My claim in this essay is that William Shakespeare’s theatre grew out of the early modern crisis of conversion—the period of more than one hundred years from the taking of Grenada in 1492 (the battle that completed the Reconquista, established Catholic rule across Spain, and precipitated the forced conversion and/or expulsion of all Spanish Jews and Muslims) up to Shakespeare’s emergence as a commercial playwright in London in the 1590s (a city wracked by the back-and-forth transformations of the national Church over the previous sixty years). I will sketch the main features of my argument for Shakespeare’s theatre of conversion and say something about how the conversional crisis generated his innovations as a creator of character and shaped the thematic focus of his drama.

I am less confident, however, about what to say about the broader consequences of the emergence of a commercial conversional theatre. What happens when conversion crosses over from the religio-political sphere into the domain of theatrical entertainment? On occasion I have remarked that Oprah Winfrey and William Shakespeare are the queen and king of modern commercialized conversion because of the multiplicity of forms of conversion they have made available for purchase. Modern self-transformation promises to create “a new you” and also to make you into the person you were always meant to be. That is classic Oprah, and it has lines of connection to many of Shakespeare’s plays. It is also worth noting how modern conversion (especially as self-transformation) focuses on identity, while the focus of traditional conversion (not to the exclusion of identity) is on relationship, as in Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 13:12—“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”1

At the outset, I should also address three objections to my claim about Shakespeare’s theatre as conversional (as if that were something new). First, theatre, going as far back as Oedipus the King, is a conversional art form. Oedipus’s story is a tragic conversion narrative: Oedipus does not know who he is, his actions take him further and further from the truth, until a crisis forces a revelation that opens his eyes to reality. One of the seminal stories of Christian conversion, St. Augustine’s Confessions, follows this pattern of living in blindness and wandering further away from the truth; but the light of the truth, when it comes at last to Augustine, does not compel him to put out his eyes.

Second, the drama that preceded Shakespeare’s commercial theatre was literally a theatre of conversion, a community-based theatre dedicated to deepening playgoers’ devotion to their original Catholic faith.

Finally, theatre is a conversional art form because the actors themselves can well be described as “conversion artists.” From the ancient Greek theatre to the present day, actors expertly transform themselves into other people. At the Globe in 1601, Richard Burbage became Hamlet. When Burbage died in 1619, a contemporary said that Hamlet had died too: “No more young Hamlet, though but scant of breath, / Shall cry ‘Revenge!’ for his dear father’s death.” I should mention that it is important for my argument that the ghost is a visitor from someplace that sounds like Purgatory (a lynchpin of course of Catholic belief) while his son has just returned home from Wittenberg, the college town associated with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. (We’ll come back to that later.)

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In the seventy years or so before Shakespeare’s birth, conversion became a principal way for rulers to exercise control over the inward as well as the outward lives of their subjects. It also became a key justification for wars of conquest. But conversion is a terribly unstable instrument of rule. Elizabethan authorities could never be sure that the conversions they compelled their Catholic subjects to undergo would stick. The focus on inwardness also provided a strong foundation for conscientious resistance to state power, whether the resister was a public figure such as Thomas More, executed in 1535 for refusing to take the Henrician Oath of Supremacy, or a private person like Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna, a recusant Catholic who resisted the Jacobean Oath of Allegiance in 1606.2

In the decades before Shakespeare’s birth, as the nation switched back and forth between the Church of Rome and the English Church, writers, printers, and government authorities conducted a series of skirmishes around the printing of polemical texts on both sides. The Catholic cycle drama was eradicated by the Elizabethan state; the state also moved to suppress the use of players by high-ranking aristocrats to promote their own religio-political views. In the first year of her reign, 1559, Elizabeth published a proclamation designed to exclude the players from what people were just beginning to discern was a burgeoning public sphere.3

Shakespeare and his fellows managed to go under or around Elizabeth’s prohibition. They were a new generation of actors and writers who had begun in the 1570s to cultivate an innovative identity by building permanent public playhouses in London and by developing new modes of theatrical entertainment. On account of these new conditions of theatrical production and new kinds of plays, Shakespeare and his fellows liberated themselves to address matters of public concern.

Conversion was a key matter of concern. It affected almost every man and woman in England from early in the sixteenth century until well after Shakespeare’s death. In addition to his daughter, we know that people he knew well, like Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe, were also at times in danger because of their resistance to the state-sponsored religion.

Shakespeare modeled his innovative style of characterization on the problem of conversion. In one of his first plays, The Taming of the Shrew (1593-94), the character Katherine grows deeper and more complex on account of the undecidability of her conversion. Katherine’s father offers Petruchio “Another dowry to another daughter, For she is chang’d, as she had never been” (5.2.114-15). Her so-called “submission” speech, however, is designed to raise questions about the authenticity of the change. Her character and her story translate to the domestic sphere the century-long religio-political program of changing people’s inward beliefs.

