Shakespeare and the Bible: stimulating reading

wordsofpowerThe Bible and Shakespeare have each had quite the trajectory within our culture. There have been times when possession of an English Bible could get you burned at the stake, while Shakespeare spent his career working in a London theatrical scene which was reviled by the respectable as a danger to morality and social order; and yet “the Bible and Shakespeare” (especially when bracketed together in this way) have come to be regarded as the twin peaks of English literature.

It is this shared status, and what reading “the Bible and Shakespeare” can tell us about the relationships between texts and wider culture and society, that Jem Bloomfield discusses in his forthcoming book Words of Power: Reading Shakespeare and the Bible. Jem’s book is due to be published by the Lutterworth Press on 26 May 2016, but I had the pleasure of getting to read a copy of the proofs.

It’s a short book – 156 pages including introduction but excluding bibliography and index – but packed with material that has made me think in new ways, not only about the Bible and Shakespeare, but also more widely about the nature of a “canon”, what makes a text “sacred”, different ways of reading familiar texts, the nature of performance and proclamation, how texts form communities and identities, and the complex ways in which texts are appropriated and quoted.

For example, in the introduction, Jem summarises the biblical critic John Barton’s discussion on what gives a text “scriptural status”, and how Shakespeare can function as “scripture”. Barton identifies four characteristics of “scripture”:

  • scripture is “a text that matters and which contains no trivialities, nothing ephemeral”;
  • scripture is assumed to have “contemporary relevance … to every generation, to all people at all times”;
  • scripture is assumed to be consistent, with great efforts made to smooth over any apparent inconsistencies within or between its component texts; and
  • scripture contains “an excess of meaning”, a “vision of the text as full of mysteries, with layers of meaning below the surface sense.”

Just reading that list can spark off multiple thoughts as to how much these criteria can be applied to Shakespeare. On the first, “it is not acceptable to think Shakespeare is deeply uninteresting,” observes Barton. As for the second, Jem discusses the National Theatre’s 2012 production of Timon of Athens, whose marketing materials pitched it as a parable for the financial crash; even though “the sight of an Athenian nobleman sitting in the wilderness railing about sexually transmitted diseases” is, on the face of it, less obviously relevant than other plays from the same period – plays which, however, lack the imprimatur of the Shakespeare brand.

In Jem’s chapter of the “canon”, he describes the complexities of establishing the canon of both the Bible and Shakespeare, each of which has been contested in various ways throughout history. One point that struck me is how familiarity makes canonicity self-reinforcing: “The Shepherd of Hermas” and “The London Prodigal” just sound wrong – because they are so much less familiar than the “canonical” works – which predisposes us to accept their exclusion from the canon. Similarly, we are less practised at harmonising canonical and non-canonical works than we are at harmonising apparent inconsistencies within the canon.

As Jem goes on to observe, it has (for both the Bible and Shakespeare) to to find a definition of canonicity that doesn’t exclude some books accepted as canonical. And even if there are good reasons in each case for accepting the consensus on which books are and are not “in”, studying the books which have been excluded can help us appreciate “the contingent status of the texts we are used to thinking of as secure.”

In his chapter on “ways of reading”, Jem describes the multiplicity of ways in which the Bible and Shakespeare have been interpreted. In each case, there is a widespread assumption that the “most vital” meaning of the text can only be found by digging below the surface: hence the fourfold medieval exegesis of Scripture, in which “literal” interpretations are joined by “allegorical”, “moral” and “anagogical” – leading to the different layers of meaning which, even today, can attach to the name “Jerusalem”. In more modern times, biblical critics have sought to establish criteria for establishing which reported words and actions of Jesus are “authentic”: criteria of “embarrassment”, “discontinuity”, “coherence”, “multiple attestation” and “the criterion of Jesus’ rejection and execution” (that is, the idea that if a supposed reconstruction of Jesus doesn’t look like someone who’d get nailed to a cross, UR DOING IT WRONG).

Similarly, the interpretation of Shakespeare has also been through different phases and fashions. “Character criticism”, in which characters are treated as if they were living individuals with lives before and (if they’re lucky) after the text, is now somewhat out of fashion (helped along by a celebrated essay whose title asked, waspishly, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?”). It was superseded first by the “New Criticism” which treated poetry as self-contained texts, and then by today’s dominant paradigm of “stage-centred criticism”, which holds that Shakespeare can only be properly interpreted by on-stage performance.

This leads on to Jem’s next chapter, in which he looks at the nature of performance. “Performance” often carried negative connotations: it is “not done” for the reading of a scriptural passage in church to come across as “a performance”, for example. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many people saw performance of Shakespeare as diminishing the genius of his poetry. However, in earlier times, silent reading of the Bible was regarded with some suspicion, with St Augustine finding it necessary to explain to his readers why St Ambrose’s practice of silent reading could be justified. Augustine was living in a culture on the cusp of moving from being an “oral” culture (in which the word is something proclaimed) to a “literary” culture (in which the word is something read). (As an aside, it’s worth noting that, for Luther, “the Word of God” always primarily meant the proclaimed Word rather than the written Word.)

In his chapter on “the people of the books”, Jem describes how the Bible and Shakespeare are each used to define communities or identities. He is sharp in observing how evangelicals use biblical citations (and even the word “Bible” itself, as in “Bible-based churches”) as a marker of identity. Meanwhile, organisations such as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Shakespeare’s Globe are examples of “the complex system in which Shakespeare’s name and works produce cultural authority.”

In the final chapter, Jem analyses the ways in which the Bible and Shakespeare are appropriated for different purposes: from the use of the Bible as an (unread) prop in US presidential inaugurations, to MPs’ fondness for quoting Shakespeare – as opposed to, say, Doctor Who, as a means of “bolstering the speaker’s rhetorical self-presentation” and “discreetly presenting the credentials of a particular background, upbringing and social sphere.” 

I hope this summary has given a flavour of how thunderously successful Jem is in accomplishing his aim of stimulating his readers to engage in similar analyses in their own reading life – “recognising a quotation,looking sceptically at the mission statement of a college, asking themselves for what purpose a Bible verse is being used in a politician’s speech” – and helping us to appreciate how “the strangeness of the past” can aid “a recognition of the present’s own remarkable strangeness.”

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