The Unheard Prayer

Religious Toleration in Shakespeare's Drama


Titus shoots his arrows bearing petitions for justice to the gods; Claudius asks ‘what form of prayer can serve my turn?’; Lear wishes he could crack the vault of heaven with his prayers. Again and again, Shakespeare dramatises the scenario of the unheard prayer, in which the one who prays does so full well in the knowledge that no one is listening, interested, or even there at all. The scenario is keyed to the anxieties that surrounded the act of praying itself, so full as it was with controversy, the centrepiece of sectarian dispute over what was good and bad religion. This study reads the unheard prayer scenario as itself an appeal for a vision of tolerance, unobtainable perhaps, but nevertheless desired and imagined.
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Biographical Note

Joseph Sterrett (PhD, Cardiff) is Assistant Professor of Literature in English at Aarhus University, Denmark.

Review Quotes

"Spectators having read Sterrett’s study are now ready to understand the full and complex implications of the visual display of prayers onstage. Ultimately, they are made to realize that Shakespeare actually fashioned a poetics of prayer aimed at distancing himself from sectarian disputes, while reflecting on the meaning of divine sanction and expressing the religious anxieties of his contemporaries."
Sophie Chiari, Aix-Marseille Université (LERMA), Moreana 50 (2010)

"Acknowledging the mixture of Catholic, Protestant, and classical elements in the plays as well as the ongoing debates about Shakespeare's own confessional commitments, Sterrett argues persuasively that Shakespearean drama yearns to reconcile sectarian differences. In passionate yet judicious prose, Sterrett illuminates the dramaturgy of prayer as both object of controversy and equipment for living in order to tune his project to Shakespeare’s entertainment of pluralist futures."
Julia Reinhard Lupton, University of California, Irvine, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 54:2

"Local readings are often of great interest and value, and parts of this study participate significantly in the present critical attempt to understand Shakespeare’s theological positions."
Ian McAdam, University of Lethbridge, Renaissance Quarterly 66:4


All interested in prayer, Reformation English culture, and Shakespeare. Also those with interests in Shakespeare and religion, identity politics and secularisation.


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