Shakespeare’s art made it possible for his playgoers to think about conversion by relocating it in stories that were almost emptied of religious doctrine but were nevertheless filled with religious language, thought, and emotion.4 In Much Ado About Nothing, Benedict quizzes himself about the possibility that he might, like his fellow soldier Claudio, become a lover: “May I be so converted and see with these eyes?” (2.3.22). In the two Henry IV plays and Henry V, Hal stages his drawn-out accession to the throne of England as a conversion narrative. Hal actually uses the word “reformation” in his first soliloquy (1 Hen 4, 1.2.213).

Consider one more example from among the very many that populate Shakespeare’s works. Hamlet has just returned home to Elsinore from study at the university in Wittenberg. In the fifth scene, the audience watches Prince Hamlet come face-to-face with the ghost of his father. The ghost says,

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg’d away.
                    Hamlet, 1.5.2-13

The scene is framed by its location in Denmark rather than England, its use of the word “purg’d” rather than “purgatory,” and its caginess about the religious affiliations of the father and son. But what the audience is seeing nevertheless maps onto their personal histories. Those who are recusant Catholics might be pleased since this world has room for a place like Purgatory. Some of the Protestants in the playhouse might be troubled by the spectacle of an apparently Catholic ghost laying a burden of revenge on his apparently Protestant son, especially since all of them, Shakespeare included, would have had parents that once were or were still adherents to the Old Religion.5

We might say that Shakespeare’s translations of religious conversion into other kinds of narrative liberated early modern playgoers to think critically about their social and historical worlds. The plays also opened avenues for critical thinking by bringing forward the social and corporeal dimensions of conversion, the ways radical transformations in one’s identity and one’s relationship with the world are never solely an outcome of independent thinking and/or of conversation with the divine. Against the radical freedom claimed by someone like John Donne—who converted from Catholicism to the Church of England only after, he said, “I had, to the measure of my poor wit and judgment, surveyed and digested the whole body of Divinity controverted between ours and the Roman Church”—Shakespeare created very many characters who choose to change in a radical way but who also are changed by the people they live with, the pressure of the languages and practices that surround them, the spaces in which they find themselves, and the desires that rise up inside their bodies.6

There is one more thing to add to this preliminary discussion about conversion’s crossing from the religio-political sphere to the new playhouses of Shakespeare’s London. In spite of what many scholars, including me, have argued, the theatre that Shakespeare and his fellows created was not anything close to a secular space from which all traces of the sacred had been stripped out. The playhouse was a place for thought-experiments of all kinds, but it remained bound within and nourished by the religious culture of early modern England. That rootedness in religious culture means that the conversions Shakespeare staged generally included a turning toward a realm incommensurably higher than that of the day-to-day world.

The persistence of elements of the sacred in Shakespeare’s theatrical conversion of religious conversion can help us understand why there is a shrine-like characteristic to places associated with him. It also explains why so many people have found their higher selves in Shakespeare. Turning to his drama can liberate us from dogma of all stripes, but getting up close to him can also trigger a transference able to confer on us a kind of secular consecration. The great writer Maya Angelou described how she, an outcast, abused, and silenced young girl, found her voice in Shakespeare, and found it so strongly that her act of reading converted Shakespeare into her and her into him. In addition, then, to the critical liberation that Shakespeare’s conversion of religious conversion achieved, we might say that Shakespeare also translated into many forms the consecration of the self that is a salient feature of conversion. And also, importantly, he has kept vitally alive the Pauline ideal of conversion as a consecration of the self that can be accomplished only by turning to face the other—as Paul says, “then shall I know even as also I am known.”


  1. I owe the idea of the different focuses of modern and traditional conversion to a conversation with Simon Goldhill.

  2. For Susanna Shakespeare, see James Shapiro, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015), loc. 3362-76.

  3. See Tudor Royal Proclamations, ed. Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin, 3 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), 2:115: “The Queen’s majesty [doth] straightly forbid all manner interludes to be played either openly or privately, except the same be notified beforehand and licensed within any city or town corporate by the mayor or other chief officers of the same . . . And for instruction to every of the said officers, her majesty doth likewise charge every of them as they will answer: that they permit none to be played wherein either matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the commonweal shall be handled or treated, being no meet matters to be written or treated upon but by men of authority, learning, and wisdom, nor to be handled before any audience but of grave and discreet persons.”

  4. See the brilliant discussion by Steven Mullaney, The Reformation of Emotions in the Age of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 7-50.

  5. For more about this view of Hamlet, see my essay, “Performing Publicity,” Shakespeare Bulletin, 28 (2010): 201-19, esp. 214-16.

  6. Donne’s remark is from his tract, Pseudo-Martyr (London, 1610), sig B3.