Soliloquy & Prayer: Theatre, Confession & Identity in Early Modern Drama – Josh Mcloughlin

 Josh Mcloughlin is co-founder and editor at Sonder.

Soliloquy & Prayer: Theatre, Confession & Identity in Early Modern Drama

 This essay does two things. First, it offers a new history and theory of modern identity, reconsidering the role of religion in shaping that identity in early modern English drama in general, and in the device of the soliloquy in particular. Second, it illustrates this new idea of the relationship between modern individualism, religion and early modern drama through close readings of two canonical early modern texts: Hamlet and Doctor Faustus.

 The ‘Secularization Thesis’

The early modern period occupies a privileged place in critical histories of modern, Western identity. Catherine Belsey’s ‘history of the subject’ locates an emergent, individualistic identity in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England which, she says, ‘is to be found at the heart of our political institutions, the economic system and the family’ today.[1] I agree that early modern theatre, because of its popular audience and spectacular force, played a crucial role in transforming ways of seeing, speaking and being – in other words formations of identity – in the early modern world, which greatly influenced later modernity. The Lord Mayor of London, for instance, in one of many letters to the Privy Council urging a ban on stage plays, calls the theatre a place for ‘masterless men to come together to recreate themselves’. [2] The ostensible concern is with the ‘lewd and ungodly practices’ of the theatre-goers, but a buried fear of what Stephen Greenblatt calls the ‘self-fashioning’ environment of theatre is disclosed when the Lord Mayor condemns a space in which audience members ‘assemble themselves’ rather than being constituted externally by a ‘better order’.[3] I agree that the identity which developed in the period, whose ‘assembl[y]’ the Lord Mayor attributes to theatre, is distinctively individualist.

Before going any further, there are two terms, central to this study, which need clarification: ‘modern’ and ‘individual’ (or ‘individualism’). C.B. MacPherson argues that modern identity originates in early modern individualism, which he defines as ‘the conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society from them’.[4] This idea of individualism not only, as Greenblatt argues, ‘suggests representation of one’s nature or intention in speech or actions’, but insists on a unique and discrete personhood capable of representation. This brings us to the idea of the ‘modern’ and of ‘modernity’. Historical periodicity, to some extent, always obscures the interconnectedness of past and present cultures and the identities which they produced and sustained, as Charles H. Parker and Jerry H. Bentley have recently shown.[5] It is clear, however, that the Reformation undoubtedly saw, as Greenblatt says, ‘an increased self-consciousness about […] identity’.[6] We will see that for dramatic individuals and their new mode of speaking – soliloquy – self-consciousness is one clear marker of the shift into modernity. Modernity, then, is used here as the rough but necessary historical period – beginning in sixteenth-century England but flourishing towards the end of that century – which sees the emergence of self-conscious, individuated literary and social identities and the rise of ‘individualism’ as the primary mode of being in the world. This shift is expressed most obviously in the emergence of eponymous dramatic characters like Hamlet and Faustus, self-conscious speakers whose unique motivations and discrete personhoods displaced non-individuated and highly totalized allegorical characters such as Mankind and Everyman, found in late middle age plays like The Castle of Perseverance (c.1400-25) and Everyman (c.1500).

What this essay will challenge is the prevailing account of how the modern individual came to be. The dominant critical narrative of Western subjectivity, which holds the early modern period and its drama as foundational, has tended to reduce the importance of religion to drama in general and its role in the emergence of modern individualism in particular. Jacob Burckhardt described ‘the modern […] spirit’ as categorically secular, a product of renaissance humanism in Europe.[7] Later Max Weber linked the emergence of the governing economic discourse of modernity, capitalism, and its chief mode of being in the world, individualism, to Protestantism. Weber, however, cites the Catholic argument that ‘materialism […] has risen from a secularization of the very meaning of life, [and] Protestantism is responsible for this development’.[8] Despite being rooted in the Reformation, the historical shift into modernity is still figured as a process of secularization. Greenblatt, in his canonical study, calls Thomas Wyatt’s poems ‘the secular equivalents of penitential Psalms’ and describes Queen Elizabeth’s self-fashioning as harnessing a diminishing ‘religious veneration’ for her own ‘secular mythology’ or ‘cult’.[9] In another highly suggestive comment, Greenblatt characterises renaissance identity as ‘separated from the imitation of Christ’.[10] In Belsey’s account, the shift from late medieval morality play to early modern drama ‘points forwards to a fully-fledged humanism rather than backwards to the Middle Ages’.[11] Belsey traces the emergence of a subject ‘independent of providence’ and, like Weber, ties that subject’s individualism to secularization.[12] Michael Neill sees early modern drama as a uniquely secularizing force, perhaps even the condition for the possibility of early modern secular individualism, as he says, ‘the extraordinary burgeoning of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama was a crucial part of [the] secularizing process’.[13] Christopher Pye, in a recent work which claims to re-assess the founding of modern identity, argues that the ‘early modern subject emerges not as a commodified being in a system of exchange but at the more radical and unstable point where economy establishes itself as a system’.[14] Pye’s analysis, then, still sees modern subjectivity as the product of a secular, ‘econom[ic] system’.[15] Lowell Gallagher sums up: ‘the assumption [is] that the ‘modern’ in early modernity is genetically linked to the triumphalist cast and secularizing inclination of Protestant reformist culture’.[16]

