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Ceri Sullivan, Shakespeare and the Play Scripts of Private Prayer
by Jay Zysk

Ceri Sullivan. Shakespeare and the Play Scripts of Private Prayer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. 247 + xvi pp. ISBN: 9780198857310. £60 hardback.


It is nothing short of a commonplace that prayer, and the attendant devotional acts, rituals, and texts associated with it occupy a key place in the history of religious reformation and textual production in early modern England. But the critical accounts of Protestant prayer in the long, uneven landscape of the English Reformation tend to focus squarely on public prayer, governed by the centrality of the Book of Common Prayer as a text that organised England’s public worship as well as its national identity. What is more, the focus on public prayer tends to be framed by historical arguments about confessional identity and politics, liturgical practice, and devotional life, but less so by arguments about literary form and rhetorical strategy.

Against these dual points of emphasis—public prayer and confessional history—Ceri Sullivan’s Shakespeare and the Play Scripts of Private Prayer turns our attention to the pervasive and pointedly creative phenomenon of Protestant private prayer during the English Reformation. Building on existing scholarship on private prayer, which looks to the aims of devotional bestsellers, the affective experience of Protestantism, and the organization of a ‘godly life’ (9), Sullivan’s book investigates private prayer through a dominantly literary analysis that demonstrates ‘the performance elements in printed advice on how to pray’ (10) and focuses intently on the ‘dramatic and creative qualities of private prayer’ (15). She finds these dynamics evoked both in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century manuals on prayer as well as in Shakespeare’s history plays, in which ‘the prayers are largely private, not public, and largely written by himself and his collaborators, rather than being drawn from his sources’ (17). More specifically, by treating the ‘explicitly dramatic approach to private prayer’ (2; italics in original), Sullivan sees English Protestant private prayers ‘as dramatic dialogues rather than lyric monologues’ (3), thereby generating the question that organises most of the book: are play-going and praying overlapping, reciprocal practices in early modern England?

The crowning virtue of Sullivan’s monograph is not simply a shift in focus from public to private prayer but more consequently a shift in methodology from a kind of religious historiography to a refreshingly innovative literary and rhetorical analysis that examines the formal, rhetorical, and performative strategies that shape English Protestant private prayer. Shakespeare and the Play-scripts of Private Prayer pursues this analysis over six chapters and three brief appendices that provide sample contents pages from printed private prayer books as well as sample prayers on childbirth and work. Three of the book’s chapters focus on Shakespearean history plays, starting with the idea of scripting speaking roles for the pray-er in 2 and 3 Henry VI (chapter 3), moving to an examination of characters’ attempts to discern divine response to prayer in Richard III and Henry V (chapter 4), and concluding with the idea of royal prayers in Henry VIII and Richard II (chapter 5). The impressively researched introductory chapters provide firm grounding first in the existing scholarship on early modern literature and the Reformation (as framed by the field’s ‘turn to religion’) and then in a vast range of primary texts that shape the discourse of private prayer. Sullivan makes a compelling case for both the pervasiveness of private prayer in the Protestant imagination as well as its importance for the study of Shakespearean drama—an importance that is not merely thematic or confessional but more poignantly formal, generic, and rhetorical.

Chapter 2, which focuses on various rhetorical and performative techniques in composing private prayers as gleaned from a wide range of carefully-researched prayer texts, makes a powerful case that praying is ‘a craft to be learned, not an intuitive act’ (21), an act that foregrounds an awareness of acting, genre, role, and script, and which ultimately cultivates in the pray-er a ‘mindset needed for the process of creativity’ (57). The three chapters devoted to Shakespeare’s history plays all draw from this poignant claim that the process of private prayer was itself a creative process built on acting, role-playing, and affective investments. Sullivan traces out the various roles, for example, offered by manuals of prayer, which also included model prayers and instructions for gesture, posture, the intonation of voice, and the production of tears; she also attends to the reciprocal phenomenon of the pray-er’s effort to discern a response from the deity, looking to the period’s often conflicting and complex theological opinions on how God answers prayer, which plays into debates concerning divine providence. Sullivan also treats a number of related topics, such as the efficacy—and inefficacy—of prayer, the critical importance of ‘last prayers’ (i.e. prayers offered at the time of death), and the spectatorial experience of watching prayers performed on stage.

While the readings of Shakespeare’s history plays and the various prayer acts they contain are searching and persuasive, a reader might seek a more concrete rationale for the book’s singular focus on the English history play—and the Shakespearean history play at that—especially given the importance of formal and rhetorical analysis to the book’s overall argument. While Sullivan claims that Shakespeare ‘stages prayer more frequently than do any of his competitors’, that ‘private prayer is the principal genre of popular religious discourse in his plays’, and that ‘Shakespeareans examine the religion of the histories less often than the other genres’ (16, 18), further attention to how the history play as a dramatic genre, and how Shakespeare’s own innovations with that established form, shape the discourse of private prayer in early modern England would be a welcome addition to the monograph. That said, Shakespeare and the Playscripts of Private Prayer makes a convincing case that private prayer is hardly passive or solitary but rather vibrantly ‘creative, dramatic, and engaged with changing daily life’ (198). The book’s emphasis on approaching the spiritual experience of prayer from a literary perspective that combines the formal and rhetorical strategies of printed texts as well as prayer acts in dramatic performance offers a refreshing methodological approach to work on early modern literature and religion. 

Jay Zysk

University of Massachusetts Dartmouth



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Jay Zysk, "Ceri Sullivan, Shakespeare and the Play Scripts of Private Prayer," Spenser Review (Spring-Summer 2022). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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