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Shakespeare and the Book of Common Prayer

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One of the last mysteries left in the study of Shakespeare's plays is the biggest of them all: How do they achieve their particular magic? What can explain their hold over us? One answer to this question lies in Shakespeare's use of a book with which most of us now have only a passing acquaintance, but which profoundly shaped his view of both this world and the other-worldly: the Book of Common Prayer.

The Book of Common Prayer is an extraordinary and too-often neglected work. It was first published in 1549, during the Reformation, as the handbook of the new English church which had just succeeded from Rome. The prayer book is foundational, both to the English church and state. Since the king and not the Pope was now head of the church, the Book of Common Prayer instituted and justified royal power, and English monarchs for the next century modified and edited the prayer book as soon as they arrived upon the throne. It is arguably the closest document Britain has to a constitution.

But the prayer book does not concern only earthly power. It sets out the church rites for baptism, marriage, communion and funeral; it dictates the proper cycle of prayer for each day of the Christian year. It is therefore concerned with salvation, with the fate of the soul and the means to avoid damnation, and so its specific phrases matter very seriously. Royal power, holy words, divine law, magic and the supernatural, politics and faith: these are elements of Shakespeare's plays, perhaps most extremely in Macbeth, which is a play modeled upon the prayer book.

As Macbeth, late at night, contemplates the murder of King Duncan, he gives a famous speech, beginning: "Is this a dagger which I see before me?" He speaks of his fear, at what he is about to do, and looks down and pleads:

Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which was they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout.

He is longing for silence, that his footsteps shall not echo, and having done so he exits to kill the king. Critical editions of the play often include an entry next to these lines, as commentators note the oddity of the phrasing: it is perhaps surprising that a character should wish for silence by speaking out loud. This is a curious, rich moment.

The words "walk" and "ways," and their combination in phrases such as "ways they walk" and "walk in his ways" are very common in the Bible, particularly the psalms. The Book of Common Prayer sets out the uses and applications of the psalms: the rite for marriage, for example, includes a cycle of psalms. Psalm 128 -- "Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord and walketh in his ways" -- opens this cycle, and the phrase "walk in his ways" was a common text for wedding sermons.

The prayer book, therefore, links this phrase to marriage: in the play, this holy phrase is borrowed by a murderer who is also married: to Lady Macbeth, who taunts and bullies him into the act of murder. Their marriage is at the centre of the play. These lines from the play echo the prayer book deliberately, and as they resonate they deepen our encounter.

This is not the only echo. After the murder, Macbeth asks: "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash the blood/ Clean from my hand?" But no, he answers immediately; his guilt will instead turn the ocean to its color, "making the green one red." In the baptism rite in the Book of Common Prayer the priest leads the congregation through a prayer about "the Red Sea," a symbol of Christ's promise of "the mystical washing away of sin." This prayer is followed by another which asks: "Open the gate unto us that knock." In Macbeth the scene of bloody handwashing is interrupted by a knocking at the gate.

This continues: in the play, the witches promise that Macbeth may "laugh to scorn/ The power of man, for none of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth," and he quotes this like a prayer. "What's he/ That was not born of woman?" he repeats, and he believes that he is safe from his enemies. Perhaps he should have been paying closer attention to the Book of Common Prayer, where the phrase "Man that is born of woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery" appears at the very beginning of the rite for the burial of the dead.

Shakespeare's original audience would have been chilled by these words, and Macbeth should have been too. As modern readers, we may miss these echoes, but for the crowds who gathered at the Globe to first hear these plays, these were common phrases, as well known as any other words. The Book of Common Prayer is one of the hidden ingredients of Shakespeare's plays: it is a skeleton beneath the skin of the best-known literary works of our or any time.