Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Daniel Swift's "Shakespeare's Common Prayers"

Daniel Swift is a literary journalist and a professor of English at Skidmore College. He is the author of Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot's War, which was long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award and the Samuel Johnson Prize. His writings have appeared in the Financial Times, The Nation, New York Times Book Review, and Times Literary Supplement.

Swift applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Shakespeare's Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Shakespeare's Common Prayers begins: "Here we have a junction and are torn between two stories." The two stories are one of doubt, and one of certainty, and both are contained within the Anglican rite for the Marriage as set out by the Book of Common Prayer. At a famous junction in the prayer book service, the priest asks the congregation whether anyone present knows "any just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together": he demands if they have reason why the man and woman here standing before them ought not to be married, and anyone who has attended a wedding in England knows this moment. It is a moment of deliberate uncertainty, a question for all present, and in introducing uncertainty it enrolls all the congregation into the collective holiness of what is happening now. Shakespeare loved this moment, and he borrowed it. He borrowed its language, in the strange divisions of that strange play All's Well That Ends Well, when Bertram cruelly insists upon his apartness from Helena, who loves him, and he borrowed it too in his great play As You Like It, when Rosalind and Orlando play wedding games out in the woods. More broadly, he remembered this moment when he wrote the early play Romeo and Juliet and the late play Macbeth, all of which depend upon the drama arising from a tense, worried, playful shimmer around the exact conditions of proper marriage. And Shakespeare himself had an unconventional marriage. He married an older woman, who was already pregnant with his child. His poetry and his plays are always double, always torn. In Shakespeare's Common Prayers, I hope to put the doubles, the junctions, and the tears of 16th century devotion back at the heart of his plays and his imaginative invention, which is where they belong. I hope to picture Shakespeare in his time, and looking at ours. If ever you had second thoughts or worries about the one you love, then Shakespeare is your playwright. If ever you hoped your love was certain, then Shakespeare, again--another double--is your poet. Here we have a junction, and are torn between stories.
Learn more about Shakespeare's Common Prayers at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue