Book review: Shakespeare and the Psalms Mystery

shakespeare

Are cartoons too violent for children? Most people would say “No, of course not, what kind of stupid question is that?” but one woman says yes, and she’s here with us tonight…

— Kent Brockman, The Simpsons: Itchy & Scratchy & Marge

Did Shakespeare write Psalm 46 in the Authorised Version of the Bible, and did he signal this to future generations by concealing his name within the text? Most people would say “No, of course not…”, but it has proved to be a surprisingly persistent myth in some corners of evangelical Christianity.

Jem Bloomfield’s new book, Shakespeare and the Psalms Mystery, takes a look at this myth. Jem is very clear that the myth is (almost certainly) Not True, but he argues that it provides an insight into how English-speaking people have engaged with both Shakespeare and the Bible over the past four centuries.

Jem begins by describing the myth itself. The story is told that, when you look at Psalm 46 in the Authorised Version (a.k.a. the King James Version), the 46th word from the beginning is “shake”, and 46th word from the end is “spear”. What’s more, Shakespeare was 46 in the year when the Authorised Version was being prepared (1610). Depending on which version of the myth you read, this was either the result of Shakespeare himself concealing his name in “his” translation of the psalm, or planted by admirers working on the text as part of the committee of scholars commissioned by King James to produce the new version.

Jem sets out a combination of historical and literary reasons why neither story is at likely to be true: for example, it is unthinkable that a conservative and scholarly project such as the Authorised Version would have involved a disreputable playwright in its activities, or had any members who desired to demonstrate their admiration for such a figure. What’s more, the words “shake” and “spear”, far from being novelties introduced in the new Bible, had already been used in the previous translations on which the Authorised Version was based.

As Jem observes towards the end of the book, it is quite difficult to refute the Psalm 46 myth, because there is literally no evidence for it and hence very little with which to engage in any refutation. Hence the myth itself is of less interest than the very fact of its existence, and it is this with which Jem’s book is mostly concerned. As he writes in his introduction:

The Psalm 46 rumour had always interested me, partly because it was so bizarre, and I enjoyed tracing the various ways in which it could have possibly been true, and marshalling the evidence to prove it was not. The story branched off into questions about the translation of the King James Bible, the theatre industry of Shakespeare’s time, the religious politics of England under James I, the way Early Modern books were printed, and attitudes to the Bible. Though I did not think the story was true, proving it untrue opened up much more interesting issues.

In the opening chapter, Jem contrasts the attitudes towards the theatre in early modern England and our own time. Today, the theatre – especially Shakespeare – is regarded as one of the pinnacles of high culture, to be mentioned in the same breath (and funded out of the same pot) as classical music, opera and art galleries. In Shakespeare’s time, theatre was a branch of popular entertainment, competing for people’s attention with bear-baiting and public executions. Today, the theatre is seen as “good for you”, a respectable activity to which schoolchildren are dragged in the name of educational improvement. Then, church ministers inveighed against the corrupting influence of plays and theatres: indeed, leading members of the Authorised Version’s translation committee had been especially vocal in their attacks on the theatre.

In short, “it is a very modern perspective to look back and see the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare towering over the early 17th century as the two books that mattered”: no one at the time would have seen it that way.

Moving on, Jem looks at how poets of the time did engage with the biblical texts, from Sternhold & Hopkins’ metrical psalter for congregational singing, to the rather more accomplished paraphrases by Lady Mary Sidney. (Having these texts quoted at length is one of the particular pleasures of this book.) Jem’s point is that, had Shakespeare wished to involve himself in translating the psalms, he had more attractive options available to him than tweaking a word here or there in the rather less obviously “poetic” translation of the King James Bible.

So how did such an unlikely myth emerge? Jem traces its origins to the growing cultural status of both Shakespeare and the Authorised Version during the 18th and (especially) 19th centuries. As Shakespeare came to be regarded as a giant of literature – often in terms so enthusiastic as to “sound satirical to modern ears” – and as the Authorised Version established itself as a foundational text of English-speaking culture, so it became increasingly difficult for people to believe that these two monuments could have developed at the same time without any connection between them.

The myth has most recently been repeated in a 2014 Bible commentary published by Eerdmans in the US, where it is described as a “wonderful legendary story.” Thus the commentary, while remaining agnostic as to the truth of the myth, employs it as a sort of “sermon anecdote” to corroborate the literary worth of the Bible: the very existence of this legend shows that the Bible is a serious work of literature, worthy of consideration alongside an undisputed giant such as Shakespeare. This emphasis on the literary value of the Bible has been one strategy employed by evangelicals over the past century in order to demonstrate the Bible’s continuing worth in the face of scholarly assaults upon its literal reliability.

Jem concludes his book as follows:

[T]he Psalm 46 legend fails to do justice both to the texts of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and to the astonishing histories of which they are a part. The political, social, religious and literary worlds which gather around these books are far more puzzling, dramatic and absorbing than this little conspiracy theory claims. It claims to tell a secret, but points us away from the heart of the mystery.

If I have one criticism of this book, it’s that the Psalm 46 myth is so slender a thing that to devote so much time to its refutation can seem almost cruel. However, this is more than outweighed by Jem’s unravelling of the “political, social, religious and literary” threads which surround the myth – and which are indeed “puzzling, dramatic and absorbing.”

The book is well worth the asking price of £8.99 paperback or £3.99 Kindle – and it’s a positive no-brainer if you have a Kindle Unlimited subscription.

Note: Jem provided me with a pre-publication PDF review copy of this book, but I ended up buying my own copy of the Kindle edition anyway. 

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