Forbidden Matter: Religion in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries

Article excerpt

Forbidden Matter: Religion in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries. By Gerald M. Pinciss. Cranbury, NJ: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses. 2000. 142 pp. 25 [pounds sterling].

One of the striking features of the last years of the twentieth century and the first months of the twenty-first has been the emergence of books on the religious controversies of, roughly, Shakespeare's time. These have come from Early Modern historians and, somewhat laggardly, from literary historians. Gerald Pinciss writes about six plays spanning forty years to demonstrate how they reflect the religious controversies of their times. His book opens with a brief (eight-and-a-half-page) account of religion and state censorship as it applied to plays. Pinciss, rightly quoting Richard Dutton's definitive Mastering the Revels (London: Macmillan, 1991), agrees that the Revels Office was more permissive, even over religious material, than has often been assumed. Discussion of the six plays does show that `playwrights could offer a variety of views on matters of religion, relying on the intelligence and subtlety of the cleverer members of their audience to apply or decode their message fully' (p. 20). The word `decode' rings alarm bells, as allegorizing texts can produce quite astonishing theories of religious conspiracy: yet Pinciss does not often wander down that enticing alley. He disarmingly notes that (in spite of his book's title) none of the plays he deals with caused controversy. He finds that disturbance in response to Dr Faustus comes from its theological indeterminacy. He may be right in his assumption that Marlowe must have been impressed deeply by `the controversy between Calvinists and Anti-Calvinists [. …