Jean-Christophe Mayer. Shakespeare’s Hybrid Faith: History, Religion and the Stage.  London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 248pp. ISBN 0 2300 0525X.

Katherine Wilkinson
Sheffield Hallam University

Katherine Wilkinson. "Review of Jean-Christophe Mayer, Shakespeare’s Hybrid Faith: History, Religion and the Stage." Early Modern Literary Studies 13.1 (May, 2007) 8.1-7<URL:>.

  1. Jean-Christophe Mayer’s new book, Shakespeare’s Hybrid Faith: History, Religion and the Stage, is a discussion of faith during the early years of the Elizabethan era in relation to Shakespeare’s plays.  Mayer focuses his discussion on those history plays (Henry VI, Richard III, Richard II, King John and Henry VIII)  which, he argues, have often been ignored by critical study of religion, spirituality and Shakespeare. The book follows a straightforward structure with a chapter on each play under discussion, looking at different themes: for example, Henry VI is discussed in relation to witchcraft, and the chapter on Richard III  looks at purgatory and ghosts.  The largest chapter of the book focuses on the 1601 Essex rebellion and the role that the Chamberlain’s Men and Richard II played in that.  Mayer’s book does not cover 1 and 2 Henry IV or Henry V, a decision that is justified by his argument that these plays have already been discussed at length in this context by other critics.

  2. Mayer begins the introduction to his study by putting forward various scholarly, though one-sided views, of Shakespeare’s religion, especially arguments for his perceived Catholicism.  Mayer then proceeds to dismiss these arguments, stating that “we as critics should acknowledge what is truly speculative in our work”, and indeed questioning the value of proving things conclusively “when it comes to the personal religious creed of a man who died more than four centuries ago” (4).  In doing this Mayer gives a brief overview of the area, making his book accessible and putting forward his own argument that Elizabethan faith was in fact hybrid.  Mayer argues that religion was not a black and white issue during the Elizabethan era and that the Reformation was a process of smaller reformations rather than a single event.  Mayer’s overall argument is that Shakespeare’s plays, in dealing with religion and spirituality, while giving no answers to the questions they raise, reflect the nature of the religion of the age in which he lived.

  3. Mayer’s approach is very much that of an historian and he uses extensive references to other works, particularly pamphlets and other less well-known plays of the time, in his discussions of what religion was like in general and how Shakespeare reflects this.  This is particularly so in the chapter on King John.  Mayer argues that Shakespeare sets the character of King John up as a proto-Protestant super-hero and that this reflects the post-Armada atmosphere and the continuing threats of Catholic invasion during the 1590s.  Mayer discusses at length work by William Tyndale, John Bale and George Peele, seeing strong influence on Shakespeare’s play from The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England, and considers authorship of the play, eventually settling on Peele as the author.  However, this discussion of authorship seems out of place in this book.

  4. The opening chapters on 1 and 2 Henry VI and Richard III discuss very specifically religious ideas that became issues during the changes of the Reformation, rather than the intertwined themes of religion and politics that are seen in later chapters.  These solely religious topics include notions such as witchcraft extending to signs and prophecies, and death and the afterlife, and he looks particularly at the ghosts in Richard III.  Disappointingly, in a chapter about witchcraft in relation to 1 Henry VI, the character of Joan is covered relatively briefly: Mayer argues that Shakespeare does not fully demonise her in the play because he has already created a powerful figure that her ambiguous ending cannot negate.  Mayer highlights how Joan shows the audience that spirits can be brought onstage and questioned, a powerful image during the Reformation: the witchcraft of Henry VI is read as a representation of doubt and a longing for answers.  However, this is the closest that Mayer comes to discussing the stage in terms of performances of these plays, which is a shame.

  5. The chapter on Richard II, ‘Religious Conscience and the Struggle for Succession’, clearly sees religion and politics as inextricably linked within the play.  Indeed, Mayer spends much of the chapter discussing concerns of the 1580s and 1590s, but rather less time linking this discussion to the play in a convincing manner.  Indeed, Mayer spends time discussing pamphlets by Peter Wentworth and Robert Parsons in relation to the Parliament scene, the debate or lack of debate around succession, and the idea that Parliament can ‘make’ kings.  However, Mayer points out that he does “not wish to suggest that Shakespeare had direct access to either Parsons’ or Wentworth’s tracts” (72) but that his inclusion of relatively lengthy discussion of them is to highlight the kind of atmosphere that existed around the idea of succession.  Nevertheless, this disclaimer does lead one to question the actual relevance to Richard II of this discussion.  This is a specific example of a general feeling of being unconvinced by the aims of the book.

  6. This is also the case in the chapter given over to the 1601 Essex rebellion.  Although a very interesting chapter that includes previously unpublished accounts of the trials and the involvement of the Chamberlain’s Men, it simply serves to demonstrate that Shakespeare may have had sympathies with “the religious malcontents” (152) and little more.  There is certainly little discussion of Richard II in this context, and even so that it was Shakespeare’s Richard II that was performed is not a certain thing in scholars’ minds, which tends to make the link between the uprising and Shakespeare’s discussion of hybrid faith rather more tenuous.

  7. Touted as relying on “primary material”, this book is historically insightful and convincingly demonstrates the hybrid nature of religion in Elizabethan society.  However, in relation to the ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘the Stage’ elements of the title, the book would benefit from a deeper discussion of the plays to support Mayer’s thesis.  In some cases the parallel between the Elizabethan world and the world of Shakespeare’s plays is obvious; however, in others Mayer only uses very small parts of the plays very briefly, so the links seem more contrived.  Mayer historicizes the spiritual aspects of the plays and uses this historicism to show that by Shakespeare’s inclusion of these themes he is clearly debating faith in the 1580s and 1590s.  However, a consequence of this is that overall the books seem to contain more historicism than actual discussion of these issues in the plays.  Nevertheless, Mayer’s book is a useful tool for understanding the religiously infused political atmosphere in which Shakespeare lived.

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© 2007-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).