Article Title

Stage Prayer in Marlowe and Jonson


John D. Cox


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Prayer is a distinctive speech act that appears everywhere and in many forms in early modern plays, including Shakespeare’s. This is not because playwrights were particularly pious but because they wrote in the speech of their time, in which prayer had long since become a familiar habit—not only in church but also in the privacy of one’s home, in everyday speech, in theological controversy, and in the theatre. Prayer included everything from simple petitions for personal favors to formation of the self before God in richly poetic language, as numerous English translations of the Hebrew psalms make clear, to say nothing of the poetry of John Donne and George Herbert. In writing prayers, playwrights for the early commercial stage in London followed long-standing precedent from the beginning of playwriting in English. In the fifteenth-century Towneley Plays from the north of England, a gifted anonymous playwright imagined the distinctive sacrifices by Cain and Abel, with each of the brothers praying as he makes his offering. The same playwright had Herod pray anachronistically to “Mahowne” (Mohammed). In the earliest extant commercial play in English, called simply Mankind, a talented anonymous author in fifteenth-century East Anglia made prayer the focus of his generic story of Christian formation. In the Digby Mary Magdalen, also from East Anglia, near the turn of the sixteenth century, Mary the sister of Lazarus recognizes the divinity of Jesus and prays to him on behalf of her brother. More than a century after the Towneley Herod first prayed to Mohammed, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine followed his example—albeit with unprecedented defiance and ambiguity.

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