115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Shakespeare's Miracles

Melissa Schubert, Biola University

This paper considers Shakespeare's dynamic presentation of ostensibly miraculous phenomena in his late plays Cymbeline, Pericles, and The Winter's Tale in light of contemporaneous controversies about the the status of miracle claims in early modern religious thought. Shakespeare repurposes these controversies to enliven his some of his last dramatic experiments.


As David Loewenstein and Whitmore contend in their 2015 Shakespeare and Early Modern Religion, Shakespeare puts to “dramatic and creative uses” the “competing and dissonant religious perspectives” of early modern England (6-7). This thesis crowns the current scholarly conversation concerning Shakespeare and religion, one which investigates the complex relationship between explicitly theological early modern discourse and Shakespeare’s religious thought. As key instances of this relationship, the miracles staged in Shakespeare’s late plays certainly deserve attention. But there is as yet no dedicated scholarly account of how Shakespeare put the controversy over the continuation of miracles to new use with the miracles staged in his late plays. To that end, this study examines the ways that Shakespeare adopted and adapted contemporaneous polemical tensions concerning the cessation or continuation of miracles for the production of miraculous phenomena in his experimental late plays.

My project offers, first, a retrieval and original analysis of the contours of this controversy in Early Modern England. Primary sources show that core concerns in the theological discourse about miracles included religious epistemology, the construction of authority, and the phenomenology of text and image.  Even in the theological discussion, these concerns had implications for aesthetic matters related to iconoclasm and the nature of divine revelation. My account of these matters is the groundwork for my examination of miracles in Shakespeare’s late plays. In Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare re-engaged the dramatic traditions of late medieval religion, confronted anti-theatrical and iconoclastic sentiment, and re-appropriated visually-charged dramatic events for a verbally-advancing dramatic culture. Shakespeare demonstrated his attunement to these theological controversies in his exploration of the meanings of the miraculous for the early modern stage.