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Shakespeare, the Reformation and theological hermeneutics: knowing, being and acting in Shakespeare’s problem plays

posted on 2022-03-28, 18:42 authored by Roberta Kwan
This study focuses upon four of Shakespeare’s mid-career plays, often grouped together under the contested category of “problem plays” — Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Measure for measure and All’s well that ends well — and seeks to establish their contiguities with and inflections of the theological concerns underlying the cardinal event of the sixteenth century: the Protestant Reformation. It apposes Shakespeare and the Reformers as early modern shapers of “worlds”, fashioned by shared theologically and hermeneutically cast concerns with critical dimensions of human reality, identity and experience—with knowing, being and acting—moulded and made exigent by the Reformers’ theological priorities. These priorities centre on the questions of how one knows God, how the Fall affected human ontology, and the nature of the reversal effected for humanity by divine grace. By virtue of the Reformation, the world Shakespeare experienced embodied a theologically inflected hermeneutic complexity and consciousness that foregrounds humanity’s hermeneutic condition. This study argues that the worlds Shakespeare created, in particular the “problem plays” that themselves engage with and engender hermeneutic dilemmas concerning epistemology, ontology and praxis, resonate with the world of their provenance. Contemporary theological concerns are entangled with the plays’ hermeneutic mode of being. This study’s Introduction explores the characteristics of what David Daniell terms Shakespeare’s “Protestant inheritance”, the dimensions and hermeneutic implications of the Reformers’ theological priorities, and the particular hermeneutic and epistemological parallels between the Reformers’ theology and Shakespeare’s medium of theatre. Subsequent chapters examine in each of the “problem plays” the interplay between echoes and manifestations of the theological issues of how one knows God, humanity’s fallen condition, and divine grace, and the hermeneutic concerns with knowing, being and acting that variously contribute to the shaping of each play. This study is principally historical. Its theoretical grounding is in the thought of sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century Protestantism, and its focus is upon the plays’ meanings for Shakespeare’s intended audiences. But it also engages with the voices of modern-day theologians who attend to the hermeneutic implications of the Reformers’ theology. And it aims to both elucidate the plays for contemporary audiences and readers through the historical perspective provided, and raise the question of how the plays spotlight the hermeneutic condition of all their audiences and readers—past and present.


Table of Contents

Introduction. History, theology, theatre and Shakespeare’s “problem plays” -- 1. In search of “grounds more relative” : Hamlet, the fall and epistemological uncertainty -- 2. “You are in the state of grace?” : divine grace, language, and Troilus and Cressida’s hermeneutic embranglement -- 3. “The very mercy of the law” : law and mercy in Measure for Measure’s theatrum mundi -- 4. “The fine’s the crown” : All’s well that ends well and eschatological reading -- Conclusion: A “Protestant aesthetics”?


Bibliography: pages 399-419 Theoretical thesis.

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Arts, Department of English

Department, Centre or School

Department of English

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Tony Cousins

Additional Supervisor 1

Marea Mitchell

Additional Supervisor 2

A. (Antonina) Harbus


Copyright Roberta Kwan 2016. Copyright disclaimer:




1 online resource (vi, 419 pages)

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