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To assist your study of the plays, we have incorporated a range of supporting pages that you may find useful. Click any of the links below to access these pages. Note that material is split according to general contextual information related to all four plays, or that which is specific to each text.




The Religious Reformation, 1529-1559 [1]

Instigated by Martin Luther in 1517, the Reformation questioned the Roman Catholic dictate that the Pope and Roman Catholic Church were the only guides for religion. The origins of the English Reformation begin with Henry VIII who in 1529 divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Anne Boleyn with whom he hoped to produce a male heir. The schism between Henry and the Roman Catholic Church over the divorce removed England from Papal rule.

The Catholic split also altered the ideological and societal makeup of spiritual England. For centuries the Roman Catholic Church had controlled massive quantities of money and land throughout Europe with monasteries, cathedrals, and estates owned by the Pope and ecclesiastical vassals. By removing England from Papal influence these estates were seized, some looted or abandoned and others reutilized for other purposes. [2] The physical separation and re-identification of religion under the Church of England instituted a period where new architecture, ceremony, music, clothing, and ecclesiastical items transformed the identity of religious worship. [3]

Ideologically no longer under the Pope’s guidance, laymen now gained the ability to interpret the Bible anew and comprehend religious faith through their own understanding. In 1601 Arthur Dent published The Plaine-Mans Path-way to Heaven in which he suggested the removal of all sinners could not guarantee a faithful and holy world and so man must question how then to interpret religion. [4] Dent’s book further expounds concepts of the reformation by creating a dialogue of comedy rather than tragedy. [5] ‘For this Dialogue hath in it, not the Nature of a Tragedy, which is begun with Joy, and ended with Sorrow, but a Comedy, which is begun with Sorrow and ended with Joy.’ [6] The Reformation was new religious reinterpretation in combination with Renaissance thinking.

When King Edward VI (King Henry's son by his third wife Jane Seymour) died in 1553, his devotedly Catholic half sister Mary eventually assumed the throne and attempted to return England to Papal rule. However, after a short reign, distinguished by her reinstating the Act for the Burning of Heretics, she died and Elizabeth became Queen in 1558. The following year Elizabeth released the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity returning England to Protestantism, though permitting Catholicism in a muted manner. This act ensured the gradual degradation of what remained of Catholicism within the realm. Umarried and therefore childless, Elizabeth's successor was a religious issue as well as a political one. Nonetheless, her actions solidified the Reformation movement and ensured the future of the Church of England.

Gregory Sheridan

 

1. Dates being that of Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the Elizabethan Acts of Uniformity and Supremacy. Return to text

2. Looting, damage and sacrilege towards Roman Catholic property should be looked upon as general plundering and not necessarily linked to Protestantism. See: Selling the sacred: Reformation and dissolution at the Abbey of Hailes, pp. 162-196 in: Shagan, Ethan H. Popular Politics and the English Reformation. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). Return to text

3. See: Eamon Duffy. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-1580. (London: Yale University Press, 1992). Return to text

4. R.E. Pritchard, ed. Shakespeare’s England: Life in Elizabethan & Jacobean Times. (Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1999, 2003), p. 117-118. Return to text

5. Arthur Dent. The Plain Man’s Path-Way to Heaven: Wherein Every Man may clearly fee whether he fhall be faved or damned. (Glasgow: printed for Thomas Henderson, 1601: 1734), p. A4. Return to text

6. Dent, p. A4, overleaf. Return to text

 

Bibliography:

Dent, Arthur. The Plain Man’s Path-Way to Heaven: Wherein Every Man may clearly fee whether he fhall be faved or damned. (Glasgow: printed for Thomas Henderson, 1601: 1734)

Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-1580. (London: Yale University Press, 1992)

Kermode, Frank. The Age of Shakespeare. (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004)

Pritchard, R.E., ed. Shakespeare’s England: Life in Elizabethan & Jacobean Times. (Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1999, 2003)

Shagan, Ethan H. Popular Politics and the English Reformation. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

 

 

General Background
Antony and Cleopatra
Hamlet
King Lear
Othello
A Brief Overview Of British Social And Political History
The Politics of the Catholic Church
The Influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare
International Relations and Politics
James VI and I and his Patronage of the Arts
Kingship in the Renaissance
Early Modern Attitudes to Madness
Political Theatre
Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge Tragedy
The Religious Reformation, 1529-1559
The Influence Of Machiavelli On Shakespeare
The Succession of James I
Suicide in the Renaissance
Textual Variations in Shakespeare’s Plays
The Tragic Hero
The Transition from Medieval to Renaissance Drama
The Battle of Actium
Sources for Antony and Cleopatra
Marc Antony
The Contrast Between the Renaissance Prince Hamlet and Old Hamlet
New Words in Hamlet?
Is Hamlet a Problem Play?
Sources for Hamlet
Concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in Hamlet
‘And My Poor Fool Is Hanged’
The Double Role Of Cordelia And The Fool In King Lear
The Enclosure Acts
The Theme of Nature in King Lear
Nature and Cosmic Order in King Lear
Sources for King Lear
Cyprus
The Publishing and Performance History of Othello
Race in Othello
Sources for Othello
Venice
The Wife as Property in Othello