On 19 December 1601, John Croke, then Speaker of the House of Commons, addressed his colleagues: "If a question should be asked, What is the first and chief thing in a Commonwealth to be regarded? I should say, religion. If, What is the second? I should say, religion. If, What the third? I should still say, religion." But if religion was recognized as the "chief thing in a Commonwealth," we have been less certain what it does in Shakespeare's plays. Written and
performed in a culture in which religion was indeed inescapable, the plays have usually been seen either as evidence of Shakespeare's own disinterested secularism or, more recently, as coded signposts to his own sectarian commitments. Based upon the inaugural series of the Oxford-Wells Shakespeare
Lectures in 2008, A Will to Believe offers a thoughtful, surprising, and often moving consideration of how religion actually functions in them: not as keys to Shakespeare's own faith but as remarkably sensitive registers of the various ways in which religion charged the world in which he lived. The book shows what we know and can't know about Shakespeare's own beliefs, and demonstrates, in a series of wonderfully alert and agile readings, how the often fraught and vertiginous religious
environment of Post-Reformation England gets refracted by the lens of Shakespeare's imagination.
Kastan's thoughtful, learned, and judicious readings leave us with genuinely new evaluations of what Shakespeare does and does not render visible, and make possible, in his extraordinary plays. A Will to Believe leaves us with a will to think, learn, and live more. Julia Rienhard Lupton, Literature and History Kastan writes compellingly of Hamlet, Measure for Measure, King John, Othello and The Merchant of Venice in agnostic terms while insisting on their numinous essence Tiffany Taylor, University of Reading,The Times Higher Education A Will to Believe is a substantial work by one of the major Shakespeareans of our time. It matches deft critical ability with proper scholarship, wide and deep learning with acute judgment. Andrew Hadfield, Irish Times Kastans short, accessible, and brilliantly readable book asks why the question of Shakespeares belief is so important to us, and surveys the treatment of religion in the plays themselves. Its author successfully avoids both the recent tendency to read religion as merely a metaphor for power, and the equally unhelpful determination to interpret the plays as religious allegories. Alison Shell, The Church Times