"Inspired Merit": Shakespeare's Theology of Grace in All's Well That Ends Well

By Beauregard, David N. | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview
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"Inspired Merit": Shakespeare's Theology of Grace in All's Well That Ends Well


Beauregard, David N., Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


EVER since the publication of Roland M. Frye's Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (1963), interest in the role of theology in Shakespearean drama has suffered an unfortunate decline. Frye made the influential claim that Shakespeare held the mirror "up to nature, and not to saving grace" (267), arguing that Shakespearean drama was autonomous and confined to the temporal sphere "independent of theological systems" (268). The inadequacies of Frye's thesis are manifold,(1) but they become particularly evident when one considers the theological anthropology implicit in Shakespeare's dramatic practice, especially the operations of sin, penitence, and grace, not to mention various religious roles (abbess, pilgrim, novice, friar), confessional scenes, and theological shading of sources.(2) While one can agree with Frye's emphasis on nature, or "virtue's own feature" (Hamlet 3.2.22-23), as the main object of Shakespearean mimesis, it seems equally clear that Shakespeare never intended to exclude "saving grace" from his dramatic representations. Theology is reflected in the mirror, not excluded from it.

To be sure, Elizabethan censorship had effectively forced religious and political controversy from the stage. As the role of theology in popular drama was marginalized, the theater took a more ethical turn. In 1572 the Queen's Privy Council instructed London officials to allow "such plays, interludes, comedies, and tragedies as may tend to repress vice and extol virtue" (Yachnin 18-24). A decade later, with more philosophical sophistication, both Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney laid out a similar program for poetry--the "figuring foorth" or representation of "notable images of vertues, vices, or what els [that is, passions]" so that the audience may see and love "the forme of goodnes" (Smith 1: 160, 166, 173). This is in full accord with Shakespeare's dramatic poetic of "hold[ing] the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn [pride] her own image" (Beauregard, Virtue's Own Feature 21-35). Nevertheless, such an ethically focused program, whether for poetry or drama, necessarily carried with it concomitant theological notions of sin, repentance and grace. It would have been virtually impossible for Shakespeare to have remained free of the theological orientation of Elizabethan culture. It is important to realize, moreover, that, as an external regulating force, the official censors were permissive, inconsistent, and often ineffectual, although no doubt their activity had the interior effect of causing writers to exercise some measure of self-censorship (Clare 211-15). Thus, in order to escape censorship and personal penalty, Shakespeare had to avoid explicit theological expression, in the form of doctrinal controversy or declamation, but he could expect some latitude and tolerance in the representation of Catholic matters on the stage. The example of Sir Thomas More (ca. 1592-3), a play in which Shakespeare had a hand, confirms this. Sir Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels and censor from 1579 to 1610, wrote in the margin of the manuscript "Leave out the insurrection wholy and the Cause ther off and begin with Sir Thomas Moore att the mayors session [a succeeding scene]" (Clare 32). Tilney objects to potentially seditious matter, but not to the sympathetically portrayed figure of Thomas More (Dutton 81).(3) In other respects as well, we can discern a certain latitude given to theological expression. The final scene of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, for example, is suffused with theological implications regarding prayer, grace, and salvation. And Prospero's project in The Tempest (4.1.68-82; 5.1.28-32) is to bring men from sin to "heart's sorrow" and "penitence," the first step in the sacrament of penance. If theological controversy was steadily marginalized on the Elizabethan stage, the formal purpose and the moral images of drama still carried considerable theological force.

All's Well That Ends Well (ca.

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