West reaffirms the achievements of early modern secularization while acknowledging the extent to which Renaissance drama remained affiliated with religious motifs and orientations. Drawing on Sanford Budick and Sarah Beckwith, Lupton uses the liturgy and dramaturgy of benediction as a way to consider these issues in specific Shakespearean instances.

In “Abrahamic Shakespeare,” Ken Jackson establishes the significance of Abraham for a broad reading of Shakespeare that crosses faiths and engages philosophy as well as history. Drawing on modern theology and critical theory, especially Kierkegaard, Derrida, and Levinas, as well as critics such as Eric Auerbach and G. Wilson Knight, Jackson shows how Abraham’s simple response to God’s call (“Hineini”; “here I am”) echoes unexpectedly in the figures of Aaron, Timon, Shylock, Othello, and, ultimately, Henry VIII in All is True. There are certainly more easily accessible Abrahamic moments in the playwright – the child killing of Rutland and the near sacrifice of Arthur by Hubert in King John, for example — but the playwright’s true engagement with the biblical narrative and its interpretive tradition is more fully explored by considering how he deals with how the demand to give to something “Other” (whether that be God, the state, or a sense of justice) can impinge on one’s own.

In “Jacob in Venice: Wrestling as Covenant in The Merchant of Venice,” Mary Jo Kietzman explores the covenantal ethics derived from the Hebrew Bible and represented by Shakespeare, as an uncoerced responsiveness to the call of an Other (the divine) that enables productive and responsible human bonds. Covenant concretizes the I-Thou relationship, which, when addressed to God, makes man holy and, when addressed to one’s fellows, makes men human. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare revisits scenes from the life of Jacob in order to test the resources of covenant. In Kietzman’s reading of the play, the circumcised heart—an identifier that transcends race, sexual orientation, and religious confession—emerges along with scripture as the shared legacy of the fraternal faiths.

Arthur Marotti will provide a response, reflecting on the publication of “The Religious Turn” in 2004 in relation to developments in the field today.

Image: Rembrandt, Sacrifice of Isaac, 1635.


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