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Shakespeare and religion in 16th and 17th century England

The politics and religious turmoil of 16th century England provided Shakespeare with the fascinating characters and intriguing plots. From the publication of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, which some historians argue ignited the Protestant cause, to the publication of the Geneva Bible in 1560, English religious history has dramatically influenced Shakespeare’s work. Obvious historical plays aside — Henry VIIHenry VIII, and Richard II — many other plays demonstrate the pervasive nature of religion at the time, such as The Merchant of VeniceThe Taming of the ShrewCoriolanus, and Hamlet. Explore the various religious landmarks in 16th and 17th century English history, and observe how Shakespeare draws on recent historical events to fuel his playwriting.


Are there any significant dates that we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments.

Featured Image: “Barnes and his Fellow-Prisoners Seeking Forgiveness” by Joseph Martin Kronheim. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Meaghan Brown

    What about the reissue of Regnans in Excelsis in 1588 in support of the Spanish Armada, and the publication that year of A declaration of the sentence and deposition of Elizabeth, the vsurper and pretensed quene of Englande?

  2. Kelly

    This is a great idea for a time line and impressively designed, but the 30 year gap in Shakespeare’s lifetime is a long stretch of empty when you’re swiping on a phone. In fact there are only three entries between 1571 and 1622 and those are small, topical points of interest. Reading it a student would know that some questioned the oath of allegiance under James I, but would they know that for decades prior it was treason to be a Roman Catholic in England and a similar oath was required to graduate from your university? I am not Catholic but balanced representations are important and you might consider some of the following in your “Shakespeare and Religion” Timeline: .

    1559 Under Elizabeth I the Act of Supremacy reinstalls the English Monarch as supreme governor of the Church of England. The Act of Uniformity makes church attendance compulsory. For recusants (from the Latin recusare, to refuse) nonattendance will result in fines and/or imprisonments.

    1580 The Jesuit campaign of Fathers Robert Persons and Edmund Campion began. Centuries later a handwritten copy of a spiritual testament signed with the name of John Shakespeare was discovered hidden in a ceiling by workmen in Stratford-on-Avon. The original was lost after printing, but historians later recognized that it was modeled on a testament of faith written by Cardinal Borromeo and distributed by Campion, a document whose wording was unknown to historians at the time of the Stratford find.

    1581 Edmund Campion was captured, convicted and executed. Tougher recusancy laws classify converting another to Catholicism or being converted as treason. Recusancy fines are to be charged at a rate that is more than most skilled workers’ annual earnings: 20 pounds per month, 13 times a year.

    1586 The names Flibbertigibbet and Hobbididence arose during exorcisms conducted by then English Jesuit William Weston which would later be used by Shakespeare in King Lear

  3. Keith McDonald

    Perhaps an entry for the Bishops’ Wars of 1639-40, when the Covenanters revolted against Charles I’s attempted religious reforms in Scotland?

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