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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The shame of marriage in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

When the Supreme Court concluded the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges hearings with a 5–4 vote to legalize same–sex marriage, the majority and dissent disagreed as on the place of marriage in constitutional law, a question related to divergent views of the institution’s historical purpose. The majority insisted that marriage has always been about love and companionship, the dissent that it has always been procreation.

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Sex, love, and Shakespeare [slideshow]

Whether he fills his scenes with raunchy innuendos, or boldly writes erotic poetry, or frequently reverses the gender norms of the time period, Shakespeare addresses the multifaceted ways in which sex, love, marriage, relationships, gender, and sexuality play an integral part of human life.

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5 facts about marriage, love, and sex in Shakespeare’s England

Considering the many love affairs, sexual liaisons, and marriages that occur in Shakespeare’s plays, how many of them accurately represent their real-life counterparts? Genuine romantic entanglements certainly don’t work out as cleanly as the ending of Twelfth Night, where Sebastian and Olivia, Duke Orsino and Viola, and Toby and Maria all wind up as married couples.

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Shakespeare and conscience

At the outset of an undergraduate Shakespeare course I often ask my students to make a list of ten things that may not, or do not, exist. I say “things” because I want to be as vague as possible. Most students submit lists featuring zombies and mermaids, love charms and time travel. Hogwarts is a popular place name, as are Westeros and Middle Earth. But few students venture into religious territory.

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What was Shakespeare’s religion?

What was Shakespeare’s religion? It’s possible to answer this seemingly simple question in lots of different ways. Like other English subjects who lived through the ongoing Reformation, Shakespeare was legally obliged to attend Church of England services. Officially, at least, he was a Protestant. But a number of scholars have argued that there is evidence that Shakespeare had connections through his family and school teachers with Roman Catholicism, a religion which, through the banning of its priests, had effectively become illegal in England.

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Sources for Shakespeare’s biography

When opening a work of Shakespearean biography, it’s not unusual to find some sort of lament about a lack of data – albeit that it quickly becomes clear that this has not stood in the way of producing a substantial volume. However, rather than dwell on how this can still be done, perhaps we should re-examine what we mean when we say there is little to go on.

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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.

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Money, money, money

In All’s Well that Ends Well (3.7), Helena devises a plan to ignite the affections of her husband, for which she needs the help of her new acquaintances, a widow and her daughter. The widow is naturally suspicious, but Helena persuades her by offering to pay for her daughter’s marriage.

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10 crisp facts about money during Shakespeare’s time

Would you like to pay a halfpenny for a small beer, 1 shilling for a liter of wine, or less than 2 pounds for a horse? If you lived in 17th century England you could buy all of these and even afford Shakespeare’s First Folio, which was only £1 when it was published.

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The rich and the poor in Shakespeare

George Bernard Shaw considered himself a socialist, but was apt to make surprising remarks about the poor. “Hamlet’s experiences simply could not have happened to a plumber,” he wrote in the preface to his play The Dark Lady of the Sonnets in 1910, and “A poor man is useful on the stage only as a blind man is: to excite sympathy.”

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Shakespeare and Islam

Without Islam there would be no Shakespeare. This may seem surprising or even controversial to those who imagine a “national bard” insulated from the wider world. Such an approach is typified in the words of the celebrated historian A.L. Rowse, who wrote that when it came to creatively connecting with that world, Shakespeare, the “quiet countryman,” was “the least engaged writer there ever was.”

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Gods and religion in Shakespeare’s work [infographic]

Shortly after her coronation in 1558 Queen Elizabeth I reasserted and maintained royal supremacy within the English church, thus confirming her power as a Protestant leader. Shakespeare’s writing flourished under her reign, when Catholic and Protestant doctrines developed distinct methods of worship, mediation, and, perhaps most significantly, power and authority.

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Seditious Shakespeare: beyond hierarchy

Given that Shakespeare’s company enjoyed royal patronage, performed regularly at Court, and became known as the King’s Men upon the accession of James I in 1603, you’d be forgiven for assuming that his plays were bent on buttressing rather than subverting the status quo. That assumption certainly seems to be backed up in Troilus and Cressida by Ulysses’ apocalyptic vision of the anarchy that’s bound to ensue when “degree, priority and place” are not strictly observed: “Take but degree away, untune that string, / And hark what discord follows.”

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