Brian Cummings calls this narrative the ‘secularization thesis’, and Cummings has also recently argued that early modern scholarship has mistakenly seen the emergence of modern, individual identities on the early modern stage as a direct result of an inevitable secularization, itself a product of a renaissance humanism which held man, not God, as a centre of meaning.[17] This essay will build on that work, whilst showing how Cummings allows his central concern – mortality – to obstruct the restoration of religion to the analysis of early modern culture. Cummings shows how critics expounding the ‘secularization thesis’ downplay the importance of religion to culture, seeing Reformation England as a society in the grips of an irrevocable secularization, with religion a diminishing force in social, political and cultural life: the result is modern, secular individualism.[18] In order to establish the grounds of that thesis, this scholarship has ignored the fact that, in early modern England, the social is the religious, as is the political, the economic, and the cultural. As Richard Hooker put it, ‘God hath influence into the very essence of things, without which influence of deity supporting them, their utter annihilation could not choose but follow […] all things are partakers of God’.[19] As I will demonstrate, even the apparently secular theatre is profoundly theological. Elizabeth Williamson has demonstrated ‘the persistence of material forms of devotion in early modern England’ despite post-Reformation efforts to shift worship completely from Catholic idolatry to Protestant textuality.[20] Religion saturated lived experience, then, just as it had done in pre-Reformation England; Henry VIII’s break with Rome was not a break with the sacred altogether, the beginning of a Protestant secularization. Some recent scholarship has attempted to reconsider the importance of religion. In a recent study, Ken Jackson and Arthur F. Marotti map out both the negligence of twentieth-century scholarship and recent attempts to reconsider religion in early modern culture. Jackson and Marotti note that religion ‘had been pushed somewhat to the side by most New Historicists and Cultural Materialists, who pursued other topics and, when they dealt with religious issues, quickly translated them into social, economic, and political language’.[21] Oddly, Jackson and Marotti discourage re-writing the history of early modern identity with a new focus on religion, blaming secular critical histories on Historicist scholars like Greenblatt or cultural materialist/Marxist critics like Christopher Hill.[22] I argue that an alternative history of identity in the period is exactly what is needed to redress this imbalance in early modern studies.

Cumming’s work comes closest to addressing the imbalanced secularist narratives of modern identity, announcing a ‘search for an explanation of early modern identity which is not in thrall to modern secularization’.[23] Cummings usefully notes the porous relationship of the secular and the religious: ‘the secular and the religious, far from being incommensurate, intersect in creative and profound ways’.[24] In particular, Cummings takes issue with the idea of early modern soliloquy as representing the foundational discursive mode in the secularization of individual identity.[25] Ultimately for Cummings ‘soliloquy is a synonym for a prayer of any kind’.[26] He does not elaborate on that very general conclusion, however, and this essay will look to go beyond the sketch provided by Cummings. Cummings’ work remains, at best, a sketch because his emphasis is on the prominence of mortality in the early modern imagination, and he reads everything from Montaigne’s marginalia and Albrecht Dürer’s self-portraiture to More’s conscience and Shakespeare’s soliloquies in terms of a preoccupation with death which regulates early modern life and thought. The problem is not the primacy of mortality – overstated though it might be, Cummings argues convincingly for its importance to early modern culture. Rather, despite insisting in his introduction that he will challenge ‘the connection between individualism and secularization,’ Cummings never realises this critical project, enmeshed as he is with the question of mortality, rather than religion, in early modernity. Cummings provides the term ‘secularization thesis’ – and I will take up this concept to describe that critical narrative hereafter.[27]

Yet, despite suggesting that secularization is just one narrative of modern identity, Cummings never offers an alternative genealogy of modern identity, even as his idea of the ‘secularization thesis’ echoes Michel Foucault’s own critique of the ‘Repressive Hypothesis’ in the history of modern sexuality.[28] Unlike Foucault, Cummings offers no new historicizing and allows the question of religion to be subsumed under the thematic or tropic importance of mortality ‘as a boundary for the self’.[29] This essay will look to properly account for the role played by religion in the emergence of modern individualism, focussing on early modern drama and particularly on the device of the soliloquy. It is not simply enough, as Cynthia Marshall does, to note that ‘[religion] was the simply the available language’ in the period.[30] What is needed is an analysis of exactly how drama partakes of the religious, of religious language and religious modes of speaking. I will look closely at Hamlet and Doctor Faustus, since both plays demonstrate canonical early modern soliloquies and, at the same time, are both foundational examples in the secularization thesis of modern identity.[31] First, I will elaborate the connection between drama and religion in general, and between soliloquy and confession and prayer in particular.

Religion in Early Modern English Drama

Thomas Elyot, who offered the following definition for soliloquy, ‘Soliloquus, communication, which a man beinge alone, hathe with god in contemplation’ was certain that talking to oneself always meant, at the same time, talking to God.[32] A crucial part of the secularization thesis, however, has been to view soliloquy as a mode of speaking – Raymond Williams named it ‘self-talk’ or ‘self-discourse’ – which isolates the speaker-as-subject in a profoundly secular way.[33] In the soliloquy language appears, to reverse Ferdinand de Saussure’s phrase, as the function of the speaking subject, directed only towards the one who speaks.[34] In this way, the space marked out by the soliloquy represents the idealised space of the individuated subject of modernity, and accordingly the soliloquy has been held as avowedly secular. Belsey, for example, argues ‘iambic pentameter […] disavows the materiality of the process of enunciation and simulates a voice expressing the self ‘behind’ the speech’.[35] Belsey consequently sees the soliloquy as a secularizing device, productive of a dramatic identity ‘independence of providence’ which in turn grounds modern individualism.[36] Belsey cites another influential account, from Williams, of soliloquy as a prerequisite for the individual, secular subject.[37] Cummings cites both, but fails to address fully the secularization thesis which Belsey and Williams assume because his chapter, ‘Soliloquy and Secularization’, presents a grammatical analysis of Shakespeare’s language in which linguistic technicality side-lines any discussion of soliloquy either as a cultural form in itself or its relation to religion.[38] In the end, Cummings accounts for the soliloquiser’s ‘colloquy with his own mortality’ and the ‘special relationship’ between soliloquy and death, but the importance of God as ‘silent witness’ to self-talk, if vaguely present, remains unelaborated.[39]

