Stage Converts: Performing Moral and Religious Change in Early Modern English Drama

George, Emily Carole. Stage Converts: Performing Moral and Religious Change in Early Modern English Drama. 2020. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

No concept in post-Reformation England was more fraught than conversion. Catholics and Protestant reformers fought over what conversion meant, how it was accomplished, who could achieve it, and how it related to salvation. They encouraged conversion, but distrusted converts; they feared the potential threat of forced conversion and yet used conversion as a justification for protocolonial conquest. By weaving together conversion scenes in plays from before, during, and after the Reformation, my dissertation illuminates how early modern drama could be simultaneously invested in the dominant ideologies of Protestant England and able to imaginatively experiment with the challenges, contingencies, and contradictions of post-Reformation religious identity. Diverging from recent scholarship that has emphasized early modern dramatic depictions of conversion as ironic or as invested in religious stability, I maintain that many later Elizabethan and Jacobean plays present peculiarly equivocal ways of understanding religious and moral change. Conversion scenes became conditional and exploratory as increasing state restrictions limited drama’s ability to serve as a communal expression of shared faith or a proselytizing instrument for new doctrines. These plays present religious identity as simultaneously ambiguous and genuine, unstable and true. Throughout this dissertation, I argue that dramatic scenes of conversion provide insight into the lived experience of post-Reformation faith, revealing theater as a communal space for audiences to explore moral difficulties, confront the tensions within their faiths, and practice dwelling in religious uncertainty.

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