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Atheist, Adulterer, Sodomite, Thief, Murderer, Lyer, Perjurer, Witch, Conjuror or Brute Beast? Discovering the Ungodly in Shakespeare’s England



The “turn to religion” in early modern scholarship has rewritten critical understandings of the 16th century English Reformation by exposing confessional divides in politics, culture, and literature (Jackson & Marotti, 167–90). Such scholarly interest in religious division, however, has paid less attention to how the “ungodly,” a designation for those allegedly hostile to the foundational tenets of all versions of Christianity, shadowed religious belief from the 1530s onwards in England. This may be because of Lucien Febvre’s influential account that declared the “unthinkability” of atheism in the 16th century. More recent attention to unbelief has challenged his judgment and shown the ungodly to be a persistent, and troubling, presence in early modern England. Frequently, this work adduces its most compelling evidence from the drama of Shakespeare’s infamous contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. This article aims to pursue further the representation of the “ungodly” by thinking about how their absent presence might affect not only arguments about religion but also the arguments that we make about epistemology, language, and what counts as the human in Shakespeare as well as his contemporaries.