It will be necessary, therefore, to resituate the soliloquy and its religiosity before analysing the texts in which that mode of speaking plays a central role. I argue that soliloquy is a displaced form of religious confession or prayer – the two become intertwined in post-Reformation England, as Alec Ryrie has shown.[40] Yet post-Reformation confessional practice retains many characteristics of its Catholic form. Foucault shows how, in late middle age Catholic confession, the demand for a ‘painstaking review of the […] act’ made way for the ‘imposition of meticulous rules of self-examination’.[41] Indeed, ‘meticulous […] self examination’ seems to describe soliloquy accurately: Faustus begins ‘Settle thy studies, Faustus’ (I.i.i) and addressees himself in the third person throughout the play; whilst Hamlet beings one soliloquy in violent self-scrutiny, ‘O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’ (II.ii.543).[42] Ryrie actually borrows Foucault’s phrase, describing confessional practice in Reformation Britain as ‘self-examination’.[43] Protestant Confession, ‘shorn of its sacramental content’, becomes an individual’s direct contact with God, free from ritualistic and formal obligation, but retaining its central element, ‘self-examination’.[44] In this transformative period, early modern drama accordingly emerges radically different following the late middle ages. Wolfgang Clemen notes that Shakespeare evacuated many of the functions of pre-Elizabethan soliloquy, including ‘epic and narrative passages […] and material of an informative or instructive kind’.[45] This meant that soliloquy no longer had to supply essential narrative and dramatic exposition, and could function as a device for reflexive self-scrutiny. In the same way the Reformation birthed a confessional self-examination centred around the individual, so too did drama shake off the ritualistic function of pre-Elizabethan self-talking to enable the representation of a uniquely modern individual on-stage.

What is crucial, as Ken Frieden notes, is that the ‘self-talker’ is never properly alone because soliloquy ‘retains the connection between solitary speech and communication with divine beings’.[46] In this way, soliloquy occupies a discursive intersection between a humanist focus on man and a heavenly ‘communication’ which partakes of the revised confessional idiom which emerges following the Reformation. For Frieden, like many others, the solitary dramatic space of soliloquy invites the subject to position themselves as uniquely individual: ‘a typical monologist […] mistakenly considers himself to be autonomous’.[47] However, unlike Belsey, who also says that ‘[soliloquy] is the condition for the possibility of presenting […] a free standing individual’ who is ‘independent of providence’, Frieden stresses the importance of religion to the soliloquy by emphasising the confessional nature of dramatic self-talk.[48] Isolation, one consequence of individualism, is not foreclosed in Frieden’s account. What Frieden allows is a different kind of isolation which cannot do away with religion – just as Elyot viewed soliloquy as both ‘beinge alone’ and ‘with god’. Both Elyot and Frieden situate soliloquy as registering the presence of God even as it dramatizes the emergence of modern individualism because early modern soliloquy, partaking of Protestant confessional practice, retains the ritual of ‘self-examination’ and combines it with direct contact with God.

But religion following the reformation was volatile. Alison Shell has recently noted that whilst the period saw relative stability, ‘it was also one where the confessional switchbacks of the earlier Tudor period had not been forgotten, and where the Church of England was beset with fierce internal debate’.[49] That ‘fierce internal debate’ resembles Hamlet and Faustus, anguished early modern soliloquisers whose discourse is turned ‘internal[ly].’ Hamlet declaims ‘How stand I then…?’ (IV.v.56) and Faustus asks himself ‘Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man’ (I.i.23). At the same time, those ‘confessional switchbacks’ still latent in the post-Reformation imagination ensure that the dramatic device of soliloquy resonates strongly with confession and prayer, since talking to God is as vital to the soliloquiser as talking to the self. As James E. Hirsh has noted, ‘the dividing line between a prayer and a soliloquy […] is not always clear cut’.[50] On the one hand, viewed as an address to an audience, present or imagined, soliloquy resembles auricular, Catholic confession; on the other, soliloquy viewed as interior monologue dramatizes the new, Protestant form of personal, ‘unmediated’ and direct confession to God.[51] I am not suggesting that soliloquy is identifiably Catholic or Protestant, auricular or internal, as such. The point is that, either way soliloquy would have appeared to theatregoers as a profoundly religious mode of speaking and categorically not as an expression of a secular identity. The identity of the self-talker, individualistic in its ‘self-examination’ is intimately connected to and dependant on God, prayer and confession. The individual self, that is, who emerges as a product of early modern dramatic speaking is not secular, but avowedly religious.

But is not just soliloquy which equates theatre with religion. Shell also draws attention to the way in which religion resembles drama more generally, noting ‘the strong element of theatricality in sermons’ and the fact that ‘both genres exploited the affect of scripture as well as its authority; both demanded a wide and detailed scriptural recall’.[52] Shell does not elaborate on what ‘the affect of scripture’ means, but it implies the discursive environment or atmosphere invoked by the deployment of religious language, or the emotional and ideational register which that language evokes for its audience. As Shell notes:


It is no surprise that the books of Bible that Shakespeare alluded to most often – the gospel of St. Matthew and the Psalms – are among those which were most familiar. Singing […] metrical Psalms […] provided a rare opportunity for active congregational participation.[53]


Performativity is vital to both religious discourse and dramatic soliloquy: just as the illocutionary language of musical prayer enabled congregations to ‘perform’ the worship described in scriptures and codified spatially in the church building, the device of soliloquy allows the player to ‘perform’ the individuation which the empty dramatic space and singular language signify, as in Hamlet’s ‘Now I am alone’ (II.II.543) or Richard of Gloucester’s opening direction to enter ‘solus’ (I.I.I).[54] Performativity discloses the shared iterative structure of both soliloquy and worship. Since much early modern blank verse makes reference to Psalms, and because blank verse is another highly ‘metrical’ form of language, the similarities between church service and staged drama are – literally – pronounced.[55] The dramatic space in which soliloquy unfolds, therefore, can never harbour a secular identity because it always-already resonates religiously. The secularisation thesis based on soliloquy as secular mode of speaking and early modern drama as a ‘crucial’ secularizing form is no longer tenable.[56] As I mentioned, Hamlet and Doctor Faustus occupy a crucial position in cultural histories of identity and modernity, and so examining these texts and their eponymous, self-talking protagonists is crucial for properly dismantling the secularization thesis and its influence in early modern criticism.

