‘Macbeth’ and the Book of Common Prayer

Literary journalist Daniel Swift has a new book coming out next month, “Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age.” In a column at the Huffington Post this week, he writes, “The Book of Common Prayer is one of the hidden ingredients of Shakespeare’s plays: it is a skeleton beneath the skin of the best-known literary works of our or any time.”

One of the last mysteries left in the study of Shakespeare’s plays is the biggest of them all: How do they achieve their particular magic? What can explain their hold over us? One answer to this question lies in Shakespeare’s use of a book with which most of us now have only a passing acquaintance, but which profoundly shaped his view of both this world and the other-worldly: the Book of Common Prayer.

The Book of Common Prayer is an extraordinary and too-often neglected work. It was first published in 1549, during the Reformation, as the handbook of the new English church which had just succeeded from Rome. The prayer book is foundational, both to the English church and state. Since the king and not the Pope was now head of the church, the Book of Common Prayer instituted and justified royal power, and English monarchs for the next century modified and edited the prayer book as soon as they arrived upon the throne. It is arguably the closest document Britain has to a constitution.

But the prayer book does not concern only earthly power. It sets out the church rites for baptism, marriage, communion and funeral; it dictates the proper cycle of prayer for each day of the Christian year. It is therefore concerned with salvation, with the fate of the soul and the means to avoid damnation, and so its specific phrases matter very seriously. Royal power, holy words, divine law, magic and the supernatural, politics and faith: these are elements of Shakespeare’s plays, perhaps most extremely in Macbeth, which is a play modeled upon the prayer book.

Read the full column here.

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