The Academic Shakespeareans

The last 30 years or so have seen a remarkable shift in the understanding of English religious history at the time of the Reformation.  There has always been a fringe minority of dissenters from the mainstream narrative of what Tennyson called England’s “rough island story,” but now some impeccably credentialed historians, among them Christopher Haigh (Oxford) and Eamon Duffy (Cambridge), have proved the dissenters right: The Protestant “Reformation” that shaped the England we all know was not—as we used to be told—a popular movement.  It was an unpopular revolution that the crown, for its own reasons, forced upon an unwilling population.

At about the same time that some of the historians began to acknowledge the occluded facts of English history, some Shakespeare scholars began doing the same thing in their field, and with a similar result.  They discovered that England’s national poet was born into a Catholic family, and was probably a Catholic himself.

To call these changes revisionism is an understatement.  The historians, probably unintentionally, have removed the moral foundation on which the triumphalist story of British Protestant imperialism stands.  The Shakespeare scholars are making it difficult to treat Shakespeare as Protestant England’s prophet and spokesman.

Understandably, the historians have tended to downplay the...

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