Soliloquy and Confession in Hamlet

 When Horatio urges Hamlet for greater detail following his meeting with the Ghost of his dead father, Hamlet evades the question by saying:


I hold it fit that we shake hands and part:
You, as your business and desire shall point you;
For every man has business and desire,
Such as it is; and for mine own poor part,
Look you, I’ll go pray. (I.v.128-131)


Philip Edwards remarks in a textual note to the New Cambridge Edition that ‘nowhere else in the play does Hamlet talk of praying’.[57] Given that it appears in a major textual edition, this dismissal is emblematic of scholarship bound by the secularization thesis. In fact, Hamlet’s soliloquies address God intimately, in ways which extend to more than just oath-swearing or generic exclamations which can be quickly glossed in a textual note. I argue that Hamlet’s soliloquies are prayers to God which invoke confessional affects. Consequently Hamlet’s isolated, individual subjectivity, what Burckhardt called ‘the modern […] spirit’ and Weber the secular ‘spirit of capitalism’ is anything but secular.[58] In his first soliloquy, Hamlet begins:


O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world! (I.ii.129-134)


Hamlet’s first ‘self-examination’, powerfully introduced by the deixis of its opening, ‘O that this too too solid flesh’ (my emphasis) is brought firmly within the compass of that self’s relation to God, as Hamlet wishes ‘that the Everlasting had not fix’d /His cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter’. The next sentence, over two lines, ‘O God, God,/How weary stale, flat and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses of this world!’ sounds like the beginning of a desperate attempt, in the confessional idiom, at heavenly contact. Elyot’s description of soliloquy as ‘beinge alone […] with god’ unfolds between the stage direction ‘exeunt all but Hamlet’ and the Prince’s subsequent address to heaven in ‘O God, God’. That same vacillation between heavenly contact and human isolation and self-examination occurs in ‘Heaven and earth,/Must I remember?’ (I.ii.142-143): the confessional (‘Heaven’) and the isolated human (‘earth’) combine to produce Hamlet’s individual anguish (‘Must I remember?’ – my emphasis). That individuality is pronounced partially in Hamlet’s loss of his father and alienation from his mother, and he certainly wishes to be free of it: ‘Must I remember?’ More important, however, is the way the play forges an individual identity – compounded across both dramatic form and verbal content – which nevertheless retains the connection with God through the soliloquy’s resemblance to prayer. The stage direction ‘exeunt all but Hamlet’ and the initial deixis of ‘this […] flesh’ represent Hamlet as thoroughly individual and singular. The subsequent confessional register of ‘O God, O God,’ however, manifests Hirsh’s point that ‘the dividing line between a prayer and a soliloquy […] is not always clear cut’.[59] In the same way, Hamlet’s anguished individuality is not as clear cut as the secularization thesis would imply.

Just as Frieden notes how soliloquy ‘retains the connection between solitary speech and communication with divine beings,’ Hamlet’s first soliloquy demonstrates an emergent individual identity which is far from secular in its affect or language.[60] Soliloquy registers the presence of God even as it appears to dramatize the emergence of modern individualism through the isolation of the dramatic space and the desire for total self-determination (that the Everlasting had not fix’d/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter). Indeed, in one performance, David Tennant looks upwards toward heaven as he says ‘O that this too too solid flesh would melt,’ before falling into the foetal position, and crying ‘O God, O God’ as a child would cry out for a parent.[61] The tortured body movement with which Tennant falls to the ground after looking upwards signals both a lingering dependence on or desire for Godly contact and an isolated individuality bereft of external guidance and direction. Tennant resumes an upright posture and addresses the camera directly as the soliloquy moves from the metaphysical to physical matters of ‘incestuous sheets’ (I.ii.157). What is clear from the opening of this first soliloquy, however, is that the isolation and individuality which Hamlet feels and emblematises retains a vital connection to God. Harold Bloom’s confident assertion that the play is a piece of ‘secular literature’ whose hero is ‘unsurpassable in the West’s imaginative literature’ and therefore emblematic of a modern identity of secular individualism no longer holds.[62] In fact, any uniquely modern subjectivity we might detect in the lonely figure of the Prince is indelibly marked by a confessional tone and heavenly address which preclude the possibility of that individuality being secular.

