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  • 12 February 2009

The mystery of Shakespeare's religion

Brian Cummings

Brian Cummings

One of the greatest mysteries about Shakespeare - his religion - is the subject of a new research project by a University of Sussex academic.

Brian Cummings, Professor of English, is to spend the next three years analysing the Bard's greatest works to find out how his fictional characters betray his own religious views.

Professor Cummings, who has been awarded £131,691 by the Leverhulme Trust to carry our the research, will be taking his quest to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DB and the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon.

"Religion is the last great mystery of Shakespeare studies," says Professor Cummings. "But it's not a mystery that can be uncovered by biographical evidence, which is full of illusion and uncertainty. Instead I am going back to the plays - to the multiple forms of 'confession' which the plays include - and the voices of fictional others rather than the direct 'voice' of Shakespeare."

The impersonality of Shakespeare's writing has been one of its most prized features. Shakespeare is "like a mirror", Coleridge wrote. "He is in all his personages because all humanity is in him." Central to Shakespeare's claim to universality is the view that his plays display no religion: his work instead is a "secular scripture", Harold Bloom famously stated.

However, Shakespeare was writing during a period of violent and profound religious change, not dissimilar to the modern state of religious conflict.

"These factors make the current moment an exceptionally propitious one for the study of Shakespeare's religion," says Professor Cummings. "My subject is not the religion of Shakespeare the man so much as the place and meaning of religion within his writing.

My intention is to write a monograph that will redraw the boundaries between biography, history, literature and religion. It will be concerned with understanding how the ritual, doctrinal and social effects of the Reformation leave deeper marks than an individual's religious affiliation."

Notes for editors

  • For more information, contact the University of Sussex Press Office, Jacqui Bealing and Maggie Clune, Tel. 01273 678888, Email
  • Studying English at Sussex

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