Presenter: Rachel Robinson

Rachel Robinson is a fifth-year double major in English Honours and Classics. At the age of fourteen she fell deeply in love with Shakespeare, and has been a nut about Early Modern literature ever since. Rachel is also the Editor-in-Chief of The Garden Statuary, the English undergraduate literary journal, and encourages you to check it out.

Common Knowledge: The Book of Common Prayer and Early Modern Theatre

The secular theatre’s rise to prominence as an art form in early modern England is well-known, yet contemporary scholarship has just begun to acknowledge the enormous influence of an alternative form of “script” on the secular stage: the influence of the Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer was first instituted as England’s official prayer-book in 1549, yet its rejection of Roman Catholic traditions and doctrine divided England along religious fault lines for centuries afterwards. The controversy was especially structured around the power of words; frequent petitions, pamphlets, and conferences debated the ability of the words of the Book of Common Prayer to signify human encounters with divinity. These questions bleed into Elizabethan and Jacobean secular scripts in subtle but significant ways. John Lyly’s 1586 play Galatea is preoccupied with the word mystery, a theologically fraught term of the time. A closer examination of the word in the context of the play and of the prayer-book demonstrates the rich vein of literary criticism that the Book of Common Prayer can provide. The humble prayer-book provides a helpful wedge into the intersections of the sacred and the secular, the liturgical and the theatrical, that shaped early modern English theatre so powerfully.

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