In his second self-examination, which immediately follows the Ghost’s departure, Hamlet begins, ‘O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else?/And Shall I couple Hell?’ (I.v.92-923). This opening links with the Prince’s first soliloquy through a subsitution: ‘O all you host of heaven’ replaces ‘this too too solid flesh,’ (which returns again as ‘my sinews’ – I.v.94) as the point of departure for self-examination. Hamlet’s second major self-examination, then, calls God to witness, immediately framing the meditation both as self-talk and what Frieden calls ‘communication with divine beings’. Later, the language of divine imperative is imbricated in Hamet’s more earthly concern of blood revenge, as he says ‘thy commandment all alone shall live/Within the book and volume of my brain’ (I.v.102-103). The equivocation between the self-determination implied by the promise to ‘sweep to my revenge’ (I.v.31) and the evocation of a Godly ‘commandment’ yokes together the individual and the heavenly. The emphatic agency of Hamlet-as-individual (‘I have sworn’t – I.v112) is tied to an inseparable connection with and subjection to a heavenly order evoked by the religious term ‘commandment’. Hamlet’s self-talk is directed partially towards the Ghost, who is named as ‘thy’ and addressed through Hamlet’s answer: ‘Remember thee? Ay, thou poor ghost’ (I.v.97). However deeply invested Hamlet is in the early concern for revenge, this second self-examination partakes profoundly of the affect of prayer and confession in its register, language and mode of address. In this way, Hamlet manifests Elyot’s conception of soliloquy as ‘beinge alone […] with god’. Once again, Hamlet’s modern individualism is tied to God and voiced in the confessional mode. For Belsey, Hamlet’s modern ‘autonomy’ is the ‘precarious’ mythological foundation of secular liberal humanism.[63] In fact, Hamlet’s individuality is better described as ‘precarious’ in the original Latin sense: precārius registers ‘prex’ – meaning ‘prayer’ – and ‘ārius’ meaning ‘connected to (an other)’.[64] The other which is reached through prayer and who the emergent modern individual remains tied to is God.

Hamlet’s dialogue with other characters also discloses how religiosity inheres in humanist individuality. Hamlet’s famous speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is seen by Rolf Soellner as one of many ‘humanistic orations’.[65] In fact, as Peter Moore has shown, the speech is a direct echo of Psalm 8 – and again, therefore, Hamlet evokes the ‘affect of scripture’.[66] Further, in asking ‘what a piece of work of man is a man,’ Hamlet stresses Godly creation even as he descants on ‘the paragon of animals’ (II.ii.303-307). Hamlet’s all-encompassing self-examination – a ‘humanistic oration’- asserts verbally (man is a ‘piece of [God’s] work’) what soliloquy confirms by its confessional discursivity: modern individualism is tied inseparably to God and religion.

Doctor Faustus: Blasphemy and Individualism

Doctor Faustus, like Hamlet, features an eponymous protagonist who delivers multiple soliloquies and who, for many critics – is a quintessential secular humanist.[67] Just as Edwards dismisses the role of prayer in Hamlet’s soliloquys, so too do David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, editors of the Revels edition, surmise ‘we are left none the less with the perception that God (Christ) is starkly absent from [Doctor Faustus].[68] But a ‘separation from God’ need not mean that God is wholly ‘absent’.[69] Just think of the Fall, or Paradise Lost. Despite Faustus resolving to ‘rack the name of God,/Abjure the scriptures and his savour Christ’ he is not a secular self-talker. On the contrary, as Frieden says, soliloquy not only ‘appear[s] as the device by which prayer can overcome the distance between human and divine realms’- as in Hamlet – but can also register as ‘a concomitant of sin’.[70] In this way ‘separation from God’ is sinful, not secular, and because of that the self-talker, however humanist, remains bound to God. In Fastus’s case, that connection concludes in divine punishment – the cost of birthing a blasphemous individualism. Bevington and Rasmussen note that Doctor Faustus ‘explores motivation and inner conflict,’ drawing attention to Faustus’s self-examinations as a central feature of the play.[71] The ‘conflict’ in Faustus’s self-talk, and in the play more generally, is that between a ‘humanistic faith’ in the capacity for what Greenblatt calls ‘self-fashioning’ – emblematic of modern, secular individualism – and a Calvinistic insistence on the predetermined fate of the elect and the reprobate.[72] In fact, Greenblatt’s idea of self-constitution can be traced back to Italian renaissance humanists like Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who argued in 1486 that man was ‘worthy of all admiration’ and ‘the wondrous and unsurpassable felicity of man […] is granted to have what he chooses [and] to be what he wills to be’.[73] John Calvin, on the other hand, insisted ‘salvation is spontaneously offered to some, while others have no access to it […]. [God] does not adopt all promiscuously to the hope of salvation, but gives to some what he denies to others’.[74] Importantly, there is a profound isolation in Calvinism which belies the idea that modern individuality, or ‘self-fashioning,’ is always-already secular, a consequence of asserting the ‘felicity of man’ over God. What could be more individual and isolated – and yet still profoundly religious – than the ‘new sense of the isolated human soul in Luther’s and Calvin’s view of salvation’?[75] As I will show, Faustus tries ‘to be what he wills to be’ through self-talk but the ‘mind of man,’ even as it forges ahead in self-fashioning, cannot help but come into contact with God.

Whilst Hamlet’s opening self-examination evokes the affect of confession, prayer and scripture, Faustus’s opening speech bluntly confronts God head on by quoting scripture. After dismissing philosophy, medicine and law Faustus gives incomplete and distorted translations of well known biblical passages:


[He reads.] Stipendium pecattie mors est. Ha!

Stipendium, etc.

The reward of sin is death. That’s hard.

[He reads.] Si pecasse negamus, fallimur

Et nulla est in nobis veritas.

If we say that we have no sin,

We deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us.

Why then belike we must sin,

And so consequently die.


