Reformations of the Body: Idolatry, Sacrifice, and Early Modern Theater

Toward the beginning of the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, a preacher appears in the marketplace, railing against the theaters in dire tones as the “handmaidens of the devil.” By the end of the movie, he is a Shakespeare convert: we see him standing in the audience, raptly attentive as Romeo and Juliet meet their tragic end. This amusing turnabout is a standard dig at religious hypocrisy—one that could have been written by Shakespeare himself. Yet the film’s minor subplot of a man who “converts” from religion to theater also neatly encapsulates several important problems surrounding Shakespeare’s plays, the institution of the Elizabethan public theaters, and the religious culture of post-Reformation England. At the broadest level, why and how exactly was religion relevant to commercial drama?

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Jennifer Waldron