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The Play’s the Thing

Shakespeare, Theology, and the Unstaged God

Routledge, 2020. Pp. 187. $140.00

Review by Christine Havens

As a former student of Anthony Baker’s, I have been eagerly anticipating Shakespeare, Theology, and the Unstaged God for the last six years. As a person who is passionate and fascinated about the places where literature and theology mix, I have been anticipating this book. As a book evangelist, I have been anticipating this book. What is it about this work that raised such expectations?

As the Clinton S. Quin Professor of Systematic Theology at the Seminary of the Southwest, Baker draws from the literary world to break open theological concepts in his courses. He recognizes the theological in literature – the ways humans think about God in writings that “are neither liturgical texts nor members of a canon including mutually interpretive sacred texts.” In this case, that means Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare’s unparalleled ability with words, not to mention the way the characters he created still resonate with us today, offers us a multiplicity of “undiscovered countries,” to borrow the Bard’s own phrase, in which to explore the patterns of his plays and poems, his identity and his meanings. Often these explorations have been framed in terms of “either/or”: secular or religious, Catholic or Protestant.

I’ve often explored the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, especially Bottom’s soliloquy, which includes this line: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was” (Act 4, Scene 1). Only after taking a class with Baker did it ever occur to me that Shakespeare’s intent in having Bottom mangle Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 2:9 may have been purposely theological in nature.

That is what Shakespeare, Theology, and the Unstaged God is, then — a needed reconnaissance of the possibility “that Shakespeare might have been actively searching for a way of filling the gap left by what had been lost” (11), namely the experience of a transcendent God who is not an all-controlling puppeteer. Baker sets the stage for this conversation by linking the Bard’s last play, The Tempest, to the Book of Esther. Through these he poses the question: Is God a “hidden actor” in Shakespeare’s plays?

Baker wonders whether a theological reading of the plays might take away from the power of the works themselves; whether reading an “unstaged” God into the actions of the characters somehow diminishes the plays and their creator. After all, we are still so influenced by the Aristotelian prejudice against the deus ex machina of a God (or gods) who interferes in the play and in so doing, breaks the limits of the world and limits our hope in the promise of free will.

Baker offers, in The Unstaged God, a way to read the plays that allows for the both/and — early modern theology crafted within magnificent humanist literature. He begins with the historical plays — for example, the relationship between divinity and kingship. He then proceeds into the tragedies, with an especially excellent and poignant interpretation of King Lear. The final chapters are an exploration of theology and comedy. The one that draws on Shakespeare’s infinitely rich character, Falstaff, serves as a prime example of Baker’s in-depth, well-argued scholarship and theological work. So, too, does the conclusion, which brings readers full circle to The Tempest and Baker’s presentation of that play as the Bard’s theatrical Good Friday.

Shakespeare, Theology, and the Unstaged God offers a provocative, well-researched look at the spaces that literature and theology can cohabit; “truth may in fact require some degree of fictionalizing deception,” to use Baker’s words (16). This work apprehends, then, the transcendent God who does not need to be center stage constantly in order to be known as acting within creation, and that Shakespeare knew this and used it in his own writing.

The price of this book has determined that it will largely be used as a textbook and live mainly in university and seminary libraries. Anticipating that, I will argue that it is a good investment for those who are passionate about theology and literature, in any combination; for those who read Rowan Williams and Douglas Hedley; for those who value Shakespeare and want a non-secular lens through which to approach his works. Seek it out on a library shelf. Better yet, buy it co-operatively and take turns with it. Let it act within your life.

Christine Havens graduated from the Seminary of the Southwest and is Administrative and Communication Assistant at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Austin, Texas. She attends Church of the Incarnation.


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