What doctrine call you this? Che serà serà,

What will be, shall be? Divinity, adieu!          (I.i.39-50)[76]


Faustus’s interpretations are less the triumphant reasonings underpinning secular individuality – a celebration of the intellectual ‘felicity of man’- than a sinful and inaccurate biblical exegesis. As R.W Ingram points out, the passages Faustus ‘quotes’ from would have been well known to the audience, whose familiarity with biblical disputation would have allowed them to quickly realise Faustus’s errors. Ingram says, ‘Marlowe in particular could expect his audience to be a sharp jury when it came to what might broadly be called theological argument’.[77] Faustus’s opening soliloquy then, which Thomas Healy terms ‘proto-modern,’ is more ‘biblical disputation’ or ‘theological argument’ than secular oration.[78] Seen in this way, Faustus’s self-talk ‘retains the connection between solitary speech and communication with divine beings’, addressing both Faustus himself (‘Settle thy studies, Faustus’ I.I.I) and God (What doctrine call you this? I.I.49).[79] Faustus’s responses to the passages read like a conversation with God, where God’s word is answered, as in ‘The reward of sin is death, That’s hard’ (I.i.41 – my emphasis). The familiarity of the Elizabethan audience, says Ingram, with the ‘expounded questions’ which make up Faustus’s soliloquy was due to their regular experience of church service, and so the soliloquy, in its interrogative treatment of biblical passages, resembles a sermon or ‘theological argument’ on the limits of divinity. More specifically, the way Faustus seems to answer those passages conversationally, asking questions of God in a one-sided conversation, structures the soliloquy like a private communion with or confession to God.

It is important to remember that Faustus is blasphemous. God is not physically present in the play and Mephistophiles and the other devils are certainly the overwhelming visual element on-stage.[80] Yet the play is permeated with reiterations of divine power and presence: Faustus’s conjures Mephistophiles using ‘Jehovah’s name’ (I.iii.8) and seals the incantation ‘Per Jehovam’ (I.iii.20) Faustus makes intermittent attempts at penitent confession, for example ‘Ay, and Faustus will turn to God again (II.i.9) and ‘When I behold the heavens, then I repent’ (II.iii.1). Those repeated attempts at colloquy with God persist throughout the play and into the final scene:


It strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air,

Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell.

O soul, be changed into small waterdrops,

And fall into heaven, ne’er be found!

My God, my God, look not so fierce on me! (V.ii.116-120)


Faustus’s address to his own ‘body’ and ‘soul’ suggest a solipsistic self-examination, but the anguished plea for forgiveness in ‘My God, my God, look not so fierce on me’ frames that internal debate as intimately connected to a heavenly other. The double address ‘My God, my God,’ and its earlier incarnation ‘O God,’ (V.ii.108) anticipate Hamlet’s own confessional mode: ‘O God, God,/How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, Seem to me all the uses of this world!’ (I.ii.131-134). The difference, of course, is that Hamlet seeks relief from ‘this world’, whereas Faustus the blasphemer begs for ‘A year, a month, a week, a natural day,/That Faustus may repent and save his soul’ (V.ii.73-74). Both, however, are talking to God as much as to themselves. Faustus tries to negotiate a confessional penance which desperately shortens from ‘a year’ to ‘a natural day’.

Belsey figures Faustus as ‘free-standing,’ but her discussion unfolds that individuality with a reading of what she sees as the schizophrenic ‘voices’, by turns nefarious and benevolent, which invade Faustus’s self-talk.[81] Accordingly her account of Faustus’s emblematic individuality – an emergent, if discontinuous, ‘liberal humanism’ – ignores the confessional mode and the religious affect of Faustus self-talk in favour of a post-modern discussion of ‘the subjection off the enunciation […] the subject of the utterance [and] the subject inscribed in the speech’.[82] For Belsey, Faustus’s blasphemous self-talk produces a secular, proto-bourgeois individuality. Greenblatt almost touches on the importance of confession and prayer to Faustus’s individuality when he notes that ‘in Faustus, blasphemy pays homage to the power it insults’. [83] In the end, the consequences of that suggestion for Faustus’s identity are left unelaborated, and Greenblatt slides back into the secularization thesis when he suggests, quoting Coriolanus, that Faustus appears ‘As if a man were author of himself/And knew no other kin’ (5.3.36-37).[84] In so doing, Greenblatt seems content to align Faustus with the secular ‘felicity of man’ vaunted by Pico’s humanism, in which the individual achieves ‘what he wills to be’ through his own means – as Belsey puts it, ‘independent of providence’.[85] Yet Faustus’s individuality, forged in the blasphemous bargain with Lucifer, discloses at the same time the penetrating and pervasive presence of God. When Faustus signs the deal with his own blood, he quotes Jesus Christ’s last words: ‘consummatum est’ (‘it is finished’ – II.i.74). Faustus encloses God within his emergent, blasphemous individualism by consecrating a satanic bargain with God’s own Word, indelibly marking his precarious new ‘omnipotence’ (I.ii.56) with God’s presence. God’s word seals the bargain with Lucifer and so that bond, both potent symbol and manifestation of Faustus’s over-reaching individualism, is itself bonded to and by God. Ultimately, Faustus’s modern identity, even as it aspires to secularity in its commitment to Pico’s ‘dignity of man’ – (echoed by Faustus’s own ‘mind of man’ – I.i.63) is inseparable from God.[86]


I have shown that early modern scholarship which propagates the secularization thesis has neglected to account for the central role of religion in early modern drama, and the centrality of confession and prayer in soliloquy in particular. Soliloquy, which Williams sees as a pre-requisite for modern, secular identity, actually precludes secularity: its metricality and performativity associates it with the singing of Psalms and church service; whilst its imperative of ‘self-examination’ combines with heavenly contact to closely resemble confession and penitent prayer.[87] My re-examination of the role of the soliloquy in the formation of a modern identity has demonstrated how it is no longer tenable to maintain the secularization thesis, as Belsey, Williams, Greenblatt and others do, that modern modern individualism is the product of a decline of religion in post-Reformation England in general and in early modern theatre in particular. I have offered a new history of identity and modernity, which goes beyond Cummings useful, but limited thematic and technical analyses. Returning to the enduring texts produced in its foundational period, I have shown how Hamlet and Faustus, far from being emblematic of an emergent secular individualism, demonstrate how the dramatic mode of self-talk as partakes intimately of the metrical affect of worship and sermon and the discursive structure of confession and prayer.

