Communities have often shaped themselves around cultural spaces set apart and declared sacred. For this purpose, churches, priests or scholars no less than writers frequently participate in giving sacred figures a local habitation and, sometimes, voice or name. But whatever sites, rites, images or narratives have thus been constructed, they also raise some complex questions: how can the sacred be presented and yet guarded, claimed yet concealed, staged in public and at the same time kept exclusive?
Such questions are pursued here in a variety of English texts historically employed to manifest and manage versions of the sacred. But since their performances inhabit social space, this often functions as a theatrical arena which is also used to stage modes of dissent, difference, sacrifice and sacrilege. In this way, all aspects of social life – the family, the nation, the idea of kingship, gender identities, courtly ideals, love making or smoking – may become sacralized and buttress claims for power by recourse to a repertoire of religious symbolic forms.
Through critical readings of central texts and authors – such as
Sir Gawain, Foxe, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne, or Vaughan – as well as less canonical examples – the Croxton play, Buchanan, Lanyer, Wroth, or the tobacco pamphlets – the twelve contributions all engage with the crucial question how, and to what end, performances of the sacred affect, or effect, cultural transformation.