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The Queen Mary Centre for Religion and Literature in English

Online Seminar: June 2024

Jonathan Sell (Universidad de Alcalá), How Shakespeare became the Englishman’s God: reading religion into eighteenth-century bardolatry 

By putting paid to any hope of a “comprehensive” national church, the 1689 Act of Toleration was an effective catalyst of denominational fragmentation, and doctrinal dispute became something far more than a storm in vicarage coffee cups, not least because of the more enthusiastic nonconformity’s perceived threat to social and political stability. As the eighteenth century progressed, the newly formed British nation, in confessional disarray at home yet feeling the need to walk tall abroad, cast around for signs of identity that could unite. As early as 1701, John Dennis had pleaded the need for a return of religion to a sublime poetry which might galvanise the nation; his prayers were answered in the unlikely form of William Shakespeare, whose works, sublime enough but not obviously religious, were proclaimed in 1759 “a kind of established religion in poetry”. Shakespeare’s role as a national icon in the Anglo-French culture wars is by now familiar enough; less well known is his transformation into Richard Burbage’s God of all Englishmen’s devotion, whether High Church Tory or Methodist fanatic. This paper illustrates some of the steps in that immediate process and some of its longer-term consequences. 

Jonathan P. A. Sell studied at the universities of Oxford, London and Alcalá, Spain, where he is currently Full Professor of English Literature. Among his publications on early modern literature are Rhetoric and Wonder in English Travel Writing, 1560-1613 (Routledge 2006, 2019) and the prize-winning essay in two volumes, Shakespeare’s Sublime Ethos: Matter, Stage, Form and Shakespeare’s Sublime Pathos: Person, Audience, Language (Routledge 2022). Other publications include Conocer a Shakespeare (Laberinto 2012), Allusion, Identity and Community in Recent British Writing (Universidad de Alcalá 2010) and, as editor, Metaphor and Diaspora in Contemporary British Writing (Palgrave 2012). He has also edited and translated into Spanish Eleonora Tennant’s Spanish Journey (Renacimiento 2017) and Florence Farmborough’s Life and People in National Spain (Renacimiento 2017). As member of the international research project “Shakespeare’s Religious Afterlives” (SHAKREL), he us currently exploring the religious background to Shakespeare criticism during the British Enlightenment. 

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