Will and the Word Cover Image

No word occurs oftener in this our book than Reformation.  It is, as it were, the equator, or that remarkable line dividing ...who lived before or after it.

Thomas Fuller, The History of the Worthies of England, 1662

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in a period of great religious and cultural transformation and upheaval. Six years into the reign of Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603) the struggle over the religious and political identity of England was far from settled. The ongoing expansion of the stillyoung information technology of printing continued to spread ideas, for good or ill, across the continent and the British Isles. Those new books might attack the powerful elites, as in many of Martin Luther’s sermons, but they might also turn on the marginal and the vulnerable, as can be seen in the Nuremberg Chronicle or James I’s (r.1603- 1625) Daemonologie. In London, a new, commercial theatre was emerging from the traditional religious and morality plays of the fifteenth century. It, too, could either challenge social norms or reinforce the authority of its royal and aristocratic patrons at the expense of the marginal.

Shakespeare lived his life in the dangerous middle of these transformations. His mother, Mary, came from the prominent Arden family that included secret Catholics (called Recusants) and her cousin Edward Arden was executed as such in 1583. Will’s parents, Mary and John Shakespeare (more controversially), are thought to have also been Recusants. While a relative of his by marriage was executed for attempting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare worked carefully in the scrutinized and censored world of Elizabethan theatre to earn royal patronage under James I. Whether exploring Purgatory and Grace in Hamlet, using baptismal and Eucharistic images in Macbeth, thumbing his nose at Puritans in Twelfth Night, or upending the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage rite in Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s plays reveal his sensitivity to the most important theological debates of his day, even as they conceal his own beliefs.

Drew University is fortunate to be the home of over two dozen books printed in the fifteenth century and dozens more printed in London during Shakespeare’s lifetime. These were likely bought and sold in the lively book trade centered on St. Paul’s churchyard where the First Folio was also available for sale. Several of these books, including two in our exhibit, were printed by Shakespeare’s childhood friend and London neighbor, Richard Field. Our exhibit explores the world of 16th- and 17th-century London book trade and how the ideas in circulation may have influenced Shakespeare’s plays. As Shakespeare’s first biographer, Thomas Fuller, said, the Reformation was “the remarkable line dividing” everything that came before and after. Shakespeare lived, read, and wrote in that divided world. Will and the Word is an exhibit of fifteen works from Drew University presented in the Thomas H. Kean Reading Room of the Rose Library. There was also an interactive digital map to aid the exploration of printing and reading practices in 16th - and 17th -century London co-edited and curated by Louis I. Hamilton, Hayat Abdelal, Samantha DePierro, and Shayna Miller. This will be made available on the Drew University website (further information can be requested from

Louis I. Hamilton

Department of Comparative Religion

Drew University


The exhibit, Will and the Word, was co-curated and co-edited by Louis I. Hamilton, Hayat Abdelal, Samantha Depierro, Kelly Duddy, and Shayna Miller as part of the Digital Humanities Summer Institute. Contributors were students in Prof. Hamilton’s seminar: Shakespeare’s England: Religion, Society and the Book in the Spring of 2016: Hayat Abdelal, Andy Bates, Jennifer Benedict, Charlotte Brockway, Samantha Depierro, Kelly Duddy, Rebecca Filetti, Hayley Goldstein, Pascale Ibe, Nicolina Lentine, Shayna Miller, Jennifer Morreale, Jessica Sanford, Thomas Smith, Dalton Valette and Olivia Winters. Tracy Meehan also contributed her research on Thomas Cranmer’s Great Bible. Shayna Miller was primarily responsible for editing the online archive of the project. Funding has been generously provided by The Baldwin Family, The Folger Library, Delmas Foundation, Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  All images are courtesy of Drew University Library Special Collections or The Folger Library and we are grateful to these institutions. Special thanks to the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Christopher Taylor, Prof. Kim Rhodes, Prof. Chris Ceraso, the Drew University Library, Drew University Instructional Technology Services, and the staff of the Department of Special Collections and University Archives.