A performance is some kind of action that changes something in the real world. The Oxford English Dictionary says the word “perform” means “to accomplish an undertaking.” Even something you say can be a performance in this sense, like when a minister of the church performs a wedding ceremony. The words he speaks transform two unmarried people into a wedded couple. “O eternal God,” the minister of the English Church in Shakespeare’s time would have said, “creator and preserver of all mankind, giver of all spiritual grace, the author of everlasting life: send thy blessing upon these thy servants . . . whom we bless in thy name.” The people getting married also perform what philosophers of language call “speech acts”—utterances that are also actions. “I do” is one kind of utterance when your friend asks you if you really like pistachio ice cream; “I do” is quite another kind of utterance—it has binding force—when you say it in response to the minister’s question about taking this person (this person standing right beside you) as your life partner.
“Performance” also means play-acting, doing or saying something that changes nothing in the real world. Shakespeare, who thinks a great deal about performance and also a lot about the nature of belief, crafts a scene in As You Like It where Rosalind, disguised as a boy, stages her own wedding to Orlando. The vows they speak change nothing in the real world; after all, they are actors speaking lines in a make-believe world. Their words don’t even change anything in the world of the play since the characters are only playing at getting married. They are not married at the end of the scene; Orlando still thinks the person he’s been pretending to wed is a boy named Ganymed. Yet the scene is enchanting. When the two young people exchange their gender-crossing vows, we feel something like the presence of “the giver of all spiritual grace” moving between them. Together, Rosalind and Orlando (and Rosalind’s cousin, Celia, who is playing the minister) orchestrate the different kinds of performance—creating a performance of magical transformation (where something changes indeed) and also staging a performance of sheer playhouse make-believe.
Rosalind’s playful performance of the sacred marriage rite is thoroughly metatheatrical. Metatheatre, which is the level of meaning in a play that stands over and reflects ironically on the play’s unfolding narrative, enabled the playgoers to play with belief the way Rosalind invites Orlando to play at getting married: both to pretend to believe something they knew to be mere play-acting and to develop new understandings about how belief works. Shakespeare’s theatre, we might say, became something like a faith workshop.
Consider how metatheatre is able to translate supernatural events into the natural effects of theatrical performance and then translate those natural effects back into supernatural events. In the fifth scene of Hamlet, to take a famous example, the ghost of Hamlet’s father is crying out to his son and the others on stage to swear that they will remain silent about what they have just seen. Hamlet suddenly says, “Come on, you hear this fellow in the cellarage. / Consent to swear.” For a moment there is no ghost, there is only an actor under the stage who is making ghostlike cries, and then the ghost is back—a real ghost crying “Swear.”
How did Shakespeare’s theatre become a faith workshop, a place where people of all kinds, and especially of all confessional identities, could share their beliefs with others and also begin to understand the dynamics of faith? The playhouse emerged as a commercial entertainment industry in a time of religious struggle. Through the sixteenth century, England, in the throes of the Reformation, changed its national religion three times—moving violently back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism. A commercial theatre like the one Shakespeare created had to attract playgoers of all kinds if it was to thrive. So Shakespeare’s plays made room for both Protestants and Catholics and sought to engage playgoers across the wide confessional spectrum of Reformation England.
Shakespeare himself was born into a Protestant nation under the rule of Elizabeth, but his father and mother were raised Catholic; some scholars think his father died in what was called the “old religion.” Shakespeare put a version of his family history on stage in Hamlet. Here, the young prince, just back from university in Wittenberg—which happens to have been Martin Luther’s university and the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation—comes face-to-face with his father’s ghost. One of Luther’s key arguments, by the way, was that there was no such thing as purgatory, that the Catholic Church had just made it up. In the scene, the ghost tells his son that he is “confin’d to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purg’d away.” Recusant Catholics in the playhouse might have been gratified to see that purgatory does exist after all, at least in this play-world. Protestants might have remembered Hamlet’s own remark that the ghost could be a “goblin damn’d” (1.4.40), a figure, they might think, dressed up in the garb of Catholic doctrine to seduce the prince toward his damnation. So the play was able to engage playgoers with different family histories and different confessional identities. On this account, Hamlet at the Globe created a collective of different people able to share their ideas and feelings by way of the words they shouted at the stage, their gasps of horror or delight, even the timing of their laughter and weeping. To borrow from philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s ideas about how people can change the world by dint of communicating with each other, we could say that Shakespeare’s theatrical faith workshop became a space for “communicative action.”
Of course, the fifth scene of Hamlet translates across kinds of belief, not between belief and nonbelief, but in fact the play as a whole brings belief and nonbelief into persistent dialogue, mostly by the way it deploys metatheatricality. So not only did Shakespeare’s theatre seek to accommodate different kinds of Christians, it also took a step back from religion altogether and made available skeptical views about the supernatural and the divine. Hamlet crafts two kinds of performance—one kind representational and other-worldly and another kind metatheatrical and this-worldly. One features a prince who is charged by a ghost with the task of killing his fratricidal uncle, and it includes also speculation about the supernatural, about religion, and about salvation and damnation, all of which is to be taken with the utmost seriousness. The other kind of performance is about different styles of playing a revenger, how much of what anyone says or does is authentic or merely scripted, how far a person is really a king or only acting a kinglike part, how an actor under the stage can sound like a ghost.
The two kinds of performance translate the characters and their actions back and forth between belief and non-belief. They can sometimes be downright antithetical to each other, but the playgoers’ work in the theatrical space of communicative action must move creatively and with open minds between them. Shakespeare’s faith workshop, I suggest, invited the playgoers to give expression to their religious feeling and thinking by way of their responses to the action unfolding on stage, to recognize the different faith-based emotions and thoughts of other playgoers, and to begin to grasp how faith itself is performed—both accomplished as a real thing in the world and play-acted as an invention of the mind.