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Love's Rites: Performing Prayer in Shakespeare's Sonnets


In several declarations of devotion addressed to the beloved in the Sonnets, Shakespeare defends what seems like a penchant for rewriting the same poem over and over. Against his beloved’s implicit accusations, the poet compares his apologia in Sonnet 108 to a kind of spoken prayer, a highly ritualized and publicly performed devotional gesture: “like prayers diuine, / I must each day say ore the very same, / Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine / Euen as when first I hallowed thy faire name” (108.5–8). The Sonnet’s argument echoes the beloved’s doubts as to whether or not repeated words have the capacity to express the poet’s love: “What’s new to speake, what now to register, / That may expresse my loue, or thy deare merit?” (108.3–4). Generations of critics of the Sonnets have shared the beloved’s concern, questioning both these poems’ tautologous nature, as well as their theological integrity. Yet what critics have largely overlooked is the Sonnets’ preoccupation with devotional processes that fail to produce sincerity on the part of the one who prays. This essay argues that we can only perceive in full what critics have dismissed as either moral insincerity or aesthetic dullness within the contexts of early modern conceptions of ecclesiastical and secular performance. The author takes as her starting point historical conceptions of early modern performance, with respect to both the professional theater and the state church.

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