I have shown how Hamlet’s soliloquies and orations on man display clear traces of confessional speaking whilst retaining the self-examination which is a key marker of modern, individual identity. I have shown how Faustus, emblematic of the aspirational humanist and forerunner of the secular individual who would ‘owe nothing’ to God, actually derives his blasphemous individualism from God’s language, presence and power, ultimately lapsing into confessional and sermonic modes even as his commitment to the ‘dignity of man’ aspires to secularity. What is disclosed is that both Hamlet and Faustus – seen by the secularisation thesis as purveyors of secular ‘humanistic orations’ – firmly enclose God as a vital other present in and to their identities, even as the isolated stage-space of the soliloquiser, both symbolic and literal, marks that identity as individualist. Modernity then, as it originates in the early modern period, cannot be thought of as secular insofar as individualism (its chief mode of being in the world) and soliloquy (its foundational mode of speaking) partake profoundly of the confessional idiom whilst reproducing the affective resonances of metrical prayer and congregational worship. Both modernity and individuality are the product of a historical period not of secularity but of reinvigorated religion, in which a radical self-consciousness remains irrevocably connected to God.



Austin, J.L. How to Do Things With Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975)

Baskin, Wade (trans.) de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics (London: Mcgraw, 1959)

Belsey, Catherine. The Subject of Tragedy (London: Methuen, 1985)

Benson, Louis F. ‘Shakespeare and the Metrical Psalms’, Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society (1901-1930), 9 (1918), pp.241-255

Bentley, Jerry H. and Charles H. Parker (ed.) ‘Introduction’ in, Between the Middle Ages and Modernity: Individual and Community in the Early Modern World (London: Rowman, 2007)

Beveridge, Henry (trans.) Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994) p.203-204

Bevington, David and Rasmussen, Eric. (eds.) Doctor Faustus (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993)

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of The Human (London: Fourth Estate, 1999)

Cheney, Patrick. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Cummings, Brian. Mortal Thoughts: Religion, Secularity and Identity in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Doran, Gregory. Hamlet (London: Royal Shakespeare Company and BBC Four, 2009)

Dunster, Matthew (dir). Doctor Faustus (London: RSC, 2011)

Edwards, Philip. (ed.) Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Elyot, Thomas. The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot knight (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1538) [accessed online at Early Modern English Books Online]

Frieden, Ken. Genius and Monologue, (London: Ithaca, 1985)

Gallagher, Lowelle. (ed.) Redrawing the Map of Early Modern English Catholicism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012)

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (London: University of Chicago Press)

Hirsh, James E. Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies (London: Associated University Presses, 2003)

Hooker, Richard. ‘The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity’ (1593) in Aughterson, pp.102-104

Hurley, Robert. (trans.) Foucault, Michel. The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Vol.1 (London: Penguin, 1998)

Ingram, R.W. ‘’Pride in Learning goeth before a fall’’: Dr. Faustus’ Opening Soliloquy’, Mosaic, 13 (1979), pp.73-80

Jackson, Ken and Marotti, Arthur F. ‘The Turn to Religion in Early Modern English Studies’, Criticism, 46 (2004), pp.167-190

Kalberg, Stephen. (trans.), Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London: Fitzroy, 2001)

Kirk, Russell. (trans.) della Mirandola, Giovanni Pico. Oration on the Dignity of Man (New York: Regnery, 1996)

Letter from The Lord Mayor and the Aldermen of the City of London to the Privy Council, ‘To the Lords Against Stage Plays’ (1597)

MacPherson, C.B. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962)

Marshall, Cynthia. The Shattering of the Self: Violence, Subjectivity and Early Modern Texts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002)

Middlemore, S.G.C. (trans.) Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (London: Phaidon, 1995)

Moore, Peter R. ‘Hamlet and Surrey’s Psalm 8’, Neophilologus, 82 (1998), pp.487-498.

Neill, Michael. Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997)

Pye, Christopher. The Vanishing: Shakespeare, The Subject and Early Modern Culture (Durham N.C: Duke University Press, 2000)

Ryrie, Alec. Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Shell, Alison. Shakespeare and Religion (London: Methuen, 2010)

Siemon, James R. (ed.) King Richard III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Soellner, Rolf. Shakespeare’s Patterns of Self-Knowledge (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1972)

Williams, Raymond. Culture (London: Fontana, 1981)

Williams, Raymond. Writing in Society (London: Verso, 1991)

Williamson, Elizabeth. The Materiality of Religion in Early Modern English Drama (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009)

[1] Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy (London: Methuen, 1985), p.ix

[2] Letter from The Lord Mayor and the Aldermen of the City of London to the Privy Council, ‘To the Lords Against Stage Plays’ (1597) in, Kate Aughterson (ed.) The English Renaissance: An Anthology of Sources and Documents (London: Routledge, 2002) pp.190-191, p.190

[3] Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (London: University of Chicago Press), p.1

[4] C. B. MacPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), p.3

[5] Charles H. Parker and Jerry H. Bentley (eds.) ‘Introduction’ in, Between the Middle Ages and Modernity: Individual and Community in the Early Modern World (London: Rowman, 2007), pp.1-10

[6] Greenblatt, p.2

[7] S. G. C. Middlemore (trans.) Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (London: Phaidon, 1995), p.14

[8] Stephen Kalberg (trans.) Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London: Fitzroy, 2001), p.7

[9] Greenblatt, p.139, p.178, p.168

[10] Greenblatt, p.3

[11] Belsey, p.48

[12] Belsey, p.14

[13] Michael Neill, Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p.3

[14] Christopher Pye, The Vanishing: Shakespeare, the Subject and Early Modern Culture (Durham N.C: Duke University Press, 2000), p.14

[15] Pye, p.14

[16] Lowelle Gallagher, ‘Introduction’ in Lowelle Gallagher (ed.) Redrawing the Map of Early Modern English Catholicism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), pp.1-32, p.5

[17] Brian Cummings, Mortal Thoughts: Religion, Secularity and Identity in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p.187

[18] Cummings, pp.1-20.

[19] Richard Hooker, ‘The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity’ (1593) in Aughterson, pp.102-104, p.104

[20] Elizabeth Williamson, ‘The Performance of Piety: Book Properties and the Paradox of Dematerialized Devotion,’ in The Materiality of Religion in Early Modern English Drama (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp.149-191, p.149

[21] Ken Jackson and Arthur F. Marotti, ‘The Turn to Religion in Early Modern English Studies’, Criticism, 46 (2004), pp.167-190, p.167.

[22] Jackson and Marotti, p.168

[23] Cummings, p.4

[24] Cummings, p.4

[25] Cummings, ‘Soliloquy and Secularization: Shakespeare’ in Mortal Thoughts, pp.168-207

[26] Cummings, p.177

[27] Cummings, p.7

[28] Robert Hurley (trans.) Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Vol.1 (London: Penguin, 1998), p.1

[29] Cummings, p.17

[30] Cynthia Marshall, The Shattering of the Self: Violence, Subjectivity and Early Modern Texts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), p.10

[31] See Belsey, p.43-46 and Greenblatt, pp.193-222.

[32] Thomas Elyot, The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot knight (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1538) [found online at Early Modern English Books Online] (accessed 10/03/15)

[33] Raymond Williams, Writing in Society (London: Verso, 1991), p.48

[34] ‘Language is not a function of the speaker’ Wade Baskin (trans.) Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (London: Mcgraw, 1959), p.14

[35] Belsey, p.42-43

[36] Belsey, p.14

[37] Raymond Williams, Culture (London: Fontana, 1981), p.142, cited in Belsey, p.42

[38] Cummings, p.170-177

[39] Cummings, p.195, p.182

[40] Alec Ryrie describes how Protestant ‘prayer begins with confession’, and therefore how the two unfold simultaneously. See Alec Ryrie, ‘The Protestant at Prayer’, in Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press,2013) pp.99-207, p.108

[41] Foucault, p.19

[42] All line references, unless otherwise stated, are to Harold Jenkins (ed.) Hamlet (London: Methuen, 1982) and to the A-text in David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (eds.) Doctor Faustus (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993).

[43] Ryrie, p.56

[44] Ryrie, p.396

[45] Clemen, p.6

[46] Ken Frieden, Genius and Monologue, (London: Ithaca, 1985), p.111

[47] Frieden, p.166

[48] Belsey, p.42

[49] Alison Shell, Shakespeare and Religion (London: Methuen, 2010), p.5

[50] James E. Hirsh, Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies (London: Associated University Presses, 2003), p.17

[51] Ryrie, p.110

[52] Shell, p.7, p.18

[53] Shell, p.8

[54] James R. Siemon (ed.) King Richard III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). The idea of illocution comes from J.L. Austin, How to Do Things With Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975) pp.94-109.

[55] For an early account of the importance of metrical Psalms not just for theatre but for everyday life see: Louis F. Benson, ‘Shakespeare and the Metrical Psalms’, Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society (1901-1930), 9 (1918), pp.241-255. For a specific, textual study see: Peter R. Moore, ‘Hamlet and Surrey’s Psalm 8’, Neophilologus, 82 (1998), pp.487-498.

[56] Neill, p.3

[57] Philip Edwards (ed.) Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) note to I.v.132

[58] Burckhardt, p.14          Weber, p.10

[59] Hirsh, p.17

[60] Frieden, p.111

[61] Hamlet (Dir. Gregory Doran, 2009) found at [accessed 09/04/2015]

[62] Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of The Human (London: Fourth Estate, 1999), p.384.

[63] Belsey, p.44

[64] Oxford English Dictionary Online, ‘precarious’ (adj.)

[65] Rolf Soellner, Shakespeare’s Patterns of Self-Knowledge (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1972), p.399

[66] Peter R. Moore, ‘Hamlet and Surrey’s Psalm 8’, Neophilologus, 82 (1998), pp.487-498.

[67] See Belsey, pp.43-46 and Greenblatt, pp.193-222.

[68] Bevington and Rasmussen, p.30

[69] Bevington and Rasmussen, p.30

[70] Frieden, p.133

[71] Bevington and Rasmussen, p.6

[72] Greenblatt, p.1

[73] Russell Kirk (trans.) Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man (New York: Regnery, 1996), p.5; p.8.

[74] Henry Beveridge (trans.) John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994) p.203-204.

[75] Bevington and Rasmussen, p.12

[76] All line references, unless otherwise stated, are to the A-text in David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (eds.) Doctor Faustus (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993).

[77] R.W. Ingram, ‘’Pride in Learning goeth before a fall’’: Dr. Faustus’ Opening Soliloquy’, Mosaic, 13 (1979), pp.73-80, p.74.

[78] Thomas Healy, ‘Doctor Faustus,’ in Patrick Cheney (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp.174-192, p.182

[79] Frieden, p.111

[80] Matthew Dunster’s 2011 RSC production at the Globe in 2011 had Lucifer centre-stage following Faustus’s final exit, making the ‘prince of devils’ (I.ii.68) the enduring image of the play.

[81] Belsey, p.45

[82] Belsey, p.46

[83] quoted in Greenblatt, p.212

[84] Greenblatt, p.212

[85] Pico, p.5, p.8              Belsey, p.14

[86] Belsey, p.14                Pico, p.1

[87] Williams, Culture, p.142.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s