Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2010
Though the attempt has often been made, it is impossible to consider English Renaissance drama in isolation from the religious culture of the time. Audiences were invited to judge the behaviour of characters in terms inflected by the church's teachings, while vernacular Bibles, together with the Church of England's prayer book and homilies, were a rich source of reference and would have been appreciated at every social level. Theological issues also impinged on drama, and for contemporary audiences of English Renaissance tragedy, the depiction of death on stage threw up many questions concerning the afterlife. When a character died, was he or she bound for heaven, hell or the occluded but hardly less significant space of purgatory? How far could someone's eventual doom be ascribed to decisions freely arrived at, and how far to divine providence or predestination? Reformation thought pervaded theatre, often to polemical effect: for instance, one can hardly consider revenge tragedy without being aware of its anti-Catholic tenor. Notions of the religious other also governed the depiction of Jews, Turks and other individuals unassimilable to any Christian orthodoxy. Yet in an age where the explicit discussion of religious matter could have prevented a play receiving a licence, and there was increasing mainstream prejudice against the unabashed dramatisation of Bible stories and saints' lives, professional theatre became increasingly secular, and tragedy, in particular, provided a forum for anti-religious discourse.