and the Reformation
by Dennis Taylor
THE PLAYS discussed in this volume are bounded by two defining moments in Shakespeare's lifetime: the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and the Gunpowder Plot. Both were death knells for English Catholicism, an entity that took a long time dying, and indeed was never entirely extinguished. The premise of this collection of essays is that the Reformation was the defining event of Shakespeare's background. Such a contention might seem banal, except that it has traditionally been ignored, and is only recently coming into view. The implication of such a background for the study of Shakespeare is enormous, and for that reason, perhaps, has long been resisted.
Richard Dutton's essay, "The Comedy of Errors and The Calumny of Apelles: An Exercise in Source Study," begins with a deceptively modest task: showing Shakespeare's indebtedness to a classical source, Lucian's essay, "On not believing rashly in slander," describing a painting on the theme of slander by Apelles. By the time Dutton's essay is concluded, a whole world of Elizabethan division has been portrayed. The Comedy of Errors (dated 1592-94 in Evans and Tobin 1997) puts us in a world of slander creating havoc in human relationships, with brothers, wives, servants at each other's throats. Such characters continually misunderstand and thus calumniate each other. What is the ultimate referent of this world of slander? Dutton suggests that it is Shakespeare's England, whose religious unity has long been riven asunder by the slander heaped by one side on the other. The papal bull slanders Elizabeth, the Elizabethan decrees slander the Catholics. Images of slander, in painting and bookplates, are used to slander each side. The slander has been especially painful for the oppressed Catholic population, which tries to defend its loyalty to the English government and argues that it is consistent with its